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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.” As a local Californian and long time traveler, I can tell you that it’s true and SoCal does have something special. Being born in raised in San Diego, for a long we time didn’t appreciate how unique it is to be able to surf in the morning, snowboard in the evening, and spend the night in the desert, but after traveling the world for last 5 years, we’ve grown to realize that our own backyard is one of the best destinations In the world.

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

Diversity is the name of the game in California and this makes it an incredible place to take a road trip. Road trips are our favorite way to travel since they’re budget friendly (I mean have you seen gas prices lately) and we love the ease of road travel.

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 makes 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 like 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.

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


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 is graced with miles of spectacular, protected coastline. From Swami’s to San Elijo, Cardiff Reef, and Seaside Reef, the state parks here all provide amazing views of the the high cliffs that line the shore and crystal clear waters of Cardiff Reef.

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 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

Though Cambria is known as the location of Hearst Castle, I think the coastal beauty and small town charm is the real draw of Cambria. Moonstone Beach located on the shore of Cambria is a uniquely peaceful beach filled with pretty sea glass and has awesome tide pooling opportunities. 

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

I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life and somehow it wasn’t until this last winter the I finally made the effort to explore Death Valley. With a name like Death Valley, I expected something desolate and dreary but Death Valley is far from it.

Death Valley National Park is by far the most spectacular desert in Southern California. With colorful hills, rolling sand dunes, vast salt flats, and more. Known “The Hottest Place on Earth” and the “Lowest Point in North America,” Death Valley is a truly diverse landscape and unique ecosystem that you won’t find anywhere else.

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 gives 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 superblooms.

Related: Southwest National Parks Road Trip

3 Stunning Mountain Adventures

Big Bear

Though Big Bear’s mountains don’t compare to the grandiose beauty of Central and Northern California, it’s amazing that you can experience the mountains while being so close to the beach and the desert.

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

Big Bear is the hub for alpine adventures in Southern California. Big Bear is home to year round adventure from winter skiing and snowboarding on Snow Summit to summer adventures like boating, SUPing, kayaking on beautiful Big Bear Lake, rock climbing at Holcomb Valley, and mountain biking, camping, hiking, and backpacking on the miles of backcountry trails.

Even just the scenic drive to Big Bear along Rim Of The World Scenic Byway is worth the trip to explore this mountain town.

San Luis Obispo

Though not considered a part of Southern California, SLO, as the locals call it, is a stunning city that’s not too far from SoCal. As the nickname says, it’s a slow pace of life here but the city doesn’t lack liveliness or adventure. Almost like the Boulder of California, it’s an outdoor hub. SLO is known for its amazing cycling and mountain biking opportunities as well as its beautiful hiking at the Nine Morro peaks. 

In addition to adventures on the outskirts, I love downtown San Luis Obispo for its artisan food scene, the natural beauty of historic downtown with trees all around, outdoor patios at many restaurants, and rich community feel.

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 on the San Jacinto Mountains.

One of the biggest draws of Idyllwild is its rock climbing at Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks which many locals consider some of the best climbing in California. Even if you don’t rock climb, Idyllwild is worth visiting for the amazing backcountry trail system.  Whether you’re looking to tackle a 11,000 foot summit like San Jacinto Peak or want a family friendly stroll on Desert View, Idyllwild is amazing place to get lost in the solitude of forests and peaks away from the hustle and bustle of more crowded outdoor hubs like J-Tree or Death Valley.

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

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

Truly, a weekend is not nearly enough time to explore even just these 3 destinations (and there’s so much more in SoCal!). You could honestly spend a week exploring each of these 3 places but that being said, you can experience an amazing Southern California road trip to the desert, mountains, and beach in just a short weekend trip.

Day 1: Cardiff-by-the-Sea

Start your trip off in sunny San Diego. If you know how to surf, head to some of the best breaks like Seaside Reef, Cardiff Reef, Pipes, or Swamis. As usual, make sure to be respectful of locals especially at Swamis.  If you don’t know how to surf, head to the local surf school inside San Elijo State Beach and take a lesson at the beginner friendly break of San Elijo.

After your surf sesh, head across the street to Sambazon Cafe for a refreshing acai bowl. After chilling on the beach in the afternoon, we love grabbing fresh made meals at Seaside Market and heading to Lost Abbey brewery.

In the Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook, you can find the top accommodations in Cardiff by the Sea plus more of the best restaurants throughout the foodie hub of Encinitas.

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 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 you final day, prepare to be blown away by the otherworldly beauty of Death Valley. Don’t miss the colorful hills of Artist’s Palette, the rolling Mesquite Sand Dunes, the desolate salt flats of Badwater Basin which lies 280 feet below sea level, and finally, catch a sunset at beautiful Zabriskie Point.

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

This is just 1 of the many road trips you could take in the beautifully diverse region of Southern California. In the latest Moon Southern California Road Trips guidebook, Moon highlights dozens, if not hundreds, of other incredible activities, restaurants, and accommodations from SoCal’s seas to summits including Anza Borrego, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, San Diego, Santa Barbara, LA, Route 66, and more!

Moon guidebooks are so helpful in planning epic and adventurous weekend getaway just like this one and their insider tips will make your trip unforgettable!

Whether you’re prepping a weekend getaway or a summer vacation, we hope this blog inspired you to plan an awesome road trip through Southern California

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


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