Sometimes budget, schedules and other barriers can get in the way of our summer plans. However, creating a memorable summer break for our kids doesn’t necessarily require big family vacations or international travel. From L.A., we have access to many vacation-worthy destinations that are just a couple of hours way. Get an early start for your day trip to beautiful beachside cities, cool mountain towns or low-key wine valleys and be home by dinner.
Just a little over an hour drive north of L.A., Ventura is a laid-back, scenic beach town that is a kid-friendly haven. Channel Islands National Park’s visitor center features a live tidal pool, shop, exhibits and viewing tower with views of Ventura Harbor, the Ventura coastline and the Channel Islands. If you want to experience the Channel Islands up close, reserve tickets for Island Packers’ Channel Islands Wildlife Cruise, a 3.5-hour ride, which might include whale and dolphin sightings. Browse shops and art galleries at Ventura Harbor Village and enjoy free live music on Sundays. Harbor Cove Beach, lovingly referred to as “Mother’s Beach” due to its protected shoreline, is a perfect spot for families to enjoy a beach day.
Make the short hour or so drive south to be transported to San Clemente, that “Spanish Village by the Sea.” Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens truly embodies the city’s slogan with its Spanish-style architecture, lush gardens and ocean views. Enjoy family programming all summer long.
Head down the hill to San Clemente Pier for beautiful ocean views, restaurants and people watching. Grab a coffee or ice cream from one of the cafes along Avenida Victoria and stroll along the San Clemente Beach Trail. Kids will love watching the Pacific Surfliner go by and swinging on the San Clemente Pier swings on the beach.
You can experience an island getaway without even leaving Los Angeles County. Located on Santa Catalina Island, Avalon is just 22 miles (an hour-long boat ride) from the coast of Southern California. Catalina Express runs year-round from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. The boat ride will keep your kids entertained, and once you arrive on shore, there is plenty more to explore — rent a golf cart for scenic island tours, browse shops and galleries and eat at cafes and restaurants. Other highlights: reserve a cabana at Descanso Beach Club and have your lunch on the sand. Take a hike to Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens for beautiful views of Avalon Bay or see what’s on display at Catalina Museum for Art & History. If you have a late boat ride back, stay for one of the free movies or concerts happening this summer.
Cool mountain towns
If you’re seeking refuge from the L.A. summer heat, escape to the San Bernardino Mountains, an easy two-hour drive away and about 20 degrees cooler. Though most famous for skiing and snowboarding, Big Bear has all the makings for a perfect summer day: a dip in the lake, fishing, hiking through the forest and more.
Browse the gift shops and boutiques at The Village, Big Bear’s charming downtown district. For a little more adventure, head to Alpine Slide Big Bear for mini golf, go-kart racing, a family-friendly double water slide and the main attraction, an alpine slide with a quarter-mile track offering scenic views of Big Bear. End the day at the ice cream bar, with 12 flavors to choose from. Big Bear Lake has plenty of fun offerings, from paddleboards to jet skis to boat tours. Bring your fishing gear for a chance at catching some trout and your swimsuit if you want to brave the cool lake water.
The quaint mountain town of Idyllwild is also just a two-hour drive from L.A. Nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild is known for its artsy vibe. Idyllwild Art in the Park blends art and nature with an eclectic mix of ceramics, paintings, photography, live music and more this summer and fall. Downtown Idyllwild is full of galleries, specialty shops and antique stores. Schedule a guided tour with Idyllwild Nature Center to learn about local mountain ecology, Cahuilla Native culture and the history of the area. For an afternoon both adults and kids can enjoy, head over to Middle Ridge Winery, a wine-tasting room with an art gallery and outdoor seating open Fridays through Mondays.
Low-key wine valleys
When you can’t escape to wine country, head out to one of our lovely nearby wineries.
Malibu is known for having some of California’s most beautiful beaches, but it’s also home to wineries. Take a mid-weekday trip to Rosenthal – The Malibu Estate, where children are welcome. Bring a picnic and enjoy wine tasting at the only wine bar and tasting room on the Pacific Coast Highway. Experience Malibu wine country on foot with Malibu Wine Hikes, fun and educational tours that travel through Saddleback Ranch, a vineyard and working ranch the whole family can enjoy. If you’re day tripping without the kids, definitely stop by Cornell Winery & Tasting Room, a unique tasting room featuring local wines, wild peacocks and live music. Next door is The Old Place, a rustic 50-year-old restaurant with old-school staples such as steak and eggs, BLTs, Caesar salad and loaded baked potatoes.
Temecula Valley, just 90 miles southeast of L.A., features nearly 50 wineries, a charming downtown, fine dining and kid-friendly restaurants with beautiful views and live music. Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards offers daily tastings, a restaurant, expansive grounds for picnicking and even a playground. Europa Village transports you to Spain, France and Italy with its wine cave, olive-oil tastings, tapas bar and rose gardens. Italian-inspired Bottaia Winery is 21 and over, but the pool and Pool Café + Cocktail Bar are for all ages.
For a break from wineries, take older kids on a hot-air balloon ride over the valley and younger kids to encounter animal friends at The Alpaca Hacienda or Sugarplum Zoo and Chocolates, a petting zoo that offers wine and chocolate tastings. Temecula is also known for its resorts and spas, but you might have to leave the kids home with the grandparents for that.
Nina Harada is Digital Editor of L.A. Parent.