Struggling with holiday stress? Here are 4 nature-forward adventures to ease your mind

A photo illustration shows twinkling lights on a pine tree. A man in a backpack stands nearby.
A biologist researches the world-famous forests of ancient bristlecone pines in the White Mountains, west of the Owens Valley community of Big Pine.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

By Rachel Schnalzer
Design and illustrations by Jade Cuevas

Good morning, fellow Escapists. The holidays are in full swing, and with all the excitement and cheer typically comes a healthy helping of yuletide stress.

Even in the best of times, battling crowds at the Grove or navigating Los Angeles International Airport can prove challenging. And given the recent discovery of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, it’s hard to imagine this winter feeling particularly peaceful.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find low-key, nature-centered places to visit over the next few weeks. Where are your favorite December destinations in the West? Let me know, so I can pass them along to fellow readers in need of travel inspiration.

🍻 Find birds — and the ‘Beermuda Triangle’ — in coastal Orange County

Each winter, thousands of birds — including great blue herons and the endangered California least tern — descend upon the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve, making the coastal wetland a destination among seasoned wildlife watchers and casual fauna fans alike.

Interested in seeing the migration for yourself? L.A. Times contributor Matt Pawlik suggests exploring the preserve’s natural treasures on an eight-mile out-and-back hike that begins at the Peter & Mary Muth Interpretive Center and loops you around to the Pacific. “Bring your binoculars to search the skies for the more than 200 species that call the estuary home,” Pawlik writes.

On top of its natural beauty, the Upper Newport Bay Preserve is also near a few standout breweries that make up what Pawlik calls the “Beermuda Triangle” in Costa Mesa.

Pawlik recommends stopping for a drink at Salty Bear Brewing, “which has a standout stout and refreshing light options,” as well as Gunwhale Ales, a boat-themed brewery.

Curious about Southern California’s best hike and brew combinations? Check out Pawlik’s story.

A photo collage of a woman near a waterfall and other scenic spots with mountains and glasses of beer.
(Matt Pawlik; Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

🌲 Take a breather at a pine forest in L.A.

For thousands of years, evergreen trees have been a part of winter celebrations. Whether as a symbol of religious beliefs or the upcoming spring season, pines have held special significance as the days grow shorter and people gather with loved ones.

This holiday season, you can take a moment to sit among the pines at Arlington Garden in Pasadena. The Mediterranean-style green space is just two miles from the Paseo and the Shops on Lake Avenue, making it a convenient respite after holiday shopping.

Arlington Garden is one of ”the 16 most beautiful and inviting public gardens in Southern California,” a list reported and compiled by L.A. Times staff writer Jeanette Marantos. She reports that the garden stands on the site of what was once the Durand House, a 50-room mansion demolished in the 1960s. The land stood vacant until 2005, when it was developed into a garden with a pine forest, citrus grove, vegetable patch, pond and more.

Marantos explains that the park’s beauty lies in its versatility. “This is a garden where you can bring a book or a picnic, let children safely run free or find a sheltered corner for coffee and intense conversation,” she writes. “Use this garden like you would a pair of comfortable shoes — as often as you can, with gratitude and love.”

Admission to Arlington Garden — open daily from sunrise to sunset — is free.

A woman holding a baby sits on a wooden bench, with a toddler near her on a wooden chair, beneath trees.
Lexi Reynoso and sons Esaias, 2, and Ezekiah, 5 months, find a shady place to relax during a recent visit to Arlington Garden in Pasadena.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

⌛ Marvel at 4,000-year-old trees

Speaking of pine forests, did you know that some of the oldest trees in the world stand 25 miles from Big Pine off U.S. 395?

The trees in Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, despite the forest’s woodsy-sounding name, don’t bear a strong resemblance to typical Christmas trees. But nature lovers are bound to find the gnarled and colorful 4,000-plus-year-old pines impressive nonetheless. The trees dot a moon-like landscape that is inhospitable to most other plant life, a testament to the toughness and resilience of the bristlecone pines.

The forest makes for an unusual side trip for travelers driving from Southern California to Mammoth Lakes or Lake Tahoe. The pines can be spotted easily from the Schulman Grove parking area and boardwalks as well as from nearby trails. Those who wish to see the Patriarch Tree — the largest bristlecone pine in existence — must drive 12 miles north to the Patriarch Grove.

The U.S. Forest Service reports that both groves are possible to visit within the same day, provided you start early with ample water, food and gas. Camping in the forest is prohibited, and visitors should check the weather and conditions before making the trip.

A closeup of gnarled wood.
Take a close look at the intricate designs on the bark of an ancient bristlecone pine at the Patriarch Grove.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

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🌱 Experience peace among plants at the California Botanic Garden

Although many holiday celebrations in L.A. boast over-the-top displays of lights, loud Christmas tunes and mega-doses of seasonal cheer, the California Botanic Garden offers a more peaceful alternative.

Visitors to the Claremont garden’s Luminaria Nights will experience the state’s largest collection of California native plants, set aglow with softly flickering lights. The holiday event also includes reflective music from Steve Rushingwind, Windsong Canyon and Mason Hensley, as well as a food truck, bar and bake sale. Hot cider will be available for all guests.

You can catch the garden’s luminaria display from 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 10, 11, 17 and 18. Tickets for nonmember adults cost $15, and discounts are available for seniors, students and children.

Looking for more yuletide events in Southern California? Marantos rounded up the 26 best holiday light displays in and around Los Angeles for your viewing pleasure.

A GIF of twinkling lights over a closeup of a sage plant.
A sage plant grows at the California Botanic Garden in Claremont.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Travel can be a helpful way to move forward after a breakup. Megan Spurrell describes why visiting somewhere new may prove therapeutic in the wake of a relationship’s end.
  • Situated between San Diego and L.A., Oceanside is often overlooked by beach-seeking travelers. Scott Bay reports on how the surf community has become “a destination worth visiting in its own right” in Travel + Leisure.
  • Driving between L.A. and San Francisco this holiday season? Amy Graff explains where to find the cheapest gas along the way in SFGate.
  • Yosemite led the way to protect other national parks, Emily Pennington writes. She breaks down the wide-reaching influence of the beloved park’s conservation history in Outside Online.
  • 2022 is bringing more uncertainty for travelers. Christopher Elliott offers tips for booking trips next year in the Washington Post. (“Plan, book early and get travel insurance,” one expert told Elliott.)

📸 Photo of the week

Two women take photos under red Chinese lanterns
Staff members take photos of sudden snowfall at the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 14, 2020.
(Liz Moughon / For The Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “The Fox in the Snow” by Belle & Sebastian

Favorite lyric: “They listen to your crazy laugh before you hang a right and disappear from sight”

Where to listen: Driving along California 108 through the Sierra Nevada

Illustration of a Polaroid picture of a road through a mountainous area.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)