From the coast to the mountains, this is one epic Southern California road trip. If you’re visiting this part of the Golden State, this Laguna Beach to Big Bear road trip guide will give you a diverse experience of the great California landscapes.
As a Northern California native, I’m first to admit that I have not spent as much time in Southern California as I would have liked to. I grew up going to Laguna Beach but didn’t venture much past there. So when Visit California partnered with me to explore a bit further, from the coast into the mountains, I was thrilled to take this trip.
The whole concept of this road trip itinerary was to be able to experience the contrasting landscapes that make California so famous. The trip began in Laguna Beach, somewhere I had not visited in my adult years for some time. The beach town had changed quite a bit, and seeing it through a fresh lens was a reminder of why it should be on anyone’s radar for a beach getaway.
The second stop of the trip was something more unassuming — Riverside. A city that has changed drastically in the last decade, chock full of modern eateries and award-winning museums. And with that, a gem of a hotel that is a destination itself and transports you to Europe.
The final stop was none other than the famous mountain town of Big Bear Lake. It’s an iconic pine-tree-lined lake getaway for Southern California locals, somewhere I’ve had bookmarked for some time. To my surprise, the lake life was more idyllic than I could have imagined.
The three together, from coast to mountains, came together to make this ultimate Southern California road trip. I loved that every element of the trip had something entirely unassuming, and as you read the guide below, I think you’ll see just how much there is to discover.
Happy road-tripping in California!
Short on Time? Here’s How I Would Spend 1 Week Road-tripping Southern California from the Ocean to the Mountains:
Stop 1: Laguna Beach — 2-3 nights
- Montage Laguna Beach, for the best luxury hotel
Stop 2: Riverside — 2-3 nights
- Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, for the best overall hotel
Stop 3: Big Bear — 2-3 nights
- Marina Riviera, for the best lakefront hotel
Ocean to the Mountains Southern California Road Trip
What to Know Before You Go
The itinerary that this covers starts in Laguna Beach, through Riverside, and then onto Big Bear. The overnight in Riverside is at an absolutely magical hotel, so it’s great for a night or two. You can also reverse this road trip pending where you begin.
Amount of time
I would recommend 2-3 nights in each destination to fully experience the area.
If you decide to start your trip on the coast, the most convenient airport to fly out of is John Wayne International (SNA). You will be about 30 minutes to Laguna Beach. If departing from Big Bear, consider flying out of Ontario Airport (ONT).
Time of year
You could really do this trip any time of the year with the caveat that winter would have snow in the mountains. I think this makes for a lovely fall or early summer trip as the weather is mild and fewer crowds.
Stop 1: Laguna Beach
Where to Stay in Laguna Beach
If you’re looking for the best beachfront, luxury stay in Laguna, Montage Laguna Beach is it. Nestled above the famous Treasure Island Beach, the resort offers an unparalleled experience. With two pools (one adult only), a spa, several dining options, and even a kids program, the Montage is a perfect place to stay while visiting.
The resort is a wonderful location as well for those who want to explore downtown Laguna as you’re only 10 minutes away. Take advantage of the resort care who will even drop you off. But you don’t have to leave as you have everything at your fingertips right on the property. Be sure to book an ocean-view room as it has some of the most magical sunsets and sunrises around. Book the best rates here.
Where to Eat in Laguna Beach
For one of the best upscale dining experiences in Laguna, book one of the two seatings at Rebel. A several-course omakase experience, this Japanese restaurant has the freshest sushi around. You’ll try traditional Japanese plates to nigiri made right in front of you. Each course was an absolute whimsical bite of food!
If you’re looking for classic Laguna views with delicious food, head to Larsen. Located at Hotel Laguna, the hip beachfront restaurant and bar is really popular on the weekends and a great spot to hang out at. I loved their fish tacos and the views were amazing.
For an elevated dining experience, book a patio table at The Loft. With a French-focused menu with fresh local ingredients, the food here was really spectacular. Located at Montage Laguna Beach, the views over the Pacific were a stunning backdrop to the meal. Be sure to order the salmon tartar, my favorite dish on the menu.
Rye Goods was my favorite downtown stop for coffee, pastries, and lunch. Their casual menu has everything you want to eat for breakfast and lunch. Don’t skip the pastries here!
Things to Do in Laguna Beach
An Afternoon at the Beach
There are several stunning beaches in Laguna to choose from, many of which feel like you’re in the Mediterranean. Now where to choose to go is up to you, but my two favorites are Crescent Bay Beach and Treasure Island Beach. Both of these feel a bit more secluded and have a cove-like feeling to it.
Laguna Beach is famous for its year-round art festivals and is well known for being a hub for the arts. One of the more famous ones is the Sawdust Festival held each summer where Sawdust Artists open up their stalls in a single, ticketed entry location for you to peruse. Spend an afternoon looking and shopping for local art, and consider even joining in on an interactive art class. If you miss the summer one, there is also a winter one that begins later in November through December.
Home to the iconic Pageant of the Masters and the Festival Art Show, this is a must-do in the summer in Laguna Beach. You do need tickets for the Pageant of the Masters, a unique production where famous works of art are recreated with live performances. If you don’t do that, do pop into the Festival Art Show which features the work of over 100 Orange County artists.
