In Los Angeles, you can't always just get-in-your-car-and-go when the mood strikes. It can take a little planning to maximize your adventure — and minimize your risk.
Nevertheless, there are many wonders to be experienced by car — on both short and long drives, and especially throughout our mountain landscapes.
Because when the mountains are calling, it doesn't always have to be for you to "bag" a peak. And you may not even have to stay overnight.
You can take a spontaneous excursion from surf to snow, cactus to cedar, flatlands to forest, and back again — all within just one day. Just get an early start, and be aware of what time the sun will be setting, so you won't have to make your way on those winding roads in the dark (unless you really want to).
No matter if your starting point is an inland valley or an oceanside beach community, here are six mountain drives you can take on a day trip from L.A.
For all of the below, chains may be required because of snow conditions. Be prepared for road closures during or after inclement weather because of rockslides, mudslides, other debris, washouts, and more. Weather conditions could change quickly. Observe posted speed limits and bring satellite GPS and/or printed maps, as cell phone service is spotty at best or entirely non-existent.
1. SR-18/Rim of the World Highway, San Bernardino to Big Bear (San Bernardino National Forest)
Before Rim of the World Highway opened as a 101-mile loop in 1915, there were very few opportunities for tourists to visit. Loggers who operated sawmills in the forest had to transport supplies and lumber via an incline railway. Otherwise, the San Bernardino Mountains were only accessible via old horse-drawn stagecoach routes or, later, an automobile stage that consisted of makeshift truck-shuttles, called the "Mountain Auto Line."
Fortunately, a local pioneer named Dr. John N. Baylis saw the opportunity to establish mountain resorts in the pristine forest lands and led the charge to establish Highway 18 — an engineering feat that would cut through the unforgiving landscape and deposit tourists right at the front doors of these resorts. And still today, it's the main way to access the mountain resort town of Lake Arrowhead, as well as the surrounding "Rim of the World" communities like Crestline, Twin Peaks, Rimforest and Running Springs.
Start your adventure in San Bernardino, where you can pick up Waterman Avenue (which becomes Highway 18) and head north from the 210 freeway. Make your first stop the "Arrowhead Viewing Spot" historical marker, just north of the Waterman Percolation Basins, which directs your attention to the arrowhead shape in the side of the mountain range above — and the inspiration for Lake Arrowhead's name. This 7.5-acre feature, designated California Historical Landmark #977, may or may not be entirely natural, but it's definitely been enhanced over time to keep it visible.
Next, just past Waterman Canyon, take a short detour down Old Waterman Canyon Road to Arrowhead Springs Road. You won't be able to take this road all the way down to the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, which is currently closed for renovations, but you can stop to admire the 1920s-era "Indian" statue that marks its entrance and points to the Arrowhead landmark. Then, follow the twists and turns of Rim of the World Highway, past Inspiration Point and Panorama Point, perhaps stopping at Hortencia's at the Cliffhanger for some refreshments and to take in the stunning view (as its name suggests).
There are plenty of other detours you can make along this scenic byway as well — including snow play areas between Santa's Village and Heap's Peak and between Green Valley Lake and Snow Valley. You could even choose to take Highway 18 all the way to Big Bear and make a loop by following Highway 38 south into the foothills. Or, you could find a comfortable turnaround point and retrace your route to head back down from the mountains — this time making a quick detour on the Mormon Road loop (which is only accessible via the southbound lanes) to read about the Mormon Lumber Road on a historical marker erected by the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers.
2. SR-39/San Gabriel Canyon Road, Azusa to Crystal Lake (Angeles National Forest)
Completed in 1961, Highway 39 was designed to allow vehicular access from the foothill community of Azusa all the way to Angeles Crest Highway at Islip Saddle — but just over 4 miles of it are currently closed between Crystal Lake Recreation Area and Islip Saddle, make this an out-and-back adventure. Caltrans hasn't actually opened that stretch of Highway 39 for over 40 years — since 1978! — as it's been beleaguered by falling rocks and other dangerous conditions. And it's reportedly sensitive habitat for bighorn sheep, which has complicated any plans for reopening it.
Because the highway doesn't actually go anywhere, you won't encounter as much traffic here as you might other, more popular mountain highways. But there are still some thrill-seeking motorcyclists to be cautious around, as well as bicyclists and other pleasure motorists, pulling over at any of the many expansive turnouts that provide a breathtaking view of the mountains and the canyons below.
