Need weekend plans? Hike a desert crater — or go treasure hunting

A hiker stands at the edge of the crater of an extinct volcano in the Mojave Trails National Monument.
Explore the Amboy Crater in the Mojave Trails National Monument. The extinct volcano last erupted 10,000 years ago.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

By Rachel Schnalzer
Design and illustrations by Jade Cuevas

Good morning, adventurers. This week, before we get to an otherworldly crater in the desert and a retro ice cream shop, I’d like to ask you a few questions.

What are you looking for in a travel newsletter — unusual trip ideas and/or longer, more immersive reads? How far do you typically like to travel for your weekend adventures? Please consider filling out this survey so we know how to satisfy your travel habits in the coming months.


Now, on to the fun stuff...

🍷 Sip and sail in Long Beach

Wine tasting makes for a great weekend escape. But wine tasting on a gondola is even better.

Last month, Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds included Long Beach’s Gondola Getaway on his list of 21 local destinations where Southern Californians can get a taste of Europe. Gondola Getaway, which offers rides around Naples Island, says it has “the largest and most unique fleet of Venetian craft in the World, outside, of course, Venezia itself.” This is fitting, given Long Beach’s status as a “friendship city” of Venice, Italy.

While cruising around Naples Island, visitors to Gondola Getaway can book a tasting experience to sample wines from Seven Angels Cellars, accompanied by an expert from the vineyard. The tasting is synced with the gondola ride — as the boat cruises under each of five bridges, a new wine will be opened.

Wine-tasting cruises can be booked for $50 per person, with a minimum of eight guests and a maximum of 13.

A couple takes a  gondola ride around Naples Island in Long Beach.
A couple takes a romantic gondola ride around Naples Island in Long Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

🌋 There’s a 250-foot-high crater just 50 miles from Joshua Tree

Heading to the desert this spring? Don’t miss the staggering 1,500-foot-diameter crater less than an hour north of Joshua Tree.

Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark is an ancient cinder cone volcano that last erupted 10,000 years ago, Times contributor Matt Pawlik reports in our guide to the best desert hikes in Southern California. He recommends visitors take a 3½-mile out-and-back hike beginning at Crater Road and Route 66 in Mojave Trails National Monument.

The hike will take you through a lava field to the rim of the crater, where you’ll see the Bullion and Bristol mountain ranges to the west and east, Pawlik explains. Before you leave, make sure to explore the 1,500-foot-diameter caldera of the national natural landmark.

If you go, bring plenty of water and be mindful of high temperatures.

View of Amboy Crater and wildflowers.
The extinct volcano last erupted 10,000 years ago and can now be explored on a hike that traverses a lava field.
(Matt Pawlik; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

💎 Hunt for treasure in Coalinga

A few weeks ago, reader Martin You reached out to recommend the Benitoite Mining Co. in Coalinga, where he and his wife spent several hours panning for benitoites, California’s state gem.

“The friendliness of the staff really made our experience all the more enjoyable,” You said in an email. Staff members taught him how to screen for gems and use black lights to identify benitoites.

If you decide to give benitoite mining a whirl, bring patience and elbow grease. The Benitoite Mining Co.’s website notes that although most visitors find something while panning for gems, only about 1 in 20 people unearth a stone of value. “We can’t guarantee you’ll find something, but the people that work the hardest usually do the best,” the site says.

The Benitoite Mining Co. is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, by reservation only. Admission costs $100 per person; bring your own lawn chairs, lunch, water and sunscreen.

An illustration of geometric gemstones
Search for the California state gem at Benitoite Mining Co. in Coalinga.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

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🍦 The ultimate road trip ice cream stop

Planning a trip to Big Sur, Morro Bay, Avila Beach or another Central Coast town this summer? Consider a stop at one of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab locations for the ultimate treat for road trippers: a scoop of Motor Oil ice cream.

I recently tried the dark chocolate and Kahlúa ice cream flavor on a trip back to L.A. from San Luis Obispo. The shop’s flagship location in Arroyo Grande serves up a healthy dose of nostalgia in addition to inventive flavors. The toy train that circles beneath the shop ceiling was a particular delight for the kids and kids-at-heart waiting in the socially distanced line.

Doc Burnstein-owned parlors can also be found in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Sacramento. Unable to hit the road? You can take a virtual tour of Doc Burnstein locations here.

Scoops of ice cream inside a Doc Burnstein's Ice Cream Lab location.
Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab is a favorite stop along the California coastline.
(Caroline Ryon; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Ready to travel again? You’re not the only one considering a national park road trip, writes Times business reporter Hugo Martín.
  • The section of Highway 1 near Big Sur that collapsed has reopened. Times photographer Brian van der Brug shot images of the sweeping vistas that await.
  • As we return to traveling, here’s a guide for packing light, courtesy of Jane Sung in Condé Nast Traveler.
  • Hiking in a desert park? Jennifer Prince explains how to help preserve the landscape in National Geographic.
  • Dracula’s castle in Romania is now offering free COVID-19 vaccinations to visitors, Rachel Chang reports in Travel + Leisure.
  • Hundreds of people are section-hiking “the AT [Appalachian Trail] of Italy.” Agostino Petroni explains why in Outside Online.
  • You can sleep in a lifeguard tower Airbnb in Arroyo Grande. Freda Moon writes about her experience staying in it at SFGATE.
  • Can rusting locomotives and crumbling train stations become an effective transportation network again? Pesha Magid reports on the challenge of saving Lebanon’s famous rail system in Atlas Obscura.
Illustration of a neatly packed suitcase.
Need help learning how to pack light? So do we.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

💻 Can’t adventure IRL? Here’s one way to expand your horizons

Angkor, one of Southeast Asia’s most treasured archeological sites, includes the remains of Khmer Empire capitals that date to the 800s. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 2 million people a year visited the Angkor Archaeological Park, making it among the most popular destinations in Cambodia.

Now, virtual travelers can step back in time and explore the park with the award-winning project Virtual Angkor, created by archaeologists, historians and visual history experts from Australia, Cambodia and the United States. By clicking through several 360 videos and scenes, viewers can see accurate depictions of what life was like during moments of Angkor’s history.

📸 Photo of the week

Gull Lake in the Eastern Sierra.
Gull Lake, on the June Lake Loop, is one of endless options to escape in the Eastern Sierra.
(Bryce Miller / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

🎸 Road song

Could a new Lorde album be landing this year? It’s anyone’s guess. This week, I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favorite driving anthems: “Green Light,” from 2017’s “Melodrama.” ✌️

A photo of Lorde performing.
Lorde’s “Green Light” is a road-trip favorite.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)