There's no such thing as off-season in Southern California. Even in fall you can paddle a deserted island, road-trip through a barren moonscape or bomb a mountain trail while most of the nation is waiting on winter. And you can do it all within four hours of Los Angeles. Here's our scouting report on some prime spots for your next action-adventure.
Santa Ynez Valley
Pedal a Vintage Vale
Quiet country roads aren't Southern California's strong suit, but northwest of Santa Barbara wind pleasant lanes lined with nouveau vineyards (and tasting rooms), horse farms, cattle ranches and dense oak forests. The rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley are best plied in the saddle of a road bike. The U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team trained for years out of the kitschy Danish-themed town of Solvang, which holds century rides in March and November.
Notable routes include Santa Rosa Road to Lompoc (20 miles one way from Solvang) and out to Jalama Beach (another 20), and Foxen Canyon Road to Sisquoc (50 miles), which passes half a dozen wineries. Zaca Lake Retreat, off Foxen Canyon, makes an ideal base camp: Its 20 log cabins are situated on a 20-acre lake with out-the-door canoeing and great hikes in the surrounding San Rafael Mountains.
A tonier but equally beautiful choice is Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, with 73 cottages on 10,000 wooded acres outside of Solvang. The ranch stables as many as a hundred quarter horses for riding 50 miles of private trails amid 2,000 head of cattle, and its 100-acre spring-fed lake, stocked with bass and trout, is served by an on-site Orvis fly shop. When the low-angle November sun casts its amber glow, life feels as full and mellow as the local Merlot.
Paddle a Wild Isle
Catalina gets unjustly snubbed as an adventure destination in favor of its rugged sister isles in Channel Islands National Park. But beyond its quaint resort town of Avalon and the hamlet of Two Harbors, this 76-square-mile island remains mostly wild, and a three-day kayak along the leeward shore takes you through stunningly clear water with sandy beaches and boat-in camps.
Catch the 90-minute Catalina Express from San Pedro to Two Harbors; Descanso Beach Ocean Sports will meet you with boats and charts. A 4.25-mile paddle west leads to Parsons Landing and a campground supplied with firewood. Pause midway at Emerald Bay to snorkel with garibaldi, perch, kelp bass and lobster. The 12-mile jaunt to Avalon rounds Blue Cavern Point, where you can thru-paddle a sea cave when the tide's low. At high tide, watch for a cliffside geyser just around the corner. There's another cave right before Gibraltar Beach, great snorkeling in Rippers Cove, and some nine boat-in campsites.
Do: San Pedro to Two Harbors ($59 round-trip; catalinaexpress.com); Descanso Beach Ocean Sports ($99 for three nights; $70 for boat transport; kayakcatalinaisland.com)
Sleep: Camping reservations ($12; visitcatalinaisland.com)
East Mojave Desert
Drive a Strange Range
Geologic oddities, intimidating ruggedness and remnants of broken dreams line the way on a three-day road trip out of Los Angeles via I-15 north. Head toward Las Vegas, exit at Nipton Road (a four-hour drive) and berth in one of five rooms or four tent cabins at tiny, quirky Hotel Nipton. In the morning, drive south across Mojave National Preserve on Ivanpah Road, ascending through the New York Mountains' granite peaks, past lost mines and the odd Studebaker carcass, then dropping into the Lanfair Valley and a historic cattle ranch.
A westward turn at Goffs puts you on old Route 66--known by an even earlier moniker, National Trails Highway--where the roofless shacks and bleached-out gas stations seem to have been abandoned for centuries.
A 17-mile detour north on Essex Road takes you to Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. Stretch your legs among the stalactites of the state-run cavern. A daily tour starts at 1:30 p.m., and there are a handful of campsites just below the cave. Pass through Bagdad, whose ruins inspired the 1987 film Bagdad Caf?, to the actual diner (another 20 miles on in Newberry Springs), which serves the best apple pie in the West.
Do: Mitchell Caverns, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area ($4; parks.ca.gov)
Sleep: Hotel Nipton (room $79; tent cabin $68--bring your own sleeping bag; prices include breakfast; nipton.com)
Santa Monica Mountains
Roam From Slopes to Foam
The Santa Monicas, running 50 miles along the coast from Los Angeles to Point Mugu, are a wilderness of multiple ridges thickly cloaked in chaparral and native oaks, laced with perennial streams and punctuated by craggy sandstone summits rising to 3,111 feet.
In the 153,075-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area--at Point Mugu State Park along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Malibu--one glorious mountain-bike loop (17 miles, 1,700 feet of gain) departs from the Big Sycamore Canyon campground on gentle doubletrack through broad meadows, oaks and sycamores, then climbs steeply out of the canyon on Park Center Road, curls north and joins Wood Canyon Vista Trail. After a few wet whoop-de-dos, pick up the singletrack Guadalasca Trail for a climb to astounding views of the farms of the Oxnard Plain before joining Overlook Trail for a winding seaward plummet.
Cool off across PCH at Sycamore Cove beach, an unspoiled patch of sand with excellent bodysurfing. Celebrate with fish and chips at Neptune's Net, a classic biker/surfer hangout a bit down the road on County Line Beach.