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13 SoCal Open-Air Adventures That Are Off the Beaten Path

The year may look a lot different than previous years, but there are still plenty of ways to make the most of your time in Southern California — even if your access to the indoors is restricted. 

You may just have to get a little creative — and step out of your comfort zone. 

We’ve learned to pivot to outdoor dining and drive-thru experiences — but it’s also time to embrace the wonders of SoCal that are out in the open air. 

And I’m not talking about our vast network of hiking trails, many of which have gotten jammed with foot traffic over the last several months, when there hasn’t been much else to do around town. 

So, if you’re feeling short on inspiration — and are looking for outdoor options that go beyond your local park or playground — here’s a guide to going off the beaten path with some of the best open-air attractions SoCal has to offer. 

Take a Historic Train Ride

Vintage trains at Fillmore & Western Railway. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Vintage trains at Fillmore & Western Railway | Sandi Hemmerlein

Between SoCal’s scenic railways and historic train museums, there are a few great options for riding the rails on open-air, vintage rolling stock — without ever having to go very far. A perfect example is the Fillmore & Western Railway, based in Ventura County’s Heritage Valley. Its weekend scenic excursions run on Saturdays between a restored 1887 Southern Pacific Railroad depot in the town of Fillmore and the neighboring town of Santa Paula, a.k.a. the Citrus Capital of the World. Advance ticket purchases are required, and seating is limited to ensure social distancing between masked passengers. The 2020 holiday train schedule has not been announced yet, and the Murder Mystery Trains are on hold until 2021, so check the website to confirm the train schedule and reserve your tickets.  

In San Diego County, the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum offers scenic train rides out of its Campo facility in the Mountain Empire region of Southern California. Take a ride on the Valley Flyer Caboose Train, which is scheduled on as “as needed” basis for a maximum of 10 passengers at a time on Saturdays and Sundays between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. While the museum was able to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions while operating its annual Pumpkin Express train excursion, dates for the North Pole Limited holiday train have not been announced — and PSRMA is considering other holiday-themed alternatives. Locomotive cab rides are still available on select trains — but cab passengers should expect temperature checks prior to boarding. Masks are required for all passengers for the entire ride. 

A vintage train at the Southern California Railway Museum | Sandi Hemmerlein
A vintage train at the Southern California Railway Museum | Sandi Hemmerlein

The Southern California Railway Museum in the Inland Empire city of Perris has a sprawling, 100-acre outdoor campus that lends itself to exploring rail history at a safe distance. In accordance with Riverside County COVID-19 restrictions, its indoor exhibits and car barns are currently closed, while the Museum Shop and bookstore remain open. Face coverings are required for guests over 2 years old, new hand sanitizing stations can be found throughout the campus and other protocols are detailed on the museum’s website. Select trains and trolleys run weekends until 4 p.m. — and while museum admission and parking are free, ride tickets can be purchased in advance online or in person at the ticket window. With your ticket, you can ride as many times as you like!

Pedal a Boat 

A swan pedal boat at Echo Park Lake | Sandi Hemmerlein
A swan pedal boat at Echo Park Lake | Sandi Hemmerlein

You could kill your quads hiking one of SoCal’s many mountain peaks — but you could also get a heck of a leg workout by pedaling across our lakes in a rental boat! On Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles, Wheel Fun Rentals offers the chance to ride a larger-than-life swan boat across the historic lake and around its central cascading fountain (installed around the 1984 Olympic Games). Now there is an additional option of pedaling at night, while the swans are lit up in LED. To ensure social distancing, guests must reserve their spot online ahead of time; and they must wear a face covering both at the historic boathouse (circa 1933) and on the boats themselves. 

Wheel Fun Rentals has instituted enhanced safety measures at all of its locations — including disinfecting and sanitizing equipment between users and making all transactions touchless. At Irvine Regional Park in Orange County, you can pedal a water tricycle under O.C. Parks’ COVID-19 modified operations; and at Legg Lake at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in the San Gabriel Valley, you can rent pedal boats for either two or four passengers under L.A. County Parks’ COVID-19-modified operations. At both locations, parking may require a fee. Check the Wheel Fun Rentals website to find a location near you.  

Pedal boats at at Legg Lake at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area | Sandi Hemmerlein
Pedal boats at Legg Lake at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area | Sandi Hemmerlein

If you’re looking for the pedal boats that once graced the surface of Echo Park Lake until being replaced by oversized swans, look no further than the Redondo Beach Pier, where they were relocated and are back on the water. Pedal boats for either two or five people are available to rent by the hour from Redondo Beach Kayak, SUP & Pedal Boat Rentals, located in the Redondo Beach Marina. It operates on weekends and most holidays (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 9 a.m. to sunset. Venture out to catch a glimpse of the sea lions that hang out in the harbor — from a safe distance, of course — and explore the coastline and waters that currently surround Redondo’s horseshoe-shaped pier. 

Shop a Swap Meet

Shoppers stroll along the Roadium Open-Air Market and Drive-In | Sandi Hemmerlein
Shoppers stroll along the Roadium Open-Air Market and Drive-In | Sandi Hemmerlein

While many of our purpose-built drive-in movie theatres have gotten revitalized during the COVID-19 health crisis for screening classic movies and new releases at night, many of them are gaining new fans during the daytime for their swap meets. Those sprawling parking lots provide the perfect setting for outdoor vendor setups — some of which can be taken down and put back up to work around the screening schedule. 

