Everyone wants to go to LA or San Diego, and why wouldn’t they? The cities are vibrant, the beaches are stunning, and attractions like Disneyland and Sea World are internationally renowned. The thing about California’s two largest cities, though, is that they’re just 2 towns, and in between them there’s 120 miles of the state that all too few stop to see. That’s something of a pity, because this area, locally called the Inland Empire, is actually full of some of the most incredible California experiences you’ll find. So if you’re looking to do something a little different on your California trip, here’s a quick guide of everything to do in the IE.
You don’t have to go all the way up to Napa to find Cali’s best vintages. Roughly centered in between LA and San Diego, the Temecula Valley Wine Country is SoCal’s best kept secret – an oasis of rolling hills, ocean mists, and over 30 sprawling, green vineyards situated on the edge of the high desert. Take an afternoon and tour the wineries for a tasting of some of the local wines, enjoy a meal at one of the award-winning vineyard restaurants, and stay in plush accommodations set amongst hills full of grapevines and citrus trees. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even take a hot air balloon up to see the valley from above, then enjoy a few authentic tacos along the old western streets of historic Old Town. It’s the quintessential California wine country experience a little closer to the other things you actually want to see.
Head Up To The Mountains
Big Bear has been Southern California’s destination for a little wilderness and winter for decades, and it really should be everyone’s. Situated in the San Bernardino Mountains, lakeside mountain towns like Idyllwild, Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead bring the mountain life right into the heart of Southern California. Rest up lakeside in a log cabin, take in the views along hundreds of stunning hiking paths, or head into town for some old-time charm with country stores tucked into Bavarian style storefronts. Check out the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival for some local culture. If you’re there in the winter, don’t hesitate to take to the slopes, or just sip some cocoa at the ski lodge and watch the snow fall.
Route 66 ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, and while large portions of it have been replaced by the Interstate, stretches of the historic highway and its quintessential roadside attractions remain. Check out the Mother Road Museum in Barstow before hitting up Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch, a desert installation of bottles posted on vertical posts that paints the surrounding desert with their reflections. Head over to the San Bernardino stretch to see the famous tepee shaped rooms at the Wigwam Motel, and grab some famous menudo at Mitla Café along the way.
Riverside isn’t a town that’s typically considered a prime tourist destination, but with an up-and-coming arts scene, a host of local festivals, and the historic Mission Inn, that’s all changing. The Mission Inn has actually been a part of the scene in Southern California for a long time, and with good reason. The hotel is the largest Mission Revival Style building in the US, and features stunning Spanish architecture that includes wide arches, overhanging bridges and bell towers, and striking stucco and brick that’s unlike anything around it. It plays host to the Festival of Lights during the holiday season, and is part of the Riverside Ghost Walk that surrounds Halloween. It also houses the Inland Empire’s only AAA Four Diamond awarded restaurant, Duane’s Prime Steaks and Seafood Restaurant, along with authentic Mexican and Southern Italian eateries. It’s so well regarded that the hotel even has its own museum commemorating its history. Beyond all that, it’s positively stunning it its architecture and décor, and is a destination unto itself on your trek in between LA and San Diego.