Crowd-averse? Trade the tourist spots for these calmer California experiences

Steps to views of the Cahuenga Pass, one of many picnic areas surrounding the Hollywood Bowl
(Photo by Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Summer is an exuberant time for many travelers, with long days and warm weather pushing us out of our workplaces and into our cars, bound for Yosemite, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, San Diego, Ojai and other busy vacation spots.

There’s a particular joy in summer travel, to be sure. But the other side of the coin? Expensive gas and flight prices and lots of overcrowding at beloved destinations.

That’s why, in this edition of Escapes, I’m providing quieter alternatives to three crowd-favorite California experiences. I hope these places allow you to unwind, contemplate whatever’s on your mind and just be for a while.

After all, summer always ends up feeling short. Let’s savor it.

Where are you heading this season? I’m curious how you like to veer off the beaten path while traveling California. Send me an email anytime.


Instead of visiting the Hollywood Bowl just for the performances ...

Explore the Hollywood Bowl during the day

Illustration of bright transparent dots on a photo of a sidewalk, trees and a low building.
One of the Bowl’s original pepper trees is near the site’s museum.
(Photo by Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

During its 100 years of history, the Hollywood Bowl has been the site of legendary music, theater and dance performances, delivered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, John Williams, Mexico’s famous Ballet Folklórico and the Beatles.

In 1926, a baby was born under the stage during a show (yes, really). Trapeze artists from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus soared over the stage in 1958.

These days, you may love the Bowl most for its $1 L.A. Phil tickets, BYOB-and-wine policy and raucous “Sound of Music” sing-along nights (complete with collective hissing anytime the Baroness comes onscreen).

Along with all the action, the Bowl can be a calming, meditative place — as long as you visit at the right time.

“It’s also a fantastic public park that you can enjoy during the day,” writes Times contributor James Bartlett. Last week, he published a walking guide to the Bowl’s gems. Here are a few highlights:

  • A set of historic bungalows at Highland Camrose Park once housed movie stars and singers. During the Bowl’s season, picnickers can stop by before an event or concert. During the off season, it’s open to the public.
  • Just one of the Bowl’s original pepper trees exists today. You can catch its scent near the doors of the Hollywood Bowl Museum.
  • “Walking the 168 steps to the back of the amphitheater is a must,” Bartlett writes. “In 2011, The Times reported that British actor and comedian Eddie Izzard, a keen marathon runner, ran to the top in under five minutes.”

Instead of competing for a hotel reservation in Ojai …

Cruise the Cuyama Badlands

The famously serene Ojai is getting “trendier and spendier by the day,” my colleague Christopher Reynolds reported last week, as more and more Angelenos make the 80-mile journey north.

“There’s not enough hotel rooms for the people who want to be here,” Diana Hawk, manager at the Emerald Iguana Inn, told Reynolds. “Half of Los Angeles is coming up here.”

I love a trip to Bart’s Books and other Ojai institutions as much as the next traveler. But if you’re wary of the crowds, I suggest driving an hour and 15 minutes farther along California State Route 33 in search of some wide-open space.

The Cuyama Valley’s stretches of stark desert and ranchlands possess a magic similar to Joshua Tree’s — just with fewer travelers.

Last year, Times contributor Sharon Boorstin included the Cuyama Buckhorn in her roundup of seven Santa Barbara-area hotels to visit as California’s tourism industry opened up in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdowns.

The hotel’s designers “added what they call ‘midcentury cowboy’ touches to their 21-room inn,” Boorstin wrote, “including cowhide rugs on the black-and-white tile floors and vintage cowboy hats on the walls.” If you can’t get enough of those classic desert vibes, this is the spot for you.

But if you’re looking for somewhere a bit more rustic and remote, I suggest booking a campsite at Songdog Ranch, just 15 miles away in nearby Maricopa. It offers a variety of primitive campsites, as well as a “glampout” tent for those who don’t want to forego all their creature comforts while in nature.

Take time to reflect at Angel Island State Park

A long covered staircase leads to the entrance of a two story building. Two people look at an informational sign nearby.
(Photo by Christopher Reynolds; illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

Angel Island is a thought-provoking destination in the way that many places in nature are.

“It’s a verdant spot just off the coast of Tiburon in Marin County,” describes Reynolds, who included the 740-acre island on his list of the 101 best experiences in California. Many travelers enjoy hiking and riding bikes around the state park’s perimeter, which offers views of San Francisco’s skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

It’s contemplative in a deeper way too.

From 1910 to 1940, Angel Island was “the U.S. entry point for about half a million Asian immigrants, including 175,000 from China, who typically spent weeks or months locked in barracks before being allowed to enter,” Reynolds reports.

Today, visitors can reflect on the island’s complicated and troubled history at the Detention Barracks Museum, open Wednesday through Sunday, and the Angel Island Immigration Museum, open on weekends.

If you go, Reynolds recommends driving to Tiburon and taking the 10-minute Angel Island Ferry ride from the picturesque community’s downtown.

Wandering and wondering

I recently came across this question in Reddit’s “Ask Los Angeles” community: Are there any clubs or classes that visit places such as Sequoia National Park?

The question-asker mentioned the Sierra Club, which organizes a variety of hikes around California for people of different skill levels.

I also recommend checking out the Sequoia Parks Conservancy’s programming. It’s currently offering a “Sequoia Sunset Walk,” a “Wonders of the Night Sky” astronomy program and a lengthier backpacking trip in August, among other events.

Pro tip: Park associations and conservancies often provide expert-led activities that allow travelers to gain an even richer perspective on their favorite parks (another example: the Joshua Tree National Park Assn.’s field classes and lecture series).

Do you have a travel-related question? Let me know, and I may feature your question in a future edition of Escapes.

🎸 Road song

June by Florence + the Machine. Play it as you drive past Wheeler Springs on your way to the Cuyama Valley.