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21 things to do in the mountains around LA

Explore the best of Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, Idyllwild, and more

Illustration by Bijou Karman

In the summer, when the Los Angeles Basin sizzles, sand-averse city dwellers head for the mountains. After the snow melts, the high-altitude terrain morphs into a nature lover’s paradise: Hike to a hot spring or swimming hole. Picnic lakeside. Eat pizza in a log cabin. Stargaze. Pick berries.

From Santa Barbara to San Diego, lines of mountains, described in 1877 by naturalist John Muir as a “very complicated system of short ranges,” are within an easy drive of Los Angeles. But it could still take many years—if not lifetimes—to explore the mountains’ natural beauty, historic ruins, and charming small towns. This list is a starting point for a day trip or a weekend in the clean, crisp mountain air. It will take you from national forests to populated villages—at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 feet.

Los Padres National Forest

Soak in a hot spring

A visit to Los Padres National Forest offers ample opportunity for hiking, biking, climbing, fishing, and horseback riding. But make time to soak in a hot spring while you’re there, too. Some hot springs are accessible by vehicle, while others make for a well-earned reward after a long hike. It’s at least a nine-mile trek to both Sespe and Willet hot springs, so these are best to visit when backpacking.

Big Bear

Boats on Big Bear Lake.
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Rent a pontoon boat

Sure, you could swim in the lake or drive around it, but one of the funnest ways to take advantage of Big Bear Lake is to rent a pontoon boat and motor around with a bunch of friends. Rentals start at $80 for one hour in a pontoon boat that fits up to eight people. A cool summer day, an ice chest full of snacks and cold non-boozy drinks (don’t drink and boat!), and a Bluetooth speaker pumping the hits make for an ideal afternoon.

Go four-wheeling

The mountains aren’t all about hiking. They’re also a great place to operate a four-wheel-drive vehicle. When in Big Bear, rent a Jeep and learn how to off-road from a guide; a beginner’s-level trip costs about $300. If you watch a few of the videos of the patient guides talking people through the strategy of getting over a bunch of boulders, you’ll wonder why more companies don’t embrace this as a team-building activity.

Oak Glen

Pick berries

Oak Glen might be best known as an apple-picking destination, but in the spring and summer, several farms offer “u-pick” berries, too. Pick raspberries at Snow-Line Orchard and blackberries at Stone Soup Farm and Heritage Orchard—because the experience of plucking fruit straight from a vine is as sweet as the fruit itself.

Frolic among the wildflowers

Southern California’s mountains are unusual in that they face to east to west. Collectively called the Transverse Ranges, they “represent one of the most complex and diverse set of mountain ranges” in the U.S. The Wildlands Conservancy celebrates that diversity at the Southern California Montane Botanic Garden, where 220 acres of native gardens, wetlands, springs, and forest represent the habitat of the San Bernardino Mountains. The conservancy “rescued” the property from residential development more than two decades ago and opened the botanic garden to the public in 2014. It recently planted six acres of seasonal native wildflower fields, including a garden of gold poppies, purple lupine, and yellow fiddlenecks, a color palette inspired by Monet. Admission to the botanic garden is free.

Mount Baldy

Ride the Mount Baldy Ski Lifts

The lifts, in one form or another, have been pulling skiers up Mount Baldy since 1944, when the system was a rope tow powered by a Hudson Motor engine. Today, the lift company operates a scenic ride that is as enjoyable in dry months as it is in the winter. Let your legs dangle in the fresh mountain air as the cables pull you up 1,300 feet to the “Top of the Notch.” The ride lasts about 1 minute and 30 seconds, and (if you aren’t afraid of heights), you’ll enjoy every second. Once at the top, hit the trails (it’s a strenuous and, at times precarious, jaunt to the Old Baldy peak) or dine at the restaurant. A round-trip lift ticket is $30. Try a Moonlight Hike for barbecue and live music at the Top of the Notch. Hikes happen Friday and Saturday nights through September.

Angeles National Forest

Newcomb’s Ranch.
Photo by Tibrina Hobson/FilmMagic

Hang with bikers at Newcomb’s Ranch

Los Angeles is known for its car culture, not necessarily its motorcycle culture. But you’d never know it at Newcomb’s Ranch, which has long been a favorite roadside stop for bikers along Angeles Crest Highway. You don’t have to roll in on a hog to enjoy the restaurant’s friendly atmosphere and rustic aesthetic.

The Mount Wilson Observatory.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Contemplate the vastness of the universe

It was at the top of Mount Wilson that Edwin Hubble, peering through the enormous Hooker telescope, made the observations necessary to formulate his groundbreaking conclusion that the universe is expanding. On a visit to Mount Wilson today, you can take a look at both the telescope and the modest wooden chair Hubble sat in while examining the cosmos.

