1. Big Bear Lake
Californians take great pride in their state (as well they should) and will happily tell you that it’s one of the few places you can swim and ski in the same day. If you’re keen to test that claim, Big Bear Lake’s the spot. Located in the San Bernardino Mountains just a couple of hours drive from both San Diego and Los Angeles in a region known as the Inland Empire, Big Bear Lake sits at around 2,000 meters elevation. Winter is all about the snow at Big Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, and in summer the snow gives way to hundreds of hiking, cycling and 4WD trails to explore. The lake is ideal for kayaking, fishing and boating and is a popular camping destination for locals.
2. Gilroy Gardens
Just 63 kilometres inland from Santa Cruz is Gilroy Gardens, home to some of the quirkiest trees you’re ever likely to see. Beautiful, established trees have been grafted and contorted to create ‘circus’ trees that twist and turn to create living art.
The park sits at the gateway to California’s Central Coast and combines uniquely educational adventures and exhibits that aim to get people back to nature, with the added fun of 40 theme park rides with on-brand names like the Strawberry Sundae, the Artichoke Dip and the aromatic-sounding Garlic Twirl.
3. Hearst Castle
While Santa Barbara and Monterey are full to the gilded hilt with millionaires and mansions, the Hearst Castle is a palatial landmark, with 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. Built as a family home by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the castle was built on a 40,000-acre ranch that his family had camped on in his childhood. Hearst was constantly building and rebuilding what he simply called "the ranch” and, as a result, the estate was incomplete at the time of his death and was donated to the State of California in 1957.
The Castle is one of the stops on the California Coast tour itinerary by Collette. If you’d prefer to leave the driving to someone else you needn’t worry about missing out on the hidden gems, because Collette pride themselves on including all the sites you want to see as well as the secret spots you might not have heard about.
4. Mammoth Lake
When you see Mammoth Lakes today, the beautiful, serene scene that awaits you belies its past. Its unique terrain is the result of a violent volcano explosion thousands of years ago which resulted in today’s network of thermal springs.
The quiet town of Benton is the perfect stop-in spot for the weary traveller to relax and recharge, with nine hot springs beckoning you to soak your cares away in their pure spring water surrounded by gorgeous scenery. The renovated springs are a very civilised affair, with taps that let you control the temperature. There’s a variety of accommodation on offer here from bed and breakfasts, to family-run inns and a wide range of campsites for vans and tents.
5. Palm Springs
If you’ve ever wanted to see the town made famous by photographer Slim Aarons (or if you’re more of the Coachella vintage), Palm Springs doesn’t disappoint in person. It’s an actual oasis in the middle of the desert, kept alive by a spring-fed stream running through a canyon preserve just a few kilometres from downtown Palm Springs. The spring keeps thousands of the town’s namesake palm trees alive and thriving all year long, making it one of the world's largest fan palm oases. The town itself is laid-back, cool and every bit as groovy as the iconic photographs suggest. Don’t leave town before you take a drive around to see some exceptional examples of perfectly preserved mid-century modernist architecture.