Peruse Downtown Laguna
There is a lot to love and peruse in downtown Laguna Beach and the surrounding neighborhood. Several popular boutiques, cafes, and restaurants are here to enjoy. One of my favorite finds on this trip was the store Good Together House, a beautifully curated home and lifestyle store with some of my favorite brands like Flamingo Estate. The other find I loved was Salt Horse, a curated grocery store with lots of yummy snacks and things to stock up on.
Stop 2: Riverside
Where to Stay in Riverside
Arguably one of the most unique and stunning hotels in Southern California, the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa is a destination in itself. The historic hotel opened in 1876 and expanded to the hotel it is today with over 200 guestrooms. You’ll feel instantly transported to Europe with its architecture that boasts cloisters and Spanish flare. With 6 restaurants at the hotel, a pool, and a spa, you have it all right at the property. Book the best rates here.
Where to Eat in Riverside
One of my favorite meals in downtown Riverside was at the hip coffee shop downtown location of Arcade. While many come in for craft coffee, they also have a wonderful menu of food for brunch. I had the waffles with an egg, it was delicious!
Set inside The Mission Inn, I had dinner at their Mexican restaurant Las Campanas. Aside from the stunning and charming setting, the food was delicious. As part of the restaurant, there was also a Tequila Bar, and the cocktails were amazing.
A fun, hip gastropub in the heart of downtown Riverside, The Salted Pig is such a good spot to pop in for lunch or dinner. No reservations required, so easy to stop in for a meal!
Things to Do in Riverside
The Cheech Art Museum is a center for Chicano art from Southern California and well worth a visit when in Riverside. Stop in to peruse their galleries and rotating artists while visiting. I really enjoyed not only seeing the art but also learning about the culture and history behind it.
Set in a stunning historic building, the Riverside Art Museum houses both traditional and contemporary art in the museum. You’ll find galleries and exhibits from artists around the world. It was a fun stop downtown to be immersed in the arts.
Stop 3: Big Bear
Where to Stay in Big Bear
One of the only hotels on the lake in Big Bear, the Marina Riviera is a charming, renovated hotel. With alpine-inspired decor and that charming cabin feel, the rooms open up to incredible lakeside views. While the hotel is still under construction, expect an incredible pool and grounds that spill out to the lake’s edge. The location is very convenient for exploring the very best of Big Bear Lake. Book the best rates here.
Where to Eat in Big Bear
One of the more elevated restaurants in Big Bear Village, La Pergola is a great spot for Italian cuisine in a modern and fun space.
One of my favorite finds in Big Bear was this little store with goods and prepped foods to take away. I would stop in here to get everything you could need for snacks, coffee, and produce.
Many locals recommended this spot as a hidden gem for Italian comfort food. A good spot for either lunch or dinner and is just off the beaten path in Big Bear.
I came in here for breakfast one morning, great spot for fresh bagels and a variety of breakfast items. They also are open for lunch, and I know it’s a favorite for stocking up on food for the day!
Santana & Maverick’s is a great spot right on the lake for drinks and appetizers, come here for sunset for a scenic bite to eat.
Things to Do in Big Bear
Rent a boat at Holloways Marina
One of the best things to do on Big Bear Lake is to get out on the water. There are many ways to do this but Holloways Marina offers the opportunity to rent a pontoon boat. You can also hire a captain to take you on a speedboat to go wakeboarding as well. Such a lovely way to spend the day out on the lake!
Ride the Scenic Sky Chair at Snow Summit
If you’re looking for alpine views over Big Bear Lake, take a ride on the Scenic Sky Chair at Snow Summit Resort. It will take you to the very top (hint: there’s beer on draft up there!) and you can either hike down or ride back down. Many people come here in the summer to go mountain biking and hiking as the views are incredible.
Hike up Castle Rock Trail
While there are several places to go hiking in Big Bear Lake, one of the most iconic is Castle Rock Trail. Aim for an early start as the parking lot does get very full. As you ascend to the top, you’ll be rewarded with scenic views of the lake. (2.7 miles and 820 ft elevation gain.)
Stroll Big Bear Village
After all of your adventures, be sure to pop into the village for a stroll through boutiques and art galleries. There are a few blocks worth of things to see and peruse, making for a good hour or two before a meal. My favorite store was O KOO RAN for curated goods for the home, women, and kids.
Ride the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain
The Alpine Slide was honestly my favorite thing I did in Big Bear Lake and I totally didn’t imagine it to be. I went down a few times and it was such a blast to go down this authentic bobsled experience. Highly recommend stopping by for the fun!
While I wasn’t able to make this one, ziplining with Action Tours was highly recommended for a fun afternoon of ziplining through the pine trees. It looks absolutely epic and the ziplining course includes 9 high-speed ziplines and 1 suspension bridge throughout the tour. Book the zipline tour here.
*This post is in partnership with Visit California. As always, all opinions are my own.
Looking for More California Road Trips? Check Out:
- A Slow Road Trip Guide To Santa Barbara, Ventura, And Ojai
- The Ultimate Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary
- The Design Lover’s Guide To A Central California Road Trip
- A Road Trip Guide To California’s Wild North Coast
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