A serene day on Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, with two fishing boats anchored near the beach.

11 Ideal Destinations for a 3-Day Weekend in Southern California

Southern California, often abbreviated as SoCal, is characterized by its Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and mild winters, a popular destination for tourists year-round. The region's geography is notably varied, home to beaches, mountains, and deserts. Given the abundance of beach towns, bustling cities, and national parks available in Southern California, selecting a single destination for an extended weekend getaway can be challenging. So, narrow down your options with eleven appealing weekend getaways.

28 Palms Ranch 

Joshua Tree National Park is located in the Mojave Desert of California.
Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert of California. 

28 Palms Ranch is a unique accommodation option located in the vicinity of Joshua Tree National Park, specifically situated four miles from the Indian Cove entrance. Guests stay in authentic Mongolian-style yurts, blending traditional nomadic living with modern comforts. Amenities at the ranch include communal areas for socializing, such as nightly bonfires, which encourage interaction among visitors. 

Within the national park's borders, visitors can explore Skull Rock on their three-day weekend, a natural granite formation shaped eerily like a human skull. The Hidden Valley Nature Trail Trailhead is excellent for beginner hikers or those visiting with family. The one-mile loop trail meaders through giant boulders, tracing the path of what is thought to have once been a hideaway for cattle rustlers. For those who want a challenge, take the advanced hike to the summit of Ryan Mountain to enjoy panoramic views of the desert. 

Big Bear Lake

A wooden bridge spans across Big Bear Lake in California, offering a picturesque view of the serene waters surrounded by towering pine trees and rugged mountains.
A wooden bridge spans across Big Bear Lake in California.

Big Bear Lake, in the center of the San Bernardino National Forest, is a mountain town that escapes Southern California's urban sprawl. It has become a year-round destination for outdoor activities due to its clear blue waters and surrounding pine forests. Big Bear Lake Village, at the edge of the lake, adds to the rustic nature of this destination. The shops and eateries have wooden beams, stone accents, and steep, gabled roofs.

Rent a pontoon boat, fishing boat, or kayak from Big Bear Marina to view Big Bear Lake's coves and shoreline firsthand. Family vacationers should visit Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain to ride down an alpine slide, play mini-golf, and go go-karting. For hikers, the 2.7-mile Castle Rock Trail provides an excellent Big Bear Lake lookout point.

Ventura Harbor Village

Harbor Village in Ventura, California.
Harbor Village in Ventura, California.

Ventura Harbor Village, along the coast of Southern California, is a seaside community. The town's marina bustles with sailboats and fishing vessels, reflecting the area's solid nautical heritage. Waterfront dining options, such as Water's Edge Restaurant and Bar, serve fresh seafood and local delicacies. Architecturally, the buildings combine elements of Mediterranean and modern beachfront styles—think sunny patios, colorful awnings, and large windows with Pacific views. 

Located within Ventura Harbor Village, the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center has educational exhibits, a park store, and a theater showing a film about the park's natural and cultural resources. The center also provides information for planning visits to the islands. If visitors want to explore the harbor, Ventura Boat Rentals has a variety of watercraft. Options include electric boats, paddle boats, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. Meanwhile, Ventura Harbor Comedy Club is an entertainment option. Well-known comedians and emerging talent perform here. 

Santa Barbara

The courthouse buildings in Santa Barbara, California, feature distinctive orange roofs that stand out against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.
The courthouse buildings in Santa Barbara, California, stand out against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. 

Santa Barbara, often referred to as the "American Riviera," is located between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. One of the first things visitors notice is its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, a legacy of the 1925 earthquake that led to a city-wide effort to rebuild in this style. Beaches, a bustling harbor, and the Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wharf in California, can be found at Santa Barbara's waterfront along the Pacific Ocean. 

Often referred to as "The Queen of the Missions" for its commanding presence, Mission Santa Barbara is a historic landmark founded in 1786. Visitors can enjoy Spanish architecture, gardens, and an on-site museum with artifacts from the Mission period. Further, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a 78-acre garden dedicated to California native plants. Its trails take visitors through numerous habitats, including desert sections, redwood forests, and meadows. At Stearns Wharf, don't miss the interactive exhibits at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. 

La Jolla

Scenic view of La Jolla, California, showcasing its picturesque coastline and vibrant atmosphere.
Scenic view of La Jolla, California.

La Jolla, situated along the coast in San Diego, is characterized by its affluent residential neighborhoods. The architectural styles range from contemporary designs to Mediterranean-inspired homes. La Jolla's economy is supported by a mix of local businesses, research institutions, and educational entities, including the University of California, San Diego. The natural geography of La Jolla, with its seaside cliffs and beaches, contributes to its reputation as a desirable location.

Start the adventure at La Jolla Cove, one of the most photographed beaches in Southern California. Its clear waters make it a popular spot for snorkeling, swimming, scuba diving, and viewing marine life, especially sea lions and seals. Located just north of La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve has miles of beaches and a lagoon that's vital for migrating seabirds. Keep an eye out for the rare Torrey pine trees during the hike. Lastly, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography is a public exploration center. Its interactive exhibits include coral reefs, interactive touch pools, and displays of marine life from the Pacific Ocean.


Downtown Ojai California after a winter snow in the mountains.
Downtown Ojai, California, after a winter of snow in the mountains.

Ojai is a town nestled in a valley in the Topatopa Mountains. It is known for its agriculture, including citrus groves and olive oil production, contributing to its local economy. Ojai's population is diverse. Artists, health enthusiasts, and families are drawn here. The city's governance is focused on preserving its natural resources and implementing policies that support sustainable living and environmental conservation.

