With CoVID still around, don’t hassle with airports and layovers? These itineraries will take you through California, Arizona, & Utah whether you want to drive for two hours or eight. Let’s get this summer show on the road.
Why We Love It: It’s an underappreciated playground for outdoor enthusiasts
Fancy a road trip within a road trip? Venture north near Sequoia National Park and begin your drive along the 395, a gateway to some of California’s most photogenic natural wonders. You’ll start in Lone Pine, an Old West town that’s home to the impressive rock formations of Alabama Hills, where movies like 2013’s The Lone Ranger were filmed, as well as Mount Whitney.
From there head an hour north to Bishop, known for its trout fishing and bouldering—there’s a women’s climbing event March 22–24. Great Basin Bakery is a homey, tasty option for bagels, sandwiches, pastries, and coffee. Making your way another hour north, bypass the tried-and-true Mammoth Lakes and opt for June Lake Loop. The landscape of the 15-mile drive looks straight out of the Swiss Alps, with plenty of cycling, fishing, and horseback riding to keep you busy. When you want to rest up, Double Eagle Resort & Spa is the winner, with comfortable cabins (pets allowed in some), a spa, and an indoor pool. If you want to trek even farther, head to Mono Lake, a serene, slightly spooky basin with boating and nature walks.
The Grand Canyon celebrates its 100th year as a national park in 2019 with events all year long. Highlights include the Centennial Summerfest and Star Party June 22–29 and a music festival August 25–26. The South Rim, a little over eight hours by car, offers that classic postcard landscape, but is also notoriously crowded. Opt for the more secluded North Rim, which is open after the snow melts from May to October and boasts vibrant foliage in the fall.
You can make a home away from home with Under Canvas, a company that sets up glamping tents with a shower, sink, and flush toilet from late April to mid-November just outside the park in Valle, Arizona. (Their other locations include Yellowstone, Glacier, and Zion national parks, as well as Tucson, Mount Rushmore, Moab, and the Smoky Mountains.) After the arid areas, quench your visual thirst with a two-hour trip north to Lake Powell, a reservoir in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that straddles the Arizona-Utah border, where you can swim, kayak, and hike.
This pine-forest oasis in the scorching Southwest is famous among New Age and alt-medicine circles for its four “vortexes,” said to be natural centers of earth energy and enlightenment. Start with a psychic reading and aura photo from Mystical Bazaar. At ChocolaTree, nourish your physical body with an organic, homemade, largely vegan menu with gluten-free and raw options. For affordable crystals and geodes, brave the tourist crowds downtown for Discount Gems & Minerals—and enjoy the public-use marimbas just outside.
Marg’s Draw makes for an easy afternoon hike; or for a steeper trek, Cathedral Rock Trail brings you to one of the fabled vortexes. Once you’ve hit peak serenity, lay your head in one of Sky Ranch Lodge Resort’s private cabins with a back porch that opens up to stunning views of the red-rock-bluff valley.
Why We Love It: Geek out beneath the night sky
Designated an International Dark Sky Park two years ago, Joshua Tree National Park is celebrating its fifth annual Night Sky Festival on September 21, pegged to the fall equinox. Tickets go on sale this summer for the event, which will have 20 telescopes, astronomy lectures, photo booths, music, nature walks, and crafts for kids. (The park website has some recommended night-sky etiquette, like using red flashlights instead of white.)
When you’re not hiking, rock climbing, or observing the stars, check out the year-old boutique Shop on the Mesa, stocked with desert-chic decor, including many locally made pieces. And while options for food in town are limited to vegan eats at Natural Sisters Cafe and Pie for the People! pizza, make time for La Copine, a surprisingly polished restaurant in nearby Flamingo Heights started by a Philadelphia couple who honeymooned in Joshua Tree and fell in love with it, then took over an old diner. The menu has high-end fare like grilled flatbread with whipped ricotta and a lamb burger topped with harissa—a far cry from those campfire hot dogs.
Why We Love It: One tiny town packs a ton of eclectic festivals
Beyond its hippie ethos, famous “pink moment” sunsets, and the luxurious Ojai Valley Inn & Resort, the tiny town of Ojai (population 7,400) is also a hub for nearly a dozen annual festivals. Things kick off over Memorial Day Weekend with Art in the Park, a two-day celebration where nearly 100 fine artists sell their work in a show hosted by California’s oldest art nonprofit. On June 6, the 73rd annual Ojai Music Festival returns with four days of classical music at the Libbey Bowl amphitheater. This year’s event pays tribute to composers with ties to Ojai, including Igor Stravinsky. June 9 brings the Wine Festival, when more than 60 wineries and 30 breweries pour into town.
Want to enjoy Ojai Valley’s bounty? The Lavender Festival on June 29 has local farmers selling soaps, oils, and decor made from the versatile flower. And due in August and October, respectively, the Playwrights Conference gives audiences a seat to workshop performances from new writers, while the Storytelling Festivalbrings together storytellers from across the country to perform personal narratives, ghost stories, folktales, and more. When you need some mid-festival fuel, be sure to visit the recently reopened cafe Hip Vegan for wholesome salads, sandwiches, smoothies, and desserts.
Eight hours from San Diego, Yosemite is all about the granite peaks and cliffs, especially El Capitan and Half Dome, which is why it’s such a draw for rock climbers. If you’re new to the sport or need a brush-up, REI’s Kearny Mesa store is hosting a Preparing for Half Dome class on March 2 with tips on gear, routes, and training. Otherwise, Half Dome’s summit is reachable on foot—if you’ve had a couple days to adjust to the altitude and start the 17-mile hike at the crack of dawn, that is.
For an easier trail, seeing the supersize sequoias in Mariposa Grove is a must, and the park also offers a five-hour tour bus option departing from Yosemite Valley Lodge May through September. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly the Ahwahnee, is the quintessential stay, but if you want to get a taste without the triple-digit commitment, lunch in their grand dining room will give you the flavor.
For fun and inexpensive lodging minutes outside the park, stay in a yurt (sleeps four to six) at Yosemite Lakes RV Resort, complete with bathroom, kitchen, gas grill, and even cable TV.
Zion National Park
About eight hours from San Diego, Zion was Utah’s first national park—now there are five—and it has some of the state’s most famous trails. Check out the waterfalls of Emerald Pools, and The Narrows, a gorge with walls reaching thousands of feet high that requires “hiking” through a river. Or let someone else do the trekking for you: Local operators like Zion Ponderosa offer horseback riding trips into the park.
When you want to rest those weary limbs, you can camp (Lava Point and Watchman are popular sites) or stay at the only in-park accommodation, Zion Lodge, in a cabin, hotel room, or suite surrounded by towering trees and red rock mountains.
Redwood National & State Parks
What a trip to the Redwoods costs in 800 miles worth of gas, it makes up for with the staggering sight of the world’s largest trees. The national park, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is unlike many others in that there’s no entrance station or fee, and portions of it overlap with the state park, for which daily use fees apply.
One of the best places to see the trees is the moderately challenging 4.2-mile James Irvine Trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which ends at Fern Canyon, a lush area (albeit redwood-free) marked by a footbridge that’s open in summer months. Or hop back in the car and drive the steep 17 miles down Bald Hills Road to see old-growth redwoods, wildflowers in the spring, and if you’re lucky, Roosevelt elk.