Orange County’s picturesque beaches, fantastic seaside vistas, rolling hills, and snazzy urban centers are a 24-7 playground, but that doesn’t mean that variety isn’t a good thing, too. While Orange County already has fantastic day destinations like Disneyland, Downtown Disney, and Knotts Berry Farm, its central Southern California location means that you’ve got access to a wide range of day trips within 90 minutes of Orange County.
Orange County’s got the perfect distance for dozens of great day trip destinations. Whether you want to head south toward San Diego, inland toward Palm Springs, north toward Los Angeles or even across the ocean to Catalina Island, there are affordable and accessible day trips to match everyone’s level of fun and adventure.
Ready to try something new? Gas up the car, fire up Google Maps, and get ready for some easily-accessible adventure!
The Day Trip: Hot Air Balloon Ride in Temecula, California
Estimated Drive Time: 60 minutes (approximately 64 miles, via 91-East and I-15 South)
What’s Cool About It: Take the ultimate day trip with a scenic sunrise balloon flight over Temecula’s beautiful landscape with Grape Escape Hot Air Balloons. This 60-75 minute balloon ride gives you more than just an incredible view of Temecula’s wine country. The price of admission also includes a continental breakfast served picnic-style. Can you imagine having breakfast midair, sipping your mimosa, sparkling cider, coffee, or chilled champagne while suspended in the middle of a magnificent Southern California sunrise? Talk about romantic!
We admit… it would be hard to top the thrill of a hot air balloon ride, but Grape Escape Hot Air Balloons manages it by showering customers with some extra goodies. Each rider will receive a souvenir certificate of their flight, discounts on wine tasting at Europa Village Winery, and a 20% discount on La Scapatella private label champagne.
Gift vouchers are easily ordered from the company’s website and are customizable and printable, so if you’re looking to gift something special to someone who loves adventure, romance, whimsy, or wine… or all of the above… Grape Escape Hot Air Balloon Adventure is a great day trip option.
Just to note: While there are no children’s price tickets, children four feet and taller are more than welcome to ride the balloons (but not drink the champagne. Let’s keep that for the grownups.)
Pro-Tip: If hot air ballooning is your thing, you won’t want to miss the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival Flights. Dates vary by year, but flying then will let you join the over 50 balloons that will be gently navigating the soft summer air currents wafting over Temecula and enjoying breathtaking views of Lake Skinner and the surrounding valley. Your ride fee includes admission to the festival, a 45-60 minute sunrise festival flight, chilled champagne, orange juice, mimosas or water, and your souvenir certificate of flight.
The Day Trip: Universal Studios Hollywood
Estimated Drive Time: 50 minutes (44 miles via I-5 North and the 101N)
What’s Cool About It: Is there such a thing as too many destination theme parks? We don’t think so, which is why we’ve included the Universal Studios theme park in our list of amazing day trips.
The third in the power-trifecta of Southern California theme parks, Universal Studios is a different slice of magic. Enjoy the high-tech special effects that make rides like Transformers: The Ride 3D so pulse-pounding… or step into the magical world of Hogwarts alongside Harry, Hermione, and Ron as you pick out a wand at Olivander’s or take in a Quiddich match. Slake your post-match thirst over a pint of Butterbeer (and maybe some fish & chips) at the Three Broomsticks.
Of course, a visit to Universal Studios wouldn’t be complete without checking out the movie connection, so be sure to make time for the world-famous Studio Tour. This 60-minute tour is pretty much worth the day trip on its own. You’ll visit four acres of historic studio lot in “the largest set construction project in studio history”, all while listening to live narration and video narration by Jimmy Fallon. Your seat on the tram will give you a first-hand look at movie-making magic and movie history, with historic views of classics like Psycho’s Bates Motel and the giant shark from Jaws, and the modern miracle that is Peter Jackson’s reimagining of the classic King Kong in King Kong 360 3D, all without wearing out your shoes.
Pro-tip: While you can drive to Universal Studios, you can also take advantage of local tour packages which allow you to be picked up from a wide variety of easier-to-access locations like the Santa Monica Pier.
Want to Save Money? Online ticket sales are cheaper than buying at the gate, so a little pre-planning (or some quick mobile phone action) will save you some cash.
The Day Trip: San Diego Zoo
Estimated Drive Time: 80 minutes (86 miles via the 5 South)
What’s Cool About It: One of the finest zoos in the country is about 90 minutes away in San Diego. The San Diego Zoo has been voted the #1 zoo in the country and houses more than 3,700 animals from more than 650 species, including endangered ones like the black rhino, giant pandas, and more.
The San Diego Zoo makes for a great day trip from Orange County… whether you’re looking for an educational experience or if you’re just going to indulge the animal-lover in your life, the San Diego Zoo is worth a visit.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the zoo is just for kids. Want an unusual date idea? Enjoy a leisurely zoo stroll and then get your calories back with fine dining in the heart of the zoo at Albert’s Restaurant where you can have a leisurely meal in the tree canopies while overlooking a waterfall.
Reservations are recommended, portion sizes are satisfying, and in case you needed to feel better about eating there, all proceeds go toward supporting the animals at the zoo.
Pro-tip: When we say the restaurant is at the heart of the zoo, we mean it. Look for the special elevator near the Tree Top Cafe and go to Level 1 for Albert’s Restaurant. The entrance is right off the elevator.