Roadium Open-Air Market and Drive-In in the South Bay city of Torrance is actually infamous for its swap meet as the place where mixtape distributor Steve Yano introduced Dr. Dre to Eazy-E, leading to the formation of the Compton-based rap group N.W.A. First established in the 1960s, the swap meet has grown to host 500 vendors from dozens of countries who sell new merchandise — like clothing and toys — as well as antiques and other secondhand items. It’s now open seven days a week (except Christmas and New Year’s) from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and it’s enforcing COVID-19 mandates like maintaining six feet of distance and wearing a mask. 

Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet exterior | Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet exterior | Sandi Hemmerlein

Another SoCal swap meet option is Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet, located at the former La Mirada Drive-In Theatre, which was built on 18 acres of dairy land and orange orchards just south of Los Angeles. It started screening movies in 1953, but the swap meet came later — in 1964, as the “Swap-O-Rama.” It was the brainchild of the “King of the Flea Markets,” Jay Dauley, who helped it grow into the largest weekend swap meet in Southern California. Known as Santa Fe Springs Drive-In Theatre and Swap Meet since the 1990s, it has hosted occasional live concerts as well as even a movie or two during special nighttime events. The swap meet is open every day except Monday, and for a nominal admission fee on weekend days. All sellers and shoppers are subject to a temperature check at the gate and masks are required. 

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Visit a Hidden Nature Preserve

A duck swims at the Madrona Marsh Preserve and Nature Center | Sandi Hemmerlein
A duck swims at the Madrona Marsh Preserve and Nature Center | Sandi Hemmerlein

The parks and trailheads in SoCal may be more crowded than ever, but there are still places where you can experience nature with plenty of solitude — if you know where to look. For example, recently opened from its COVID-19 closure is the hidden oasis of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve in the South Bay city of Gardena, California. Admission is free, but it’s currently accessible only by advance reservation only on the second Sunday and fourth Saturday of the month. 

Upon entering the 9.4-acre wetland preserve from its entrance in Johnson Park, you’ll take the North Loop trail, past laurel sumac and an observation deck enshrouded in overgrowth, and you quickly forget you're anywhere near the 91/110 freeway interchange (or the L.A. metro area for that matter). This marshland is part of the 110-square-mile Dominguez Watershed — a last remaining bit of the Laguna Dominguez Slough (or "swamp") that’s teeming with life. The water-loving trees (including multiple species of willows), shrubs and other vegetation form tree tunnels and a shady canopy for local critters and visitors alike. 

Laurel sumac grows at Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve | Sandi Hemmerlein
Laurel sumac grows at Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve | Sandi Hemmerlein

“The Willows” is just about six miles away from another South Bay wetland area that’s limiting its attendance for COVID-19 — Madrona Marsh Preserve and Nature Center in Torrance. While this preserve has suspended its appointment-only system and is now accepting walk-ups for free entry, it’s still controlling access by requiring visitors to sign in at its entry station and possibly wait for others to leave before entering. No tours or groups are allowed other than members of the same household, and all guests must maintain their distance from others and wear a mask while visiting. Throughout the preserve’s 43 acres — which may not be very “wet” until the spring — keep your eyes open for birds that flock to this vernal marsh at all times of the year.  

Take a Private Hike

Malibu Wine Hikes take visitors through the Semler family’s Saddlerock Ranch vineyards | Sandi Hemmerlein
Malibu Wine Hikes take visitors through the Semler family’s Saddlerock Ranch vineyards | Sandi Hemmerlein

Why risk showing up at a trailhead that’s completely mobbed — and having to turn around with all your gear in tow — when you can visit an open space that few other hikers know about or have access to and guarantee a spot ahead of time? That’s the beauty of private hikes. They may require a little more planning ahead — and occasionally buying a ticket or paying an admission fee — but there’s no gamble to it. And you’re much more likely to know exactly what you’re getting. 

Self-guided hikes are now being offered for on select dates by the Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust, which grants limited public access to the private land under its stewardship in the Barlow Canyon area of the Ventura foothills. Two different trail options are available by advance ticket purchase and timed entry only — the first being a moderate-to-advanced hike to the iconic “Two Trees” natural monument, and the other an easier meander through the Trust’s restoration site, which is currently recovering from the 2017 Thomas Fire. 

Vineyards grow at Semler family’s Saddlerock Ranch | Sandi Hemmerlein
Vineyards grow at Semler family’s Saddlerock Ranch | Sandi Hemmerlein

In Malibu, the Semler family (of Semler and Saddlerock Wines) started hosting guided hikes through their Saddlerock Ranch vineyards about four years ago — and the resulting venture, Malibu Wine Hikes, is currently open for business with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Group size is limited to 10 hikers (all wearing masks) and social distancing is enforced. Instead of sipping tastes of wine onsite, hikers will receive their vino “to-go.” Although the distance of the hike is only about 2 miles, it is over relatively mountainous terrain, so leave about three hours for the entire excursion. 

Top Image: Malibu Wine Hikes take visitors through the Semler family’s Saddlerock Ranch vineyards | Sandi Hemmerlein

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