First of all, you will need this map book. It clearly shows all of the state and national parks, as well as campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, and roads, with a distinction between roads safe for passenger cars, and roads that require a jeep. You don't want to go haring off into the wilderness and get lost.
And take a look at this website, Total Escape, the best resource for planning your california adventure.
EL DORADO PARK
Close to home, good place for a walk.
There is a small nature center with exhibits about the local wildlife, books and things for sale, and a clean bathroom. You will find a pond full of ducks and turtles in the front, then you can choose the one mile or two mile trail. The two mile trail goes to the back lake, where you may spot an osprey.
Cooper's hawks sometimes bathe in the creek that runs along the trail. Bunnies, egrets, and herons are frequently visible. Bonus: they have a bird watcher's checklist.
Truly gorgeous little nature preserve in north Pasadena.
There is a nice nature center with clean bathrooms, and a trail with a creek. Bunnies and birds and native plants, nestled up next to the foothills. If you feel like scrambling over rocks, you can hike up to the little waterfall.
Wetlands with a trail to walk on, lots of birds, a bridge where you can look down in the water to see fish and stingrays. Off PCH in Huntington Beach.
Enjoy a nice drive up into the mountains, check out the observatory and drink in the clean mountain air. Awesome views. Great place to enjoy the snow in winter.
Mt. Wilson is in the Angeles National Forest. Lots of pretty picnic spots up there.
This is a nice nature center with a trail through the pine trees. Plenty to do in Big Bear, winter or summer.
ANTELOPE VALLEY POPPY PRESERVE
What an enchanting place, if you time it just right. Check the website in the spring to plan the best time to go. You want to see the poppy bloom at it's peak, and that depends upon the weather. The peak viewing period is usually mid-April. The preserve is near Lancaster, about 85 miles from LA. You will need to take the 5 north to the 14 north.
RED ROCK CANYON
From the poppy preserve, it's just a hop skip and a jump on to Red Rock Canyon State park. This park is in the Mojave desert, so it's best to visit in winter; or spring when the desert wildflowers bloom.
There is a visitors center, open saturday and sunday only, and a pit toilet.
Beautiful volcanic rock formations are the main attraction. Many tv shows and movies have been filmed here, including Jurassic Park.
It's about 140 miles from LA. ( a perfect place to stop halfway between LA and Mammoth)
WIND WOLVES PRESERVE
Take the 5 north through the grapevine, and then when you get to the San Joaquin valley, you will turn west to find thisprivate nature preserve in the foothills. It's about 115 miles from LA.
Wind wolves is absolutely gorgeous during the peak of the spring wildflower bloom. That happens around mid March, but of course the timing varies according to the weather.
They have a nice nature center with bathrooms, a trail through the wildflowers, and a trail that goes up a canyon that has a little creek with frogs. I have seen deer, quail, and golden eagles here.
Tucked into the mountains behind Solvang, in a part of the Los Padres National Forest, is a wildflower treasure trove.
This mountain is famous and it does get quite busy on weekends during peak season, for good reason. Follow the directions past Solvang to Los Olivos, on to Figueroa Mt Rd. The road is fine for passenger cars, making a pleasant drive through the countryside, up to the top of the mountain and on to figueroa campground. If you want to continue on this road, be aware that it gets narrow in places, and then there is a long scary grade down the other side of the hill. Turn around at the campground if you want to avoid that; or keep going if you are adventurous and have a jeep or a small car that likes back roads. The Davy Brown campground is my favorite, a secluded spot way back in the hills with a pretty creek, pit toilets only.
Solvang is about 145 miles from LA and has many hotels and shops to browse.
SEQUOIA NATIONAL MONUMENT
Yes, this is a bit more than 200 miles, but it's worth it to see Sequoia trees. The most southern grove with easy access is the Trail of 100 giants. You don't need to drive 7 hours to Yosemite to see these amazing giants.
Take the 5 north over the grapevine, to the 99 north. Past Bakersfield, take hwy 65 east to California Hot Springs. Once you get into the park, there is no gas until you go all the way to Ponderosa, so fill up your tank in Ducor, before you reach the foothills.
The trail of 100 giants is a short, easy trail that winds through majestic trees. Wildflowers are plentiful in spring. You will see many birds, deer, squirrels, and other wild life. The parking lot borders a high sierra meadow with bluebirds.
Where to stay: there are plenty of campgrounds, but for a hotel you will need to try Delano, or Bakersfield; or Kernville. Another option is to go farther north in the park and stay at Camp Nelson. There is a beautiful lodge there. The only problem with the lodge, is that the restaurant is only open if you are in a large group. So, you will need to pack a picnic, or find some dinner in Ponderosa. Cabin rentals in Ponderosa are another alternative.
That's it, I'm out of ideas! Maybe you found a new place to explore? I would love to hear about your adventures, so leave me a comment. :-)