The Day Trip: Moreno Valley
Estimated Drive Time: 46 minutes (50 miles via the 91E)
What’s Cool About It: Moreno Valley might not come springing into your mind when you’re thinking about great day trip destinations within 90 minutes of Orange County, but it should. It’s the second-largest city in Riverside County, and it’s home to attractions for outdoor enthusiasts and people who’d rather have a more structured indoor adventure.
If you’re looking for an educational day trip and you’ve already exhausted the museum offerings in Los Angeles, Moreno Valley’s Western Science Center is a fun and unique look at local fossils and exhibits. There are almost a million (yes, really, a million) different specimens in the museum’s collection.
Pro-Tip: The Western Science Center has a popular interactive exhibit that lets you search for a mammoth as if you’re a scientist on a dig. Your budding paleontologists will love it!
If you’re more interested in the gorgeous scenery around you rather than digging through it looking for fossils, check out Lake Perris. The lake area teems with wildflowers and a variety of native animals, including quail and coyotes.
If you’re an aircraft buff, visit the March Field Air Museum. Soak in the decades of aircraft history in this well-tended and affordable museum. Eighty well-maintained historical aircraft and over 30,000 artifacts (including personal letters) await your visit.
March Field does an amazing job of showing where the aircraft fit into the history of their era of warfare. If you want to have a glimpse into living history, March Field is where you want to go. Where else can you walk through a Vietnam-era firebase surrounded by massive military choppers, or visit the birth of the space age in 1957 in Mission Control? Marvel at the restored beauty of a B-17 bomber and the legendary Cold War SR-71 Blackbird.
Pro-Tip: March Field is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Check the website before you pile in the car on that road trip!
You might also want to know that children 4 and under are free, as are Active Duty, Active Guard, and Active Reserves (with their DOD ID cards). Military Veterans get free admission on select days; please check the website for details.
Bonus destination: The Southern California Railway Museum is just south of March Field and Lake Perris, and everyone with a little knows how much kids love trains. Visit the museum to see more than 200 historic train cars and locomotives and take a ride. Be sure to check the website before you go for train schedules.
The Day Trip: Catalina Island
Estimated Travel Time: 1 hour (via high-speed ferry from Newport Beach or Dana Point). If you’re in a hurry (or really want adventure) you can always grab a ride on a helicopter for a fast 15-minute jaunt to the beautiful island off the coast.
What’s Cool About It: No list of amazing day trips 90 minutes or less from Orange County would be complete without at least one mention of Catalina Island. With it’s amazing views, wonderful beaches, and gorgeous blue harbor, Southern California’s own island paradise is a quiet haven that’s perfect for a day excursion.
Once you step off the ferry, you can lounge on the beach, stroll the charming destination city of Avalon, or enjoy the rustic charm of Two Harbors. Of course, if one boat ride wasn’t enough for you, hop in a glass-bottom boat for a unique look at the local marine life in Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve.
Pro-Tip: Book a glass-bottom boat tour online more than seven (7) days in advance and receive 15% off your ticket price.
The ocean isn’t the only place where adventure awaits you. Catalina’s rugged interior landscape offers extreme tours, hikes, rock climbing walls, and even a rare and intoxicating chance to try your hand at falconing!
Once you’re done with your activities, the island boasts fine dining at no less than five great restaurants, so there’s no reason not to have a gorgeous, fresh meal before you hop back on the ferry to get back to the mainland.
More Day Trips to Consider
- Big Bear / Lake Arrowhead (ski, snow play, mountain bike hike, fish, boat, Alpine Slide, ropes course)
- Cabazon Outlets & Dinosaurs
- Coronado Island (San Diego, CA)
- Julian (Eagle & High Peaks Mines, Lake Cuyamaca, Cedar Creek Falls)
- Joshua Tree National Park (Camping, Trails, Scenic Views, Bouldering, Skull Rock, Star Gazing)
- Los Angeles (Hollywood, Santa Monica, Getty Center, Staples Center, La Brea Tar Pits)
- Malibu (Zuma Beach and Point Dume, rock formations at El Matador State Beach)
- Palm Springs (Aerial Tramway, Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, Air Museum, Golf)
- Riverside (Mission Inn, UC Riverside Botanic Gardens)
- Santa Barbara (Beach, Parks, Live Music, Zoo & Aquarium, Channel Islands, Wine Tasting)
- Simi Valley, CA (Corriganville Movie Ranch, Ronald Reagan Library)
- Salton Sea & Salvation Mountain (Banana Museum, Mudpots, Sand Dunes, Oasis)
- San Diego (LEGOLAND, Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Beaches)
- Sitton Peak (Climbing, Hiking, Mountaineering)
- Six Flags Magic Mountain/Hurricane Harbor
- Solvang and Buellton (Wine Country, Cycling, Danish History, Food & Architecture)
- Temecula (Winery Tours, Breweries, Spas, Gaming, Golfing, Hiking, Bicycling)
- Tijuana, Mexico & Avenida Revolución (hint: park Stateside and walk across)
- Ventura, Camarillo, and Ojai (wine getaway, farm tours, horseback riding, beaches, parks, arts & culture)
Orange County is the perfect jumping-off point for so many amazing day trips! Which one will you take first?
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Kelly Smith is a freelance writer living in Southern California with one dog, two cats, two guinea pigs… and the rest of her family. She writes about Orange County, faith, family, special needs and tea, and world-builds science fiction universes on the side. Find her at www.bluerosecopywriting.com.