Here’s the BIG Picture

Planning Your Southern California Vacation

Los Angeles and Catalina Island
Los Angeles Basin and Catalina Island in Southern California

Perhaps you’re thinking through your summer travel plans, with a possible visit to Southern California. Why spend time now looking at the BIG Picture? And what do we mean by the Big Picture?

Well, we mean that understanding the regional geography and other factors can help you make better choices about how much you can fit into a limited schedule.

Knowing a bit more about the region could steer you to an area that you find more intriguing than another.

For example, if you really would like to make a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico, you’ll have a harder time doing that from a hotel near Magic Mountain up in Valencia than if you stay near Sea World in San Diego County.

You won’t get it all on this page, but we hope this will be another tool in helping you know what the locals know, and in enhancing your summer travel activities. So let’s start in the Los Angeles basin.

Los Angeles Basin

We can describe the greater L.A. basin as being primarily most of Los Angeles and Orange counties, as it’s the geographical area bounded by the Pacific Ocean (which, by the way, is a lot bigger than the Atlantic Ocean) to the southwest, and mountains or foothills on the other sides.

Parts of L.A. county lie outside of the basin, mainly Catalina Island, and the Antelope Valley, which lies an hour north of downtown Los Angeles (where astronauts Yeager, Glenn, Armstrong and thousands of engineers at the aerospace plants pioneered our space program for decades).

One major sub-region of Los Angeles is the San Fernando Valley, or “The Valley”. It’s a half-hour drive northwest of downtown and is the source of much Valley Girl humor, since it’s a huge suburban area with everything from low-income to high-end neighborhoods.

Much of The Valley lies in the city of Los Angeles but has been given community names like Van Nuys and Tarzana (yes, this community really was named after Johnny Weismuller’s character in the famous movie; Burroughs the writer lived in the area for some time).

San Fernando Valley

It can take upwards of an hour to drive from the Valley to downtown L.A. but TV’s Jack Bauer always seemed to be able to do it in 8 minutes on 24.

There are some interesting and worthwhile restaurants, shopping and nightclubs in the San Fernando Valley, but this is not the focus of summer travel destinations in Los Angeles. Those are found more towards Hollywood, downtown L.A. and by the beaches. By the way, Magic Mountain lies actually beyond the Valley and is upwards of three hours from San Diego with light traffic.

The Hollywood Hills separate portions of the Valley from the heart of Los Angeles. The two main freeways that connect the areas are the Hollywood Freeway (101) and the San Diego Freeway (I-405). The 405 passes further west, past the Getty Museum, and out into the west valley.

The 101 Freeway runs through downtown, northwest through Hollywood (which is a part of the city of Los Angeles although it has been given some level of autonomy and independent identity by the City Council), through the Cahuenga (caw-en-ga) Pass and the Hollywood Bowl and Universal Studios, and out to the Valley. The above photo shows Universal Studios in the foreground and The Valley in the background, looking northwesterly.

Laguna Beach Lifeguards groupOrange County lies to the southeast of downtown Los Angeles and, in some ways, is similar to the Valley as a suburb with some dense pockets of commercial and industrial development.

One major difference is that most of O.C. (most locals do NOT refer to it as The O.C. like the TV show, although that is catching on to some extent) was developed later than most of the Valley, and O.C. has beaches.

It also has Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm among many other opportunities. You will notice a slower pace in Orange County compared to much of Los Angeles, although that may not be too obvious in the course of your brief summer travel.

Don’t forget about Catalina Island, roughly 25 miles off the coast. It’s within Los Angeles County, with regular access by the Catalina Express boats. Many folks with private boats sail or motor over and tie off in Avalon Harbor or anchor around the island.

A great place for fishing, scuba diving or sightseeing. There are a small number of Catalina Island hotels for a nice overnight stay. Consider Catalina in your summer travel planning.

Comparing Los Angeles and Orange County Beaches

Catalina Aeriel View
Aerial view of Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California

Where are the L.A. beaches? Not in the Valley, but on the West Side (which also includes O.J. Simpson territory like Brentwood) in towns like Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Manhattan Beach, or in the South Bay (Long Beach, San Pedro, Torrance and Beach Boy territory like Hawthorne). Venice Beach, Manhattan Beach and other beach communities to the west of Downtown L.A. are very interesting; funkier than the O.C. beaches in general.

The L.A. coastline is cut up by the Palos Verdes peninsula, where there are more cliffs than sandy beaches. Still some great beach territory, but Orange County has more beach options even though it is much smaller than L.A. County in terms of population. Regardless of where you end up specifically, if you are a beach person, you will want to spend at least some of your summer travel budget enjoying the SoCal beaches.

You’re more likely to encounter an old man rollerblading along wearing nothing but a thong (I don’t mean a pair of thongs on his feet, but buck naked except for a thong around his waist) in Venice Beach than in Newport Beach. I have witnesses that will verify that I was fully clothed at the time. A nearly naked old guy on rollerblades brings new meaning to the idea of summer travel.

It’s interesting to realize that the coastline does not just run north/south through the Basin. With Palos Verdes Peninsula and other large outcroppings extending civilization into the ocean, you may find yourself driving southwest to get to the beach, especially in Orange County.

The entire California coastline runs at an angle, such that the city of Reno, Nevada, is actually further west than Los Angeles. This is always a fun fact for locals to point out to visitors. In fact, it’s kinda fun to write about it here; San Francisco is considerably further west, which means that it gets dark later as you go north along the coast. If your vacation does include summer travel (realizing that this is a great place to visit year-round) you’ll find that it gets dark earlier than up north, but still remains light until well after 8 pm for awhile. You can plan in a lot of activities when it’s light from 5 am to 8:30 pm.

Inland Empire

Williamsburg CastleTo the east of L.A. and Orange counties is the Inland Empire (IE), consisting of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The famous city of Chino (from The O.C. TV show) is on the westerly border of San Bernardino county. These counties extend all the way east to the Arizona border.

Actually, if you visit Colonial Williamsburg, VA they will tell you that the Commonwealth of Virginia laid claim to territory extending all the way west to the ocean (that would be the Pacific) back in the 17th century. In fact the Spanish would have had something to say about that.FYI, Williamsburg would not be a good choice for a driving day trip from SoCal.

But, getting back on our topic, you’ll find most of your Inland Empire summer travel opportunities lie in the mountains and in the desert (ever heard of a place called Palm Springs?). There is winter skiing at several local resorts, and the wilderness areas are pretty accessible most of the year for one activity or another. We’ll be adding more about the Inland Empire in the near future.

Now, why do we lump L.A County, Orange County and the IE together, without mentioning San Diego? Because these areas all are served by the same television stations in Los Angeles. San Diego has its own stations for the most part. Also, it is somewhat more separated from the northerly metropolis by the huge Camp Pendleton Marine Base, home to many of our marines serving in dangerous places.

Nearby Oceanside is an interesting military community, supporting the many families on the base. It is in the most northerly part of San Diego County, which we’ll cover on the next page…