During the stay, don't miss the Ojai Valley Museum, housed in a historic building. Its exhibits explore the region's Native American heritage and early settlers. Bordering Ojai, Los Padres National Forest has mountains, rivers, and forested areas. It's a destination for outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and bird watching. Ojai Certified Farmers' Market is a weekly event that takes place in downtown Ojai, where local farmers and artisans gather to sell their produce and goods. Here, visitors can purchase organic fruits and vegetables, locally made products, and gourmet foods. 

Catalina Island

An aerial view of Catalina Island in California, featuring the Pacific ocean, mountains, and boats.
An aerial view of Catalina Island in California, featuring the Pacific Ocean, mountains, and boats.

Catalina Island is a rocky island off the coast of California in the Gulf of Santa Catalina. The island is part of Los Angeles County and measures approximately 22 miles in length and 8 miles across at its widest point. Its geography is a mix of rugged terrain, steep cliffs, and small beaches. The interior has wild, undeveloped land that hosts a variety of plant and animal species. The population of Catalina Island resides primarily in the city of Avalon and the unincorporated community of Two Harbors, with the economy primarily supported by tourism.

Stretching across Catalina Island, the Trans-Catalina Trail is a challenging hike that covers approximately 38.5 miles of the island's landscapes. It is a must-do for hikers who want to experience the island's rugged backcountry and encounter the island's flora and fauna, including the Catalina Island bison. In the city of Avalon, the Catalina Casino is not a gambling facility but a historic building that opened in 1929. It includes a movie theatre, ballroom, and museum. Also located in Avalon is the Catalina Island Museum. It has exhibits on the island's natural history, Native American culture, the era of big band music, and Hollywood's golden age. 

Palm Springs 

A scenic municipal park in sunny Palm Springs, California.
A scenic municipal park in sunny Palm Springs, California.

Palm Springs is a desert city located in Riverside County, California, within the Coachella Valley. Known for its hot, dry climate, Palm Springs has more than 350 days of sunshine each year. Its surrounding landscape includes desert vegetation, mountains, and the palm trees that line its streets and give the city its name.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the world's largest rotating tramcar. It ascends two-and-a-half miles up the cliffs of Chino Canyon, ending at the Mountain Station in the San Jacinto Mountains. For those afraid of heights, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is located in nearby Palm Desert. This 1,200-acre facility has a zoo, botanical garden, and conservation center. For a cultural attraction, Palm Springs Art Museum hosts a collection of art, including modern and contemporary pieces and Native American artifacts.

San Luis Obispo

Avila Beach, a very popular whale watching destination in California, located south of San Luis Obispo and right off Pacific Coast.
Avila Beach is a very popular whale-watching destination in California. 

San Luis Obispo, often abbreviated as SLO, is located approximately midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The city's demographic profile includes a significant number of college students due to the presence of California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), as well as families and retirees. Urban development in San Luis Obispo is guided by strict planning regulations aimed at preserving the city's natural beauty and historic character.

A visit to SLO wouldn't be complete without seeing the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Founded in 1772, this mission is home to a preserved church, a museum, and lush gardens. While strolling through downtown, visitors may come across Bubblegum Alley, a 70-foot-long alleyway where both sides are covered with used bubble gum left by passersby. For a touch of nature, head to Montaña de Oro State Park. It has secluded sandy beaches, coastal plains, streams, canyons, and hills, including the 1,347-foot Valencia Peak. The park's name, meaning "Mountain of Gold," comes from the golden wildflowers that bloom in spring. 


"Sunset view of Topanga Beach in picturesque Malibu, California.
Sunset view of Topanga Beach in picturesque Malibu, California.

Malibu is a coastal city located in Los Angeles County, California, with coastal and mountainous habitats. Stretching approximately 21 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Santa Monica Mountains to the north. The city's population is a mix of celebrities, high-value professionals, and surfers. 

One of Malibu's most popular and expansive beaches, Zuma Beach is known for its long stretches of sand, excellent surf conditions, and amenities for visitors, including lifeguard stations, restrooms, and food stands. It's a favored spot for swimming, surfing, and beach volleyball. Malibu Creek State Park draws visitors due to its hiking trails and rock pools. A cultural attraction is The Getty Villa, an educational center and museum dedicated to studying the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria. The Villa houses a collection of antiquities, surrounded by Roman-inspired architecture and gardens.

Death Valley 

Death Valley, California.
Death Valley, California.

The Inn at Death Valley, formerly known as the Furnace Creek Inn, is a historic hotel situated in Death Valley National Park, California. Established in 1927, the inn was designed to offer luxury accommodations in one of the most extreme environments on Earth—Death Valley, known for holding the record for the highest air temperature ever recorded. Guests can enjoy a range of facilities, including a dining room, spa, and golf course—the lowest elevation course in the world. 

Exploring Death Valley includes visiting Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. It sits at 282 feet below sea level, and salt crystals cover the ground, creating an otherworldly scene. The eroded and colorful badlands of Zabriskie Point make it another attraction. Visitors are primarily drawn here as a sunrise and sunset viewing spot. Finally, Dante's View is a mountaintop viewpoint more than 5,000 feet above the valley floor. Visitors can see the expanse of the valley, the Panamint Range, and, on clear days, the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States—Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin.

In Summary

For a three-day weekend in Southern California, the highlighted destinations are tailored to short getaways. Some may be drawn to an unordinary desert experience near Joshua Tree National Park, whereas others might prefer a coastal setting for dining, sailing, and exploring local marine life. Still, others may be drawn to one of the most extreme environments on earth. Choosing where to spend your weekend in "The Golden State" depends on your interests, whether they lie in nature, history, or coastal leisure. Regardless of where visitors choose, these eleven destinations are sure to make an impression.

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