Alyssa has been writing about exciting travel topics for Trips to Discover since 2013. After living the big city life in Chicago, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Alyssa sold the bulk of her possessions and became a digital nomad, living full-time in her camper and working from wherever she could find an outlet and an internet connection for her laptop.
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K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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Summer can feel like an endless season in some parts of California, but snow and cold are just around the corner in other regions. California offers such a vast array of landscapes and climates that travelers can experience a little bit of everything on a statewide road trip. Labor Day is an ideal time to get in one last summer adventure and see some amazing places outside of the big cities. When you think about top vacation destinations in California, the big names probably come to mind, places like San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz. But there are lots of places to escape where you can enjoy more small-town charms without the big crowds that often appear over a long weekend. These are our picks for the best places to get away in California this Labor Day.
With its rugged coastline and mysterious fog, Mendocino is a great getaway any time of year. But over Labor Day weekend, it’s particularly fun to take a trip here to attend the Paul Bunyan Days in Fort Bragg. This is an annual festival with arts and crafts, barbecued meats, pies, a circus, eating contests, a parade, and live music. This is the region’s oldest and largest festival that has been going strong since 1939. You can also check out model trains, an ugly dog contest, a horseshoe tournament, and a classic car show. Also, make sure to check out the beautiful Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens to take a walk among the beautiful flowers and coastal plants.
If a wine-themed getaway sounds like exactly what you need right about now, then plan your Labor Day trip to Sonoma. This wine-producing area really comes alive over the Labor Day weekend with live music, tastings and tours.
We also recommend heading to the California town of Santa Cruz for Labor Day, especially if you’re traveling with your family or a group of friends. That’s because there’s a little something for everyone in this part of California – including top attractions that range from beautiful beaches and dramatic coastlines to a family-friendly town full of charm, while nature lovers can admire the towering redwood trees nearby.
A great Bay Area destination for Labor Day is Monterey. The Monterey County Fair takes place over Labor Day and brings in live entertainment, rides for the kids, and livestock. This is also a great place to enjoy food and browse arts and crafts booths. While you’re in town, don’t miss the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and the shops along Cannery Row. We also recommend the Monterey Bay Greek Festival, which celebrates Greek culture and food in Monterey State Historic Park in the downtown area. Come enjoy some baklava, Greek coffee, dancing, and ouzo!
Catalina Island is located about 22 miles from the Southern California coast, just southwest of Los Angeles. This tranquil getaway destination will make you feel like you’re on the vacation you deserve. Land and sea adventures are offered in Avalon and Two Harbors, including zip line tours, aerial adventures, dolphin tours, boat tours, and golf. Here you can also get active with kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding or be lazy with a cabana rental and the beach.
Palm Springs gets scorchingly hot in the summertime, but it often begins to cool off a bit over Labor Day weekend, which is just when the busy tourist season kicks off here. This is an ideal destination for golf enthusiasts because there are lots of great golf resorts here to play on, including the Indian Wells Golf Resort and the Desert Willow Golf Resort. You can also browse the weekly farmers’ market next to the Palm Springs Cultural Center.
The Lake Tahoe area is also a lovely place to visit over Labor Day if you’re craving some outdoor recreation and mountain scenery. Come here to bike or hike the Tahoe Rim Trail or part of the Pacific Crest Trail and enjoy the turn of the season. You can also attend the Lake Tahoe Summer Concert Series at Harveys Outdoor Arena on Labor Day weekend, with some of the biggest music acts under the stars performing in a 4,000-seat amphitheater. Artists who have performed at the outdoor arena in the past include Paul Simon, Lady Gaga, and The Who.
You can also take a drive up to Mount Shasta in the north-central part of the state to see this forested and mountainous area. Come here over Labor Day to get active in the great outdoors with hiking, biking, and seeing the waterfalls.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Carmel as it’s often referred to, is located just south of Monterey on California’s central coast. A European-style village once a funky artists’ colony that attracted authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and photographer Ansel Adams boasts one square mile of cottages with names rather than street numbers. It’s also home to one of the best beaches in California, as well as picturesque streets lined with boutiques and a wide range of outstanding eateries. Visitors come for its spectacular ocean scenery and to indulge in some of California’s history, including the 1771 Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, a compound made up of a number of small museums and a basilica church surrounded by beautiful grounds. It’s also a popular spot for golfers looking to play a round at the world-renowned Pebble Beach Golf Links nearby.
