The 6 Best Day Trips in Southern California

by Nick Marshall

Picking our shortlist of the top day trips in Southern California turned out to be a formidable challenge. For reference, the SoCal area covering Los Angeles and 10 counties is bigger than Greece. In fact, if Southern California were a country, it would be the world’s 94th largest. Factor in the incredible diversity, from desert wilderness to stylish coastal towns and there’s a lot to choose from. 

So for our top six day trips in Southern California we’ve created a tasting menu of locations that each give a unique flavor of SoCal life. 

day trips southern California santa monica

1. Santa Monica

You’ll notice Los Angeles hasn’t made the list, but that’s because there’s Santa Monica! And who needs LA when you’ve got it’s laid-back, outdoors-loving neighbor to visit instead? You probably know some of its famous attractions already, like the Pier with the ferris wheel. You might recognize the beaches too, with State Beach and others representing picture-postcard California living. After a few hours of sunbathing or surfing, head to Elephante for California-inspired Italian fare (and seriously good views of the ocean), then lose yourself for an afternoon among the boutiques on Main Street or Montana Avenue.

day trips southern California santa barbara

2. Santa Barbara  

History runs deep in Santa Barbara, a beautiful coastal town that was first settled by the Native American Chumash, and later by the Spanish. Today, you can visit the Old Mission, dating from 1786, among a wide range of other local attractions. When the sun is right overhead, cool down among 27,000 works of art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on State Street or browse the nearby boutiques. You’ll also find 50 area parks to stretch out and relax beneath the redwoods and eucalyptus trees in the case of Stow Grove Park. 

Santa Barbara is also a culinary magnet. The Santa Ynez Mountains that provide the town’s backdrop are quintessential wine country. Take a tour and enjoy a tasting session or two. Gourmets will enjoy the Santa Barbara Public market and seafood lovers in particular should check out the oysters at Brophy Bros.

day trips southern California ventura

3. Ventura 

Also steeped in Native American and Spanish Colonial history is Ventura. Get closer to California’s heritage with a tour of the San Buenaventura Mission, built in 1749, one of the state’s 21 missions on the El Camino Road. In modern times, Ventura has found its mojo as a fitness-loving, active town. Board riders gather at Surfers Point for the legendary breaks, and there’s some great fishing off the iconic pier. If it’s a sunset you’re looking for, climb the hill behind the mission to Serra Cross Park. Worked up an appetite? You’ll get a warm welcome at the town’s Taco District, where 14 Mexican restaurants, food trucks and diners line up along Ventura Avenue.

day trips southern California channel islands

4. Channel Islands 

Ventura (or Santa Barbara) are also your departure point for a day trip to the Channel Islands, just a two to three-hour boat trip away. The five islands sit within a UNESCO biosphere reserve, noted for its well-preserved natural Mediterranean ecosystem. For the visitor, that means an unspoilt landscape and curious flora and fauna to explore by hiking or biking. And the islands are also a haven for diving, snorkeling and kayaking, particularly among the sea caves. Come in spring through summer and it’s a popular whale-watching location too.

day trips southern California malibu

5. Malibu

Of course our hometown made the shortlist, but Malibu was famous as a surfer’s paradise long before Rockwell Kitchen put it on the culinary map. There’s a lot more to Malibu than the beachfront homes of the stars it’s often associated with. Some stunning natural beauty for a start, ready to enjoy year round. Hike the trails of Malibu Creek State Park, test your skills on the line-up on Surfrider Beach, or just spend a laid-back, leisurely day browsing the high end boutiques and eco-friendly fashion stores in town.

day trips southern California angeles national forest

6. Angeles National Forest

Even if this corner of California suffers its fair share of wildfires, meaning it’s always important to check ahead, Angeles National Forest is an enchanting landscape for a day out in the wilderness. And it’s close too — just 30 minutes from Los Angeles. Slip on some hiking boots and explore the moderate to challenging trails that cover more than 1,000 square miles of forest, in the shadow of the 10,064-foot Mount Baldy. You’ll have to bring your own water and refreshments (we can take care of that!) and don’t forget to buy an Adventure Pass, too. 

If we’ve missed one of your favorite spots, we won’t even protest. We’re only getting started. So please share your thoughts and comments below — or on your next visit to Rockwell Kitchen!