You'll need an Adventure Pass to park anywhere in Angeles National Forest if you decide to pull over and take a hike or go exploring — so if you don't already have one, you can start your journey just before the forest boundary at the San Gabriel Canyon Gateway Center, which sells them. Your first pull-off will be to admire the Morris Dam, whose 1935 construction created the Morris Reservoir out of the San Gabriel River waters. It's named after its chief engineer, Samuel Brooks Morris of the Pasadena Water Department, although it now falls under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. It was reportedly a secret Caltech underwater missile testing site until the 1990s.
Passed the second reservoir and dam along Highway 39 — the San Gabriel Reservoir — you'll be following the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and then the North Fork, until the river gives way to a number of creeks. After crossing Cedar Creek, turn right onto North Crystal Lake Road — called a "cliff-hanging" road at the time of its opening — to the Crystal Lake Recreation Area, where you'll find a number of trails, campsites, a natural lake, a trading post for supplies, and a "café" that serves hot and fast food like burgers, hot dogs, chili, grilled cheese, and more. It's a worthy detour where you can linger for as long as you like — and even get a cabin for the night.
3. Mulholland Drive, Hollywood to Encino (Santa Monica Mountains)
Constructed in 1924, "Mulholland Highway" was planned to stretch 24 miles from Los Angeles to Malibu. It was the vision of city engineer William Mulholland to bring Angelenos "from the city to the ocean" — though today's Mulholland Drive doesn't actually provide that uninterrupted path. Instead, you can get a good 14-mile drive along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains — at that rare place where you're not "down the hill" or "up over the hill" (as in, the Valley), but on the hill.
Start your journey in the Hollywood Hills at its easternmost end at the Cahuenga Pass, just west of Cahuenga Boulevard and the 101 Freeway. In just under a mile, you'll reach the first of several overlooks along the Mulholland Scenic Parkway — this one giving a view of the Hollywood Bowl down below. (Watch out for vans full of tourists driving at a scenic pace and pulling over at every turnout.) Traveling west, you'll also hit such vista points as the Universal City Overlook, The Narrows Overlook, the Charles and Lotte Melhorn Scenic Overlook (named after conservation advocates of the Mulholland Scenic Corridor), and, 10 miles into your drive, the Johnson Overlook, with a view of Sherman Oaks to the north. Overlooks are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. No smoking is allowed (nor are any fires of any sort).
Heading even farther west, the paved road will give way to dirt as the asphalt slowly breaks up. If the yellow gate is unlocked and open, you can drive on this well-maintained dirt road — a.k.a. "Mulholland Dirt Road" or simply "Dirt Mulholland" — all the way to West Mandeville Fire Road. There, you'll find San Vicente Mountain Park, formerly known as Nike Missile Control Site LA-96. A preserved observation tower provides a view of the Encino Reservoir to the north, and other areas of the park include relics and interpretive signage about Cold War history. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily.
Hiking opportunities along this 14-mile drive include the north entrance to Runyon Canyon, Briar Summit Open Space Preserve (where an original Nike observation tower for detecting enemy targets looms behind a locked gate), Fryman Canyon Park and the Betty B Dearing Trail, Coldwater Canyon/Tree People, Franklin Canyon Park, and, towards the westernmost point of your journey, the Upper Canyonback Trail in Westridge-Canyonback Wilderness Park. Even if you decide to stay entirely behind the wheel rather than exploring on foot, beware of pedestrians in the road.
4. SR-154/San Marcos Pass, Santa Barbara to the Santa Ynez Valley (Los Padres National Forest)
Before the automobile, you wouldn't be able to travel between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley without making a pit stop or two. Those were the stagecoach days – largely between 1860 and 1901 – when you and your team of horses would need a break on your journey between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The route along the San Marcos Pass (a.k.a. California State Highway 154) is easier now, thanks to paved, graded roads and an engineering marvel of a bridge that crosses the steep canyon. And because it was essentially replaced by the 101 Freeway through Gaviota Pass, it's not a heavily trafficked route. But you don't have to zip along this two-lane shortcut through Los Padres National Forest as quickly as you can.
The San Marcos Pass was once so steep that every stagecoach had to stop at the Cold Spring Relay Station to add two more horses to the team. "Mudwagon" drivers who had to stop to switch out their horses might stay in the bunkhouse — now the antiques/gift shop of today's Cold Spring Tavern. But once motor vehicles took over and the pass had been paved, the stage line ceased operation in 1901, after just 30 years of operation. Fortunately, you can still visit this old stage stop, explore the grounds, get a bite to eat, and maybe even listen to some live music.