Located in Ventura County, nestled between the glitz and glamour of L.A. and romantic Santa Barbara, Ojai is a popular getaway from Los Angeles. Incredibly picturesque, its scenic hills, ranches and groves once stood in for the iconic Tibetan utopia of Shangri-La in 1937’s “Lost Horizon.” Just 15 miles inland from the Pacific, it enjoys a Mediterranean climate and a culture focused on music and art, health, organic agriculture, fitness and spirituality. Visitors also come to witness the “Pink Moment,” referring to the glorious sunsets that have a gorgeous pink hue. In the town’s Spanish Colonial Revival-style arcade, you’ll find boutiques and gift shops to browse featuring works by local artists and artisans, as well as several restaurants.
About midway between Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, Morro Bay may be a small town, but it boasts some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. It’s also home to Morro Rock, known as America’s Gibraltar, which juts dramatically from the Pacific a short distance from shore. There are unique boutiques on the main street to shop, as well as a state park to visit that includes a marina, a natural history museum and one of the state’s last remaining great blue heron rookeries. When you want a break from the beach, the famous Hearst Castle is nearby and offers public tours, and wine country is just a short drive away.
Located in California’s Gold Country, Murphys is known as “The Queen of the Sierras.” Its tree-shaded historic main street retains a number of businesses dating back to the Gold Rush era, including the Murphys Historic Hotel where President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and a long list of famous guests from back in the day slept, along with some fantastic restaurants, ice cream shops, antique stores and wine tasting rooms. This tiny “unincorporated village” has surprisingly developed quite a rich wine culture, so much so that some say it’s like “stepping back into the Napa Valley of 30 years ago.” There are multiple award-winning small-production estate wines, and oftentimes you can enjoy tasting with the actual winemakers too. In the surrounding area, there are miles of scenic trails for hiking as well as opportunities for zip-lining and caving.
Those who enjoy mountain scenery and history may want to head to Nevada City, with the entire town a historical landmark. Located in the Sierra Nevada, back in the mid 19th-century, it was the third-largest city in the state. Today, it’s home to just a little over 3,000 residents boasting a picturesque downtown surrounded by rivers and forests. The streets are lined with quaint B&Bs, classic saloons, antique shops and old-time movie theaters, and visitors can frequently enjoy street fairs as well as wine tasting nearby. Double Oak Vineyards & Winery produces mountain-grown wines and is open to the public for wine tasting, picnicking, vineyard and winery tours.
Point Reyes Station sits at the edge of the Point Reyes National Seashore, about an hour north of San Francisco. It serves as the hub for a magnificent stretch of coastline that includes an extensive trail network and a healthy oyster fishery. You’ll find several restaurants and shops in town, as well as Tomales Bay Foods, located in an old hay barn on the main drag, now serving as a tasting room/creamery/cheese shrine for the famed Cowgirl Creamery, though it’s really all about the Great Outdoors here. Visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which dates back to 1870, for beautiful views of the rugged coast, take a kayaking tour to paddle around the shore while watching for the otters and harbor seals along the way, or hike through the hills for a chance to glimpse the local elk herd.
While Napa Valley is bound to be packed with tourists over Labor Day weekend, you may find a more tranquil experience in Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country, about 120 miles north of Los Angeles. It hosts an impressive array of wineries and vineyards, with grapes grown near the Pacific in Lompoc up to Happy Canyon. In Los Olivos, you can enjoy samples at more than a dozen wine-tasting rooms and browse multiple boutiques and art galleries in between. If you’re a fan of the movie “Sideways,” stop in at Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant – you’ll recognize it from the film.
Laguna Beach is one of the best places to visit in Southern California. An artist colony, it houses countless art galleries, an art museum and lots of art festivals, including summer’s Festival of Arts, with art workshops, multiple dining options, guided art tours, nightly musical entertainment and hands-on demonstrations. Surfers and sun-worshipers tend to spend time in the beautiful coves and beaches, while avid shoppers head to the many boutiques and galleries in town. Main Beach, located at Pacific Coast and Broadway, is a great place for exploring tide pools. No matter how you spend your time during the day, take advantage of one of the many rooftop lounges or restaurants where you can enjoy a beautiful sunset over the Pacific.