In my olden days (mid-'90s post-college), planning a road trip went something like this: "Friday night and nothing to do. Hmm... Let's go to Vegas!" And within thirty minutes my friends and I would be on our way. Now I travel with a posse of children, so Vegas is not the first place that comes to mind when I'm considering a family-friendly weekend. Still, I love a good road trip, and LA is, as always, a fantastic base from which to branch out. Much more care is involved in my planning process these days, and it's a plus if the chaos of larger cities, theme parks, water parks, and too-trendy anything can be avoided. Are you like me - interested in taking the road less traveled, and perhaps a little more family-oriented? See if any of these strike your fancy.
Avila Beach -- A charming seaside town
Taking up prime real estate along San Luis Obispo Bay is the small town of Avila Beach. This little find is only an hour north of Santa Barbara, and here you'll find a sense of community and natural oceanside beauty minus the crowds. Plus the placid bay (read: no undertow) encourages hours of safe water play.
Do: Arrive in time for the Friday farmer's market (4:00pm - 8:00pm). Kayak or paddleboard on the bay while the kids tackle the beach playground. Play a round of golf on Avila's championship course. Take a trolley to Point San Luis Lighthouse. Try some of the Central Coast wines in the town's tasting rooms. Look for dolphins and sea otters off the pier. And bring your dog - the beach is dog friendly!
Stay: The quaint Avila Lighthouse Suites has family-friendly accommodations, as does the quirky Inn At Avila Beach. Or rent a vacation condo or house for your trip - check availability online.
Mammoth Lakes -- Monumental camping near Yosemite
In the winter Mammoth Mountain is the king of Inyo National Forest, but come summer the picturesque valley and lakes below are abuzz with hikers, bikers, campers, and fisherman. Twin Lakes, Lake George, and Lake Mary are considered the kid-friendliest; all are easily accessible by car.
Do: Take the shuttle to Devil's Postpile National Monument; then if you're ambitious continue hiking to Rainbow Falls. Rent a fishing or pontoon boat at Lake Mary Marina and ask where the trout are biting while you're there. Picnic at scenic Lake George, where you can also rent a boat. Watch for beavers everywhere you go! Take a gondola ride up the mountain and, at its summit, get a geology lesson at the interactive Sierra Interpretive Center.
Stay: Reserve campsites in advance at both Lake Mary and Twin Lakes. Sites are also available on a first-come-first-serve basis at Lake George and the surrounding area. The area's website offers more information and reservations.
Lake Arrowhead -- The less rugged lake experience
Love the idea of Mammoth views but not a camper at heart? Try Lake Arrowhead instead. True, the scenery is not as grandiose, but it's quite beautifully situated in San Bernardino National Forest, which is conveniently closer to LA (less than two hours away), and you'll find nice hotel options around the lake.
Do: Rent water skis and schedule lessons for the kids at McKenzie Water Ski School. Tour the area on foot with a nature walk, by boat on the Arrowhead Queen, or by trolley on the Arrowhead King. Relax at the lakeside patio of local favorite Belgian Waffle Works. If you have young children, don't miss Lollipop Park - a mini amusement park in the village.
Stay: Lake Aarowhead Resort and Spa has a private beach and boat as well as a pool. The rustic Saddleback Inn & Grill offers rooms and cottages in a historical landmark. Or for camping-light, Dogwood Campground outside of the village ranks high with visitors.
Rancho Valencia -- A luxury spa resort for families
Head south past the jam-packed beaches in OC and northern SD, and park yourself at Rancho Valencia for the weekend. Set on 45 lush acres in the hills, this serene oasis underwent an extensive facelift last year. Accommodations, amenities, and service are all top-notch, although to parents the best selling point might be its Junior Ranchers camp, offering kids tennis, scavenger hunts, soccer, nature walks, and more.
Do: Take advantage of the kids camp while you pamper yourself at the spa and its adults-only pool. (Later enjoy family time at the other, child-friendly pool.) Use complimentary bicycles to explore the resort's gardens and olive groves. Visit the Serenity Yoga Pavilion for a wide selection of yoga and pilates classes, plus spin and TRX. Don't forget to pack tennis shoes for a lesson on one of 18 championship courts.
Stay: The smallest "room" here is 900 sq.ft. with a sunken living room and private garden; a larger suite adds a kitchenette and dining area plus a patio with fireplace and whirlpool. Or rent your home away from home with a 3-bedroom villa and access to a private clubhouse pool.
Los Alamos -- A taste of California history
The film Sideways popularized much of Santa Ynez valley, but it skipped over this quirky place, steeped in Old West culture and peppered with well-preserved sights like the last Pacific Coast Railroad station and a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop. Antique stores, art galleries, and some surprisingly good cuisine make this getaway fun for all.
Do: Mosey down Bell Street, the town's main drag, and go antiquing in the last standing Pacific Coast Railway Depot. Or shop at T&T Antiques, which also houses a historical museum. Fill a picnic basket at Bell Street Farm or artsy Cafe Quackenbush and walk to a local park for lunch. Belly up to the bar (or a pool table) at the Union Saloon, or opt for a tasting of local wine at Bedford Winery. Don't miss dinner at foodie-favorite Full Of Life Flatbread. And auto enthusiasts - mark your calendars for Old Days, a classic car show in September.
Stay: The 1880 Union Hotel offers rooms and suites, each depicting a unique slice of the Old West era, as does the widely thematic Victorian Mansion B&B down the road. The economical Skyview Motel is clean and proud of its roots as one of the oldest motorstops in the US.
Top photo courtesy of McKenzie Water Ski School