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10 eco-friendly activities in Southern California you have to try

An Everyday California kayak tour explores the La Jolla Ecological Reserve with migratory Leopard Sharks Harmless to humans, leopard sharks share the water with kayakers at the La Jolla ecological reserve. | Photo by Robin Bigge/Everyday California

Being an eco-minded Southern Californian isn’t limited to composting and using less water. There are countless ways to conserve and connect with the state’s natural side. Go green by shopping for Earth-friendly products or joining a coastal cleanup, for instance. Or you might prefer to augment your appreciation for nature by taking hikes, soaking in hot springs, or visiting with your marine neighbors.

Earth Day, April 22, is a perfect time to plan at least one fun thing to do to celebrate our planet. Start with one of these 10 eco-friendly activities in California that spotlight our state’s natural beauty, wildlife, and sustainable farming. 

Meet your marine neighbors

A humpback whale lunges from the water in the Santa Barbara Channel.

A humpback whale lunges from the water in the Santa Barbara Channel. | Photo by Adam Ernster/Condor Express Whale Watching

The California coast is the birthplace of organized whale watching and one of the best places in the world to spot these gargantuan marine mammals year-round. You can catch gray whales migrating in the spring, blue whales in the summer, and minke whales in the fall. Several SoCal outfitters take groups out to sea, including The Condor Express in Santa Barbara Channel, Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach, Oceanside Adventures in Oceanside, and Dana Wharf Whale Watching, which offers a discount to AAA members

Tour a community farm

Visitors get up-close with bees at Wild Willow Farm’s beekeeping workshop.

Visitors get up-close with bees at Wild Willow Farm’s beekeeping class. | Photo courtesy Wild Willow Farm

Wild Willow Farm in San Diego incorporates growing practices that regenerate the soil and teaches visitors do the same. The 5-acre farm offers tours, volunteer opportunities, and educational workshops for all ages that range from beekeeping classes to lessons on pruning fruit trees. The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano is a 28-acre certified organic farm producing seasonal produce for the community. Families and small groups are invited to join “Grow, Eat, Make” field trips and experience farm life. Before leaving, you can visit the center’s Farm Stand to buy locally grown specialty items.

Clean a beach 

Volunteers at the Surfrider Foundation’s coastal