Worried about crowds at national parks? Try these three outdoor experiences instead

People mill about behind and near a 16-foot-tall animatronic octopus
A guest has a photo taken in front of an animatronic octopus at Planet 13, a recently opened cannabis superstore in Santa Ana.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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By Rachel Schnalzer
Design and illustrations by Jade Cuevas

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Lots of travelers are visiting national parks this summer, with record numbers contributing to long lines and traffic. If national park congestion is putting a damper on your vacation plans, don’t worry, there are plenty of other destinations you can explore to get your outdoor adventure fix.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find three ways to experience California’s natural beauty, plus inside information about a recently opened “weed wonderland” in Orange County. As always, let me know if you have summer travel tips or destination recommendations.

🍃 Visit a ‘weed wonderland’ near Disneyland

Planet 13 Orange County is Southern California’s “newest pot-superstore-meets-theme park,” reports Times senior features writer Adam Tschorn.

The Santa Ana dispensary, which happens to be California’s biggest, is more than just a place to buy weed. “The immersive, entertaining and totally Instagram-worthy approach to cannabis commerce is going to become only more prevalent as the state’s legal marijuana market matures,” Tschorn says.

In other words, more experiences like Planet 13 Orange County will probably open in the coming years.


Planet 13’s co-Chief Executive Larry Scheffler told Tschorn he expects a “Vegas-like flow of tourists.” Here are a few of the things that caught Tschorn’s eye during his visit:

  • A digital waterfall: Visitors can stroll through an 80-foot-wide digital waterfall near Planet 13’s check-in desk.
  • An interactive beach: Leave “footprints” on a computerized beach near the entryway until fake waves wash them away. Keep an eye out for a message in a bottle near the “shoreline,” Tschorn says.
  • Ride the “hotbox bus”: Take a picture inside the VW party bus in the lobby, complete with a “get smoked out” button that fills the bus’ interior with faux haze.
A giant pink illustrated octopus holding various objects
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

🐎 Try horseback riding on the beach in Monterey

Visiting Monterey this summer? You can get a different perspective of the city’s striking coastal views from the back of a horse.

The Monterey Bay Equestrian Center takes visitors on dune trails and along the shoreline with views from Santa Cruz to Monterey. One-hour rides on Salinas Creek State Beach cost $135 per person.

While you’re in town, take a spin along the 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach and visit Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove, both of which Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds mentioned in his list of the 40 best outdoor experiences in California.

Illustration of a person riding a horse on the beach.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

🌟 Go stargazing at mountain resorts

Although travelers often think of mountain resorts as cold-weather getaways, they can be convenient summer escapes for those hoping to get outside while avoiding long lines at national parks.

In addition to ropes courses, mountain biking and other thrill-seeking activities, mountain resorts often offer stargazing programs for guests who would like to get a closer look at the cosmos. Here are two options recently profiled by Times contributor Brian E. Clark:

Northstar: At this resort a few miles north of Lake Tahoe, guests, accompanied by star guide and poet Tony Berendsen, can peer at the stars using powerful Celestron telescopes. The program is held Thursdays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m. Tickets begin at $22.50 per person and must be booked in advance.


Copper Mountain: “Ales & Astronomy” stargazing sessions will be held at this Colorado resort on July 23, Aug. 13 and Sept. 3 in partnership with 10 Barrel Brewing Co. A local astronomer will guide the experience, planned to coincide with the conjunction of the moon and Saturn in July and the Perseid meteor shower in August. Tickets cost $10 and must be reserved in advance.

Telescope with illustrations of stars in lens.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

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🏝️ Spot bison on Santa Catalina

You don’t need to plan a road trip to Yellowstone to spot bison this summer — just take an hour-long boat ride to Catalina Island. Times contributor Rosemary McClure recently wrote a guide to Santa Catalina, which includes recommendations for hotels, restaurants and activities. Among the unusual experiences on the island is the “Bison Expedition,” which takes guests into the backcountry for a “two-hour 4-wheeling adventure.”

A movie crew in the 1920s brought the first bison to the island where their roughly 150 descendants live . Visitors can learn more about the bison — as well as Catalina’s other animal and plant life — on the tour while enjoying views of Cape Canyon, Black Jack Mountain and the sparkling Pacific.

Tickets cost $84.95 for adults; $80.95 for ages 5-11, ages 55 and older, veterans and active military.

Hiker uses a cellphone with illustrated exclamation points above it to take a picture of a bison
A hiker photographs a bison roaming their campground as they arrive in Little Harbor after hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • As we return to travel without emotional support animals, will America see mental health consequences? Jonah Bayer explores this question in Travel + Leisure.
  • Solvang is California’s Central Coast “adult Disneyland,” Julie Tremaine writes in SFGATE.
  • Visiting Channel Islands National Park? Shawnté Salabert published a guide to the park in Outside Online.
  • “Everyone is excited travel is opening up — but I’m feeling overwhelmed.” If you feel the same way, Megan Spurrellhas some advice for you in Condé Nast Traveler.
  • Did you adopt a dog during the pandemic? Nevin Martell has some travel tips for you in the Washington Post.
Pedestrians walk past a decorative windmill
Pedestrians walk their dog in downtown Solvang, Calif., described as an “adult Disneyland.”
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

📸 Photo of the week

The sunset lights the sky behind saguaro cactus and ocotillos
The setting sun lights up the sky behind saguaro cactus and ocotillos in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Photo taken in February 2020.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

“El Invento” by José González is ideal for the quiet, contemplative moments on your next road trip. Safe and mellow travels this weekend, fellow Escapists. ✌️

An illustrated photo of a person sitting on the top of a vehicle
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)