By Lizann Lightfoot, Military Spouse

One thing I love about military life is that it has let us live all over the world and experience a variety of locations and cultures. Whether we live near cities or in the middle of nowhere, I like to find unusual activities that only the locals know about. It really helps you to get a feel for your location.

Then we moved to Southern California, right in between Los Angeles and San Diego. Around here, people get season passes to the big parks like Disneyland, Legoland, or Sea World. Those parks are amazing, but first I wanted to discover: what are the truly unique things to do in California that not many people know about?

A unique Bucket List for Southern California

La Jolla Cove

This rocky beach cove near San Diego is a favorite location to see wild sea lions and seals. The animals bask on the rocks and mostly ignore the many visitors who visit to take a selfie with a sea lion. You can get surprisingly close to them! The public park has beautiful ocean views, but a rather powerful smell because of all the wild animals.

Joshua Tree Park

If you like hiking, bouldering, and watching the sunset over the desert, then you will love this National Park. Located near 29 Palms, this park features hundreds of the unusual Joshua trees and some wide open wilderness. Bonus: military families get in free with the military National Park Pass, available at the park entrance.

Big Bear Lake

This mountain resort area includes the lake and a quaint mountain town. In the winter, it’s popular for skiing and sledding.  During the warmer months, you can enjoy beautiful hiking trails, boating, a Nature Center, a history museum, and an Alpine Zoo. The Marine Corps owns and manages six cabins there, which you can rent at a reduced rate.

Coronado Island

This beautiful island near San Diego is home to Naval Base Coronado and Naval Air Station North Island. It also boasts the world-famous Hotel Del Coronado, one of the largest wooden buildings in America. You can stay in beachfront lodgings just a mile away from the Hotel Del if you make a reservation at the Naval Base Lodge. This on-base resort offers military families a swimming pool, beach cabanas, and playground at a fraction of typical San Diego prices.

Catalina Island

Just visible off the shore from Camp Pendleton, Catalina Island is a nature preserve that can only be reached by ferry. Fun fact: if you go on your birthday, the ferry ride is free! Once there, you can enjoy hiking, a zip line, or camping. You can also stay at the island’s luxury hotel and spa.

Potato Chip Rock

This uniquely-thin rock that cantilevers over nothing is one of the most photographed locations near San Diego! Hikers love to pose for photos on top of the rock. But you have to work for this photo opp: the hike is 7.5 miles roundtrip on Mount Woodson, with an elevation change of 2000 feet. So plan to spend several hours on the trail.

Julian Apple Pie Festival

The town of Julian is famous for its annual Apple Pie Festival. Every year, thousands of visitors flock to this quaint, historic town for a taste of their apple pie. During the off season, you can still enjoy a visit to this mountain village that is the closest thing to the East Coast you will see in California.

Wine tasting in Temecula

Southern California’s wine vineyards are located in Temecula, over an hour northeast of San Diego. Most vineyards offer tasting specials or gourmet lunches during the day. Some have live music or special events at night. Not sure which vineyard to visit? Stop by your base ITT office and get a ticket for the horse-drawn trolley ride that takes you to multiple vineyards all in one day!

Balboa Park in San Diego

Just up the hill from Balboa Naval Medical Center, Balboa Park is the cultural center of San Diego. The beautiful buildings were designed for a 1915 Exposition. The vast park contains numerous attractions, including the San Diego Zoo, art and history museums, Shakespeare Theater, a science center, and fancy restaurants. It’s also a great place for outdoor concerts.


This small mountain town is a picturesque location for skiing, hiking, rock climbing, or camping. If you visit in winter, be prepared for some of Southern California’s only snow! During the rest of the year, it is a quiet mountain retreat with gorgeous views.

Don’t miss the big-ticket parks in Southern California

Of course, everyone who lives in Southern California knows about the major amusement parks. You will want to plan out when to visit each one before you leave. Visit your base ITT center for the best discounted tickets: Disneyland, Legoland, Sea World, San Diego Zoo or Safari Park, and Knott’s Berry Farm.

If you get orders to live in Southern California, it’s a great opportunity. Get busy and start planning your next bucket list trip today!

Author: Lizann Lightfoot is the Seasoned Spouse, a military wife who has been with her husband since before Boot Camp—15 years ago! Together they have been through 6 deployments and 4 different duty stations (including 1 overseas in Spain). Lizann spends her days at home wrangling their 4 young children, cooking somewhat healthy meals, writing about military life, and wondering where the family will end up next. She is the author of the book ‘Welcome to Rota,’ and of the Seasoned Spouse blog.