Switzer Falls.
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Dip into a swimming hole

After a rainy winter, swimming holes, fed by Switzer Falls, form along the Arroyo Seco River in Bear Canyon. To access the pools, descend 650 feet into a gorge from the Switzer Picnic Site. The first swimming hole is about 2 miles in (the mileage will vary if you had to park in overflow parking above the picnic site), but hoof it a little farther to encounter a “progression of pools” that are typically less crowded.

The Switzer Falls hike is one of LA’s most popular—and it’s not overrated. It’s got shade, historic ruins, and views. The swimming holes are gloriously refreshing on a hot summer’s day and, even when they’re dry, the falls are almost always running.

Lake Arrowhead

Admire the views from Strawberry Peak

Los Angeles-area forests have always been a magnet for wildfires (though what was once a “fire season” is now, essentially, all the time). Once, fire lookouts dotted the local forests, staffed by rangers whose jobs were to keep an eye out for smoke. Now, the few remaining lookout buildings in the San Bernardino and Angeles National Forests are manned by volunteers, but they’re still fun to visit. Strawberry Peak, just outside of Twin Peaks in the San Bernardino National Forest, is a good one to pop in on; it can be reached by car or via a nice hike and offers up some expansive views.

Grab a slice at a 1920s cabin

Some of the best food in the area can be found, oh-so-fittingly, in a 1920s log cabin. At LouEddie’s in Sky Forest, the pizza is wood-fired and worth the wait. In warmer months, sit on the patio under the shade of pine trees festooned in twinkle lights.

Crestline

Shop for crystals

It’s hard to spend a day in the mountains without feeling in awe of the beauty of nature. Those who are tempted to take a souvenir home should eschew grabbing just any old rock off the trail and instead buy some crystals and geodes at the cute-as-a-button shop Earth’s Treasures in Crestline.

Lake Gregory.
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Canoe at Lake Gregory

Unlike at nearby Lake Arrowhead, which is strictly controlled by feudal lords homeowners, you can kayak, canoe, and paddleboard at Lake Gregory, where rentals start at $25 per hour. For kids, there’s a water park with giant inflate slides, diving platforms, and trampolines ($25 per day).

Buy incense and local honey

What’s a small town without a general store? At Hearth and Sage General Store, the provisions and sundries are curated by owners Michelle and Daley Hake and include prints from local photographers, handmade wood bowls and coasters, loose leaf tea, incense and candles, jams, and honey.

Idllywild

Lake Fulmor.
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Picnic at Lake Fulmor

Lake Fulmor Picnic Area is a pretty pitstop to make on the drive to Idyllwild. Surprisingly scenic for how accessible it is, the little body of water is ringed in pine trees, and a gentle walking path winds around it. Picnic tables are scattered about. The National Park Service says to be on the lookout for butterflies and dragonflies and to keep ears open for the “raucous chatter of the Stellar’s jay.”

Savor scones

Stop by Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew for wildly delicious scones and morning buns in a homey atmosphere (complete with a fireplace). For something savory, try the well-known tater tots.

Hike from Humber Park

Humber Park is an excellent jumping off point for a few different hikes of varying degrees of difficulty in the wilds of Mount San Jacinto State Park. Seasoned hikers can take Devils Slide Trail all the way to the San Jacinto peak (it’s a 16-mile round-trip trek with more than 4,000 feet in elevation gain). Those looking for a more leisurely ramble should take the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail. It’s 5.2 miles round-trip with “675 rolling feet of elevation change” and it “passes peaceful streams” and offers views of Strawberry Valley and “the thimble-shaped granite peak of Tahquitz Rock.”

Wilderness permits are required for day hiking in the state park. Pick one up for free at the ranger station in Idyllwild (25905 Highway 243). An Adventure Pass is required for parking at Humber Park.

Pick up some locally roasted coffee beans

For a small town, there sure is a lot of delicious micro-roast in Idyllwild coffee. Idyllwild Coffee Roasters and Black Mountain Roasters are both roasting small batches of ethically sourced beans in-house and offering coffee to take home by the pound.

Meet Mayor Max (he’s a very good boy)

The mountain hamlet of Idyllwild is distinct from other mountain towns in a number of ways, but perhaps most important for animal lovers is the town’s dog mayor, Max. Catch up with the dog mayor in town, and if you’re lucky, give him a few pets.

Julian

Enjoy a slice of pie

Julian is a charming little town with nice shops and restaurants to explore, but it’s most famous for its apples. A series of autumnal events and festivals pay tribute to the town’s prizewinning produce, but top-notch pie and fruity baked goods can be had all year round at the Julian Pie Company.

Tour a historic mine

You might not strike gold at the Eagle Mining Company, but you can take a tour of the historic mine, which has been restored to its 1870s specifications. Tours are $10 and last an hour. After, try your hand at panning for gold.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the price of pontoon boat rentals, which start at $80 for a standard boat for one hour, not four.