Hidden Gems in Southern California

Mountains, Valley, California
Many tourists flock to Famous destinations in Southern California like San Diego, Disneyland, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. These are all great places to visit, but if you’re looking for somewhere different that’s somewhat off the radar, check out the following incredible destinations:
The Channell Islands
My husband and I have lived in California most our lives, but somehow overlooked these spectacular islands which are classified as one of the U.S. National Parks. After viewing some magnificent photos on the world wide web, we took a brief boat ride to Anacapa Island from Oxnard within a weekend anniversary trip.
If you choose to go, be prepared and bring supplies. This excursion is for adventurous people in good physical shape. You’ll need to climb 157 stairs to the peak of this rugged little island where there isn’t any food, water, services, or flushing toilets. Now, I HATE outhouses, but I’m telling you – the views of the rugged coastline, massive cliffs, and jagged peaks were worth it. It is simple to hike around the rim of the island in only hours with Inspiration Point a grand reward for your efforts.
We visited in June when bursts of bright wildflowers covered the little island and thousands of adorable baby sea gulls were to be found around every corner. Just beware of their protective mamas that will swoop in your head if you get too close.
We returned a few years later and visited the larger Santa Cruz Island for an exciting kayak tour of the historical sea caves. On the boat ride there we saw a whale and two large schools of dolphins. The waters can be rough in certain points, but the caves were amazing.
Some folks believe these islands desolate, but if you have an adventurous spirit and love nature, the Channell Islands are considered the Galápagos of North America.
This is yet another stunning place that we failed to see for decades. Located in Pasadena, the magnificent estate is home to over a dozen magnificent gardens spread across 120 acres.
We didn’t even get an opportunity to check out the art galleries. And to my shame as a writer, we didn’t stop by The Huntington Library itself, one of the largest and most complete research libraries in the United States.
Next time.
Ventura County Wine Trail
Napa may get all the attention as wine country in California, but my husband and I enjoyed sipping our way through the coastal rolling hills close to the seaside town of Ventura. We visited two of the nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms.
You can reserve one of the numerous wine tours offered. But, we decided to get a map and explore on our own. Starting in Ventura at the junction of Highway 1 and Highway 101, we drove up Highway 33 toward Ojai.
Surprises await on this somewhat lonely but charming street – from the”USA’s Smallest Post Office” to the last place anyone saw James Dean alive. Our favorite find was Old Creek Winery which felt like returning to a simpler place and time where friendly dogs and folk welcomed us. We enjoyed our bought bottle of wine and a picnic out on tables enjoying the Americana view.
By the way, both Ojai and Ventura are worthwhile stops with enchanting inns, luxurious spas, and bed & breakfasts together with a wide variety of outdoor activities. In the summertime, the Ventura Harbor Village is a hubbub of activity with festivals and live music on the weekends.
Laguna Beach
This charming beach town is situated halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. With over 20 different scenic coves, this beach area offers everything from surfing, paddle-boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, and whale watching excursions.
Just beware, the surf can be rough in places. As a teenager, I decided to body surf despite the churning waters and wiped out on a massive wave (think Beach Boys’ song: Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!) . In fact, I blame the Beach Boys for this whole mishap since they moved and romanticized this entire surfer chick thing with songs I grew up on like Surfer Girl. SO their fault.
However, the scenery can not be beat. Add ultra-chic restaurants and stores and one-of-a-kind art galleries and you understand. There is a Baby Boomer Club with Saturday Night dances. Every summer, they sponsor the Laguna Woodstock where baby boomers party like its 1969.
Heisler Park is a fantastic place to begin, located just north of the main shore, with a simple half-mile stroll along a paved route with spectacular views of the coastline and the soothing sound of crashing waves. You may take one of those paths to the beaches and tide pools. Benches, picnic tables, and barbecues abound where you can enjoy the magnificent views. Hubby and I had a picnic on one of the grass areas and it was excellent!
Treasure Island Park is another terrific place, located on the grounds of this five-star Montage Laguna Beach, where the truly rich remain. Exquisitely landscaped, several watch chairs line the easy-to-walk winding route. Stairways and ramps lead you down to the beach, where you could walk through a beautiful stone archway during low tide, find a spot in the sand for sunbathing, and a large tide pool. Additionally, there is loads of grass areas for a picnic. I’d suggest bringing some wine and cheese to grab a romantic sunset.
Big Bear Lake
I live in the desert, so neighboring Big Bear is a excellent mountain escape with its gorgeous lake and pristine forests. Boating, fishing, and hiking are just a few of the activities in this small, laid-back village.
Last summer, my husband and I cycled round the lake, enjoyed a picnic, zipped down an alpine slide, drove go-karts with rates up to 30 m.p.h., and took a ride on the scenic sky chair for excellent views. After watching people take the seat lifts to mountain bike down the paths, we put this on our to-do list for next time.
For the adventurous at heart, parasailing and ziplining are also offered.
El Matador Beach
Look no further than El Matador, located north of Malibu off the winding Pacific Coast Highway. It’s easy to overlook the small, brown sign pointing toward the small parking lot in the trail-head, so watch carefully between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads. As soon as you find it, be prepared to hike down a 150-foot bluff with the help of a steep stairs.
Not for small children or people that are physically challenged, but in case you can make it down the steps you are going to be treated with stunning views. The natives know about this shore and you may see some photo shoots taking place – we did!
There is blissfully little to do on this small but glorious stretch of beach, so bring a picnic lunch or some wine and discover a hidden nook to enjoy a remarkably romantic setting.
Redondo Beach
We found this shore on accident when searching for a nearby place to stay the night before flying out of LAX the next morning.
Truth be known, we did not try one of these out, but we loved the views from Tony’s on the Pier where we enjoyed Happy Hour!
The pier is also home to a 16-foot great white shark known as Georgette, on screen in a large tank at Shark Attack on the Pier. If you have grandchildren with you or are young at heart, you might like the semi-submersible yellow submarine (damn, now I have the Beatles song stuck in my mind ) for underwater viewing of the local sea life.
Sure beats staying at an airport hotel if you’re flying to or from Los Angeles.
Catalina Island
This island is more well-known than some of my previous recommendations, but a sentimental favorite. My husband and I spent our honeymoon there 40 years ago and have returned several times. This is a small, quaint island, with no stoplights or fast food restaurants. A typical traffic jam involves two golf carts and a bicycle built for two.
On our honeymoon, we blissfully rode bikes around Avalon, went horseback riding, toured the famous casino, and sunbathed on the little beach. We also took a bus to Two Harbors, the only other village on Catalina Island. Snorkeling, parasailing, fishing, glass bottom boat rides, paddleboarding, Segway tours, golfing, and hiking are other popular activities.
Decades later, we sailed our boat to the island from Long Beach – which turned out to be one wild ride. Next time we visit, I want to try out the new zip-line that’s 600 feet above sea level with a single run that is 1,100 feet long with speeds up to 30 m.p.h. Wheee!
As you can tell, Southern California has so many great places to go to, it is impossible to list them all. But hopefully I have given you a few ideas to get you started!

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