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Three Day Trips from Long Beach
by Craig Howie

Day Trips from Long Beach

Aptly-named Long Beach is a gateway to Southern California's coastal towns.

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Photo by Craig Howie


Three words can bring a smile to even the most hardened of road trippers: Pacific Coast Highway. The famed U.S. Highway 1 is just one of the many attractions within striking distance of Long Beach, Calif., a port town and airport hub about 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Interesting in its own right, Long Beach also serves as a gateway to pretty beach towns, rugged desert scrubland and majestic mountain ranges, all of which seem impossibly far away from the urban sprawl of L.A. but are easily reachable in a day's drive.

Go on, jump in. What are you waiting for?


Go west
Long Beach to Manhattan Beach, 50 miles round trip

Due west of downtown Long Beach lies the busiest port complex in the nation, the combined ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles; the ports serve as a gateway to a dramatic coastal drive around the Palos Verdes peninsula to the popular Pacific coastal towns of Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach. The seven-or-so-mile portside drive north on State Highway 47 travels over two span bridges, giving a great view of an incredible array of tankers, longshore equipment and cruise ships (testament to humankind's industrious endeavors and to the U.S.'s burgeoning trade relationship with China) before dropping you in the port town of San Pedro. A short loop along palm-lined streets brings you to the Pacific outlook of Angels Gate Park, where the Bell of Friendship stands as a monument to peaceful relations between the U.S. and South Korea. A short explore here reveals military barracks and sea defenses rich in history alongside a current Coast Guard watch facility. The road swoops a couple hundred feet down to kid-friendly Point Fermin Park and then through several neighborhoods before the mansions that dominate California's coastline thin out and the drive opens into a spectacularly rolling landscape reminiscent of Italy's Amalfi Coast.

The peninsula is not totally undeveloped - Donald Trump has built an exclusive golf complex here, for example - but notable sights include a Spanish mission dating from the 1800s and several great whale-watching and fishing spots over the Catalina Channel. Winter is best for spotting migrating gray, blue and killer whales, while sport fishing at Point Vicente is a year-round activity (you can buy bait in San Pedro). After about 30 minutes, you encounter the upscale neighborhoods of Rolling Hills Estates - home to many movie stars and execs who prefer its exclusivity to the Hollywood Hills. Then it's on to Redondo, whose pier boasts some of the finest and freshest seafood on the West Coast, perfect for a spot of lunch with lots of room for kids to run around; it also offers grown-up treats like Pacific oysters and day-boat scallops.

From here, you can skip inland on the Pacific Coast Highway to head further north to Santa Monica or Malibu, or take the leisurely coastal road into the college town of Hermosa, which boasts some great surfing beaches, and then go into Manhattan Beach, an upscale community that offers a fantastic stretch of beach and more great surfing spots. From Manhattan Beach, you can grab Interstate 405, the San Diego Freeway, and be back at the Long Beach airport in less than 30 minutes, provided you don't try to do it at rush hour. Allow a good hour and a half - or more - if you are planning to travel between 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays or holidays.

View Long Beach to Manhattan Beach, California in a larger map


Head south
Long Beach to Laguna Beach, 70 miles round trip

Pacific Coast Highway conjures many images for those looking for the ultimate in California coastal driving, and the road from Long Beach to Laguna Beach has it all: sensational Pacific outlooks, picturesque beach towns and surf spots and, perhaps best of all, some of the most impressive sunsets on the West Coast. Though just about 35 miles long, the stretch between Long Beach and Laguna Beach has more than enough to keep a day tripper happily occupied and, outside of holidays, weekends or rush hour, is usually relatively traffic-free.

Five minutes from Long Beach Airport, the highway quickly takes you through the eastern portion of the city and across the county line into Seal Beach, a pretty beach town with a laid-back feel that also serves as a U.S. naval base. There are lots of good casual dining and taco stops here to set you up for the day and the beach is just half a mile from the Pacific Coast Highway, along Main Street. The highway then passes through perhaps the most undeveloped of the coastal towns, Sunset Beach, which feels like it has changed little since the days of woodies - California's favorite surfer car - and Gidget, everyone's favorite surfer girl. Here, you can rent surfing, kayaking or boating equipment at one of the roadside outlets or pick up a pair of surf shorts and a towel. Sunset Beach is surrounded by wetlands preserved from development after a decades-long court battle. The wetlands are now teeming with migratory birds, which relish the pristine coastal habitat almost as much as the nature lovers who stretch their legs here.

Huntington Beach - the original Surf City, U.S.A. - lies a couple miles beyond, past several miles of surf spots that play host to the annual U.S. Open of Surfing. Here enthusiasts can check out the history and culture behind the sport perhaps most closely associated with California. Venture out onto the waves north or south of the pier and locals are more likely to help you and give advice than barge you off a wave. Just make sure your board skills can handle some serious ocean swells.

Huntington Beach nudges up against the western edge of Newport Beach, the home of rich-kid TV show "The O.C." Its idyllic peninsula, fun bars and restaurants, and fantastic surfing beaches make it a tourist magnet. Eat an ice cream along the pier and watch the surfers splash around below; at the end of the pier, check out the somewhat scary replica of a 15-foot great white shark caught just 100 yards offshore. The inland cities of Costa Mesa and Orange are culturally rewarding if you have time. If not, head seven miles south, past beautiful Crystal Cove
nature reserve
, which offers beachside walking trails, and into Laguna Beach, one of the West Coast's prettiest little enclaves, long favored by artists and full of interesting shops, souvenir stalls and upscale eateries. Have cocktails at sunset on the roof of La Casa del Camino - or perhaps not, if you're driving - then take a leisurely stroll around the town center or just explore the many hidden coves that made Laguna famous.

View Long Beach to Laguna Beach, California in a larger map


Go east
Long Beach to Idyllwild, 220 miles round trip

Not many road trippers get to experience the magic of the California desert and its magnificent snow-capped mountains in one day, but a couple hours inland of Long Beach lies Idyllwild, a lovely little town whose main draw is its position high up in the San Jacinto Mountains - elevation 5,300 feet - and its views over dramatic, wildfire-scarred desert scrubland.

The first hour of the drive, on State Route 22 to the Orange Freeway (State Route 91), takes you from Long Beach through northern Orange County to the city of Riverside, after which the scenery gets increasingly eye-popping as State Highway 60 (the Pomona Freeway) winds through the Moreno Valley toward Beaumont. It's largely desert flatland punctuated by the Lake Perris State Recreation Area, which has hiking trails, boats for hire and good fishing, but about 10 miles east of the park is where it gets real interesting. After Beaumont, as you start the long climb up State Highway 243 to Idyllwild, the landscape changes from baked desert scrub through fire-blackened chaparral and finally to alpine forest. There's a change in temperature and air quality, too, and it's worth keeping the windows down - depending on the chill factor - to experience its full effect.

It takes about 40 minutes of switchbacks and tight curves - more if you get out and admire the view or let the dog do its business - but once you reach the plateau, you'll find a mountain wilderness that seems a million miles from smoggy L.A. Alongside Idyllwild's cute shops and eateries and the area's serious mountain hikes and climbs, fun things to do here include a visit to Lake Hemet, which is a fine size for walking around and offers camping, boating and fishing. If you have bags of time, State Route 74 will take you through the Thomas Mountains and down into Palm Springs and its surrounds. From there, it's a straight shot west on Interstate 10 past Beaumont and back into Long Beach.

View Long Beach to Idyllwild, California in a larger map

Craig Howie
(Updated 9/6/20, RTA)


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