Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Dreaming of Sunny and Warm

Road Trip! Sunny Dreams Part 1

No sooner do we stop complaining about the summer’s heat than we start grousing about the chill in the air—minding not so much the nippiness itself as anticipating the toe-numbing cold that comes later, hitched to the memory. Such ingrates, we Californians.

Deciding where to go and what to do for some winter fun, that’s easy if you’re a skier or snowboarder. But what if you’re not a winter sports fan? What if you’re dreaming instead of sunny and warm? Where can you go, fairly close to home?

California, always happy to be all things to all people, surely offers just what you need. This week and next Up the Road will suggest some unusual yet affordable warm-winter getaways to expand your list of “possibles.”

Down to the Desert

The popular conception of desert as a barren wasteland, some monotonous sea of naked sand baking under a steady sun, does not fit California’s complex desert landscape. What we have instead is an astonishing diversity of landforms and plant and animal life, not to mention fascinating human communities. And if we ever again enjoy a very, very wet winter, the spring wildflower display throughout the desert will be spectacular—because many desert plants only bloom in years of unusually high rainfall.

Sunrise over Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park (photo by Andrew Mace)

Sunrise over Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park (photo by Andrew Mace)

Palm Springs and vicinity, the California desert’s most famous urban outpost, was once the winter playground of the Hollywood set. Now everyone else has discovered the peak-season pleasures of the Coachella Valley, which makes finding inexpensive accommodation a winter challenge. The valley is famous for its lush golf courses, so if golfing’s your game this is the place. The region’s astounding natural history is another big draw, along with an excellent art museum and other cultural attractions. Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, anyone?


Joshua trees at sunset (photo by Spencer Goad)

The desert offers winter solitude too, though this being its most popular season alone time will be harder to come by. Walking in Joshua Tree National Park may be the answer. Early California travelers had few kind or poetic words for these desert giants—Spanish and Mexican explorers called them “cabbage palms”—but these strange, slow-growing trees are an endless fascination, which is why most of us can spend day after day just wandering among them, studying their eccentric shapes, shadows, and unintended impersonations.

Death Valley National Park may be the California desert’s most famous attraction, internationally, and winter is the most hospitable time to visit—which may mean its somewhat limited facilities will be overwhelmed, if creature comforts are high on your list. But if wide-open space is what you’re after, Death Valley offers lots of it, along with intriguing natural history and outposts of colorful local history.

Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands

The old-California city of Santa Barbara now markets itself as The American Riviera, which is a bit hoity-toity even by Santa Barbara standards. Life here can be precious, if you’re talking about high-end hotels and boutique wineries, but there’s another, older, and earthier city underneath all that money. It’s well worth visiting, too, from the lovely mission and other historic buildings to the natural history museum, from the white-sand beaches to the botanical gardens. There are some great oceanside state campgrounds not far from town, for a low-rent stay.

Mission Santa Barbara, "Queen of the Missions" (photo by Kevin Cole)

Mission Santa Barbara, “Queen of the Missions” (photo by Kevin Cole)

Offshore are California’s astounding Channel Islands. Privately owned Santa Catalina Island is the only truly populated island among Southern California’s eight Channel Islands. Populated by humans, that is. Many of the rest are inhabited by, or surrounded by, such rare, endangered, and endemic animals and plants that biologists describe the Channel Islands, collectively, as North America’s Galápagos.

The Anacapas at sunset (photo by Brian Hawkins)

The five northernmost Channel Islands are now included in Channel Islands National Park, 250,000 acres of isolated Southern California real estate set aside in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter for federal preservation. (Odd, by national park standards, is the fact that half these acres are below the ocean’s surface.) The park is also a national marine sanctuary and an international biosphere preserve. Visitors can set out for the islands for primitive campouts; private boat tours are also available.

Orange County

Disneyland! you’re probably thinking. Well yes, Disneyland is there in Orange County, right off the freeway in Anaheim, adjacent to Disney’s California Adventure and all that Disney-branded shopping.


Laguna Beach (photo by Mark Weston)

But Orange County, the next county south of Los Angeles, offers a whole lot more, including some very distinctive and diverse beach towns—Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, and Newport Beach, to name a famous few—and surprising cultural attractions. One of my favorites is the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, which is now known simply as the Bowers Museum. Situated in placid downtown Santa Ana, the Bowers is an amazing cultural art collection founded by the city in 1936 through a bequest from Charles and Ada Bowers. But the museum does more than offer rotating glances at its own vast collection; it also hosts rare traveling exhibits from around the world such as Heavenly Horses: Two Thousand Years of Chinese and Japanese Equine Art and Beethoven: The Late Great. One of this winter’s exhibits (through March 15, 2015) is China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui. For families the Bowers also offers the Kidseum nearby, where the focus is still cultural art but the approach is hands-on.

Bowers Museum (photo by Chris)

The circa-1930s Spanish California architecture of the Bowers Museum (photo by Chris)

No matter what you think of Orange County homeboy Richard Nixon, another must-stop is the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum—especially for you youngsters who’ve never quite been clear on what the fuss was all about (Watergate, etc.). The last 94 of the “Nixon Tapes” were released in 2013; now you can even listen in online.

Up the Road will share more details about these destinations and attractions, and offer still more suggestions, later, when winter has fully arrived.

And let’s hope it arrives as one wild storm after another.

Up the Road Editor Kim Weir holds a degree in Environmental Studies and Analysis and also a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She has been a journalist for an impressive number of years. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers since 1991, she specializes in California and the West. Weir wrote most of Moon Publications’ original California travel guides, including the best-selling Northern California Handbook.


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>