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How to Visit the Mountains, Desert, and Beach on A Southern California Road Trip

How to Visit the Mountains, Desert, and Beach on a Trip to Southern California
Southern California has every adventure imaginable and it can all be experienced on an incredible road trip! Read on to find out how!

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Tourists have long spoken these words like a rumor…”I hear you can ski and surf on the same day.”Born and raised in San Diego, I initially overlooked SoCal’s diverse offerings. Traveling globally for five years enlightened me to appreciate our backyard—surfing mornings, snowboarding evenings, and desert nights make it a top-tier destination.

Southern California has every adventure imaginable and it can all be experienced on a road trip!

California’s diversity makes it an ideal destination for thrilling road trips. With cost-effective travel and the convenience of roadways, it’s our top choice for exploration.

Whether you have 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month to travel, Southern California gives you the ability to explore the mountains, desert, and sea in whatever constraint of time you have.

Death Valley desert, Souther California Road Trips
Death Valley’s colorful landscapes make it without a doubt the most beautiful desert in Southern California

Though you could see so much in 1 day, there is never enough time to see it all and you could spend weeks in the backcountry, at BLM campgrounds, and beaches.

SoCal isn’t all coastal cities and suburbs as it may seem. Though the coastline is very urbanized from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, it’s quick to get away to the wilderness and this makes it an awesome destination for outdoorsmen.

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In this blog, we’ve highlighted the top 3 beaches, deserts, and mountain towns that make a trip to Southern California so amazing.

Moon Travel Guides has an amazing guidebook to help you make the most of your next road trip through southern California. With everything from insider tips to top destinations, scenic drives, route recommendations, top eateries, trails, and more, the Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook is the ultimate guide to planning your Southern California road trip adventures.

Moon Southern California Road Trips Guidebook

3 Beautiful Beaches

Cardiff-by-the-Sea

Neighboring the hipster town of Encinitas, the small community of Cardiff by the Sea is my home beach but even though I’ve spent more days than I can count on these beaches, I can never get enough of this beautiful coastline.

Cardiff-by-the-Sea boasts miles of stunning, protected coastline—Swami’s to San Elijo, Cardiff Reef, and Seaside Reef offer breathtaking vistas and crystal-clear waters against high cliffs.

Cardiff Beaches, So Cal Road Trip
Walking down to surf our home break in the beautiful coastal town of Cardiff

Speaking of reefs, Cardiff by the Sea is home to some of the best surf breaks in all of California. The dozens of peaks along Cardiff by the Sea are catered to all skill levels of surfers and in the summer, it’s one of the best places in the world to learn to surf.

The best part about Cardiff beaches though is the pedestrian-friendly town square right across the street with amazing food options including breweries, cafes, and artisan food markets.

Related: Guide to Surfing the California Coast

Pismo State Beach

Unlike the calm, crystal-clear perfection of Cardiff’s coastline, I find Pismo Beach to be one of the most stunning beaches in California for its raw and rugged features.  The 17-mile-long Pismo Beach is characterized by wind-swept white sand dunes backed by a lush forest. 

Beautiful Pismo Beach in Southern California
Stunning sunset views of the golden coast from Pismo Beach

What I love about Pismo Beach is that it provides solitude as well as options. Pismo Pier is a great surf beach and low tide here provides the opportunity to run, bike, or walk on the beautiful beach. The Pismo sand dunes on the south end of the state park are great for off-roading and don’t miss the Butterfly grove in the winter.

Related: California Coast Road Trip

Moonstone Beach in Cambria

Cambria isn’t just about Hearst Castle; its real charm lies in its coastal beauty and small-town allure. Moonstone Beach, nestled along Cambria’s shore, offers serene beauty with abundant sea glass and great tide pooling.

Elephant Seal beach near Cambria
Entertaining Elephant Seals basking on the beach neighboring Cambria

Moonstone is also home to lots of wildlife but if wildlife is what you love, be sure to head a few miles further up the coast to Piedras Blancas, an exciting Elephant Seal gathering spot. You might even spot zebras grazing on the lawns of Hearst Castle.

Aside from the beach, it’s hard not to love the quaint town of Cambria home to many galleries and cafes.

Related: San Diego to Big Sur Road Trip

3 Epic Deserts

Death Valley National Park

Having lived in Southern California my entire life, I only recently made the effort to explore Death Valley last winter. Despite its ominous name, it’s anything but desolate and dreary.

Death Valley National Park stands as Southern California’s most spectacular desert, boasting colorful hills, rolling sand dunes, vast salt flats, and unique titles: “The Hottest Place on Earth” and the “Lowest Point in North America.” Its diverse landscape and ecosystem are unparalleled.

The Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook is super helpful in planning your trip to Death Valley. The guidebook is perfect for finding out which destinations within Death Valley are worth prioritizing depending on the amount of time you have in the National Park. Moon guidebooks give you an example itinerary plus amazing information on camping, accommodation, hikes, adventures, and restaurants.

Moon Souther California Road Trips guidebook
The Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook is super helpful in planning your trip to Death Valley.

Joshua Tree

To be honest, Joshua Tree is the pride and joy of Southern Californians, especially for outdoorsmen. Locals love the boulder-strewn desert of Joshua Tree and for a good reason, it’s home to a variety of adventures from hiking, to rock climbing, camping, stargazing, and exploring.

No trip to Joshua Tree National Park is complete without camping among the Joshua Trees themselves. The night skies are amazing and many of the sites are strewn with boulders you can scramble and explore.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Located just an hour east of San Diego, Anza Borrego is a vast state park home to sweeping deserts, epic star gazing, hiking, OHV riding, and more. Taking up such a large region, Anza Borrego has something for everyone.

Anza Borrego desert in Southern California
Hiking to Eagle Rock just outside of Anza Borrego

Personally, our favorite activity in the Anza Borrego desert is riding quads and dune buggies in the Ocotillo sand dunes. Anza Borrego has all sorts of OHV riding. You can explore endless 4X4 routes through canyons in the state park, ride the 80,000 acres of desert terrain in Ocotillo Wells State Recreation Area, or explore the sandy BLM area to the south of Anza Borrego.

Anza Borrego is also a great hiking destination, best experienced in the spring during the famous spring super blooms.

Related: Southwest National Parks Road Trip

3 Stunning Mountain Adventures

Big Bear

Big Bear’s mountains, though not as grand as Central and Northern California, offer a unique blend of mountainous terrain near the beach and desert, which is amazing.

Winter in the Eastern Sierras, Big Bear, Southern California
A winter wonderland in the Eastern Sierra range

Big Bear in Southern California offers year-round alpine adventures. From winter skiing at Snow Summit to summer activities like boating on Big Bear Lake, rock climbing at Holcomb Valley, and exploring backcountry trails for mountain biking, camping, hiking, and backpacking. The scenic drive along Rim Of The World Scenic Byway is an attraction in itself.

San Luis Obispo

SLO, short for San Luis Obispo, sits just outside Southern California. Despite its calm pace, it’s vibrant and offers an adventurous spirit akin to California’s Boulder. Known for cycling, mountain biking, and stunning hikes at Nine Morro peaks, it’s an outdoor haven. Downtown SLO charms with artisanal food, historic beauty, tree-lined streets, outdoor dining, and a strong sense of community.

Find the best restaurants, sights, and hikes inside Moon Guides Southern California Road Trips.

Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains

Perhaps one of the most under-the-radar destinations in Southern California is the mountain hub of Idyllwild. While Idyllwild itself isn’t epic, it’s the central point for dozens of adventures in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Idyllwild boasts top-notch rock climbing at Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks, hailed by locals as among California’s finest. Beyond climbing, explore the incredible backcountry trail system, catering to all levels, from conquering an 11,000-foot summit to family-friendly strolls. Idyllwild offers serenity amidst forests and peaks, a stark contrast to bustling outdoor destinations like J-Tree or Death Valley.

For detailed guidance on Idyllwild’s trails, camping, and accommodations, check out Moon Southern California Road Trips.

Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook
Moon Southern California Road Trips gives a perfect guide to the best trails and camping spots in the Southern California mountain towns along with accommodations for those who don’t prefer camping.

Southern California Weekend Itinerary: An Amazing Sea to Summit Road Trip

A weekend barely scratches the surface of exploring these 3 destinations in SoCal; a week per place feels more fitting. Yet, a stellar road trip spanning the desert, mountains, and beach awaits in just a brief weekend.

Day 1: Cardiff-by-the-Sea

Begin your trip in sunny San Diego. Surf enthusiasts can explore top breaks like Seaside Reef, Cardiff Reef, Pipes, or Swamis while respecting local etiquette, especially at Swamis. Beginners can learn at the San Elijo State Beach surf school.

After surfing, visit Sambazon Cafe for an acai bowl and relax on the beach. Enjoy fresh meals at Seaside Market and visit Lost Abbey Brewery. Find excellent accommodations in Cardiff by the Sea and discover great restaurants in Encinitas in the Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook.

Bonus: In the summer, hit the water for a sunset surf sesh on the stunning coast.

Related: Local’s Guide to Visiting San Diego

Day 2: Big Bear Lake

Rise and shine bright and early so you can take your time enjoying the spectacular scenic highway to Big Bear, Rim of the World Scenic Byway.

Rock climbing in Holcomb Valley, Big Bear
Big Bear is a hub for outdoor adventure in the summer. Here we’re climbing at the popular SoCal crag, Holcomb Valley

In the winter or early spring, enjoy a day of getting your skies in snow at Big Bear Mountain and Snow Summit Ski Resort. In the summer, rent a boat and cruise the lake. Fall is great for climbing or hiking in nearby Holcomb Valley.

Moon guides SoCal experts recommend a memorable stay at Sky Forest Inn which provides beautiful mountain views from their suites.

Day 3: Death Valley

For your final day, prepare to be blown away by the otherworldly beauty of Death Valley. Discover the lively Artist’s Palette, wander the Mesquite Sand Dunes, see the desolate Badwater Basin, 280 feet below sea level, and enjoy a sunset at beautiful Zabriskie Point.

Bonus: Spend a night in Death Valley to score the park at sunrise the next morning.

Discover SoCal’s diverse essence with Moon’s guidebook, featuring myriad activities from Anza Borrego to Route 66. Unveil the spectrum of experiences from coastlines to peaks in Southern California’s breathtaking scenery.

Moon guidebooks offer insider tips for planning unforgettable weekend getaways, and inspiring fantastic road trips through Southern California!

Check out Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook now and start planning your next SoCal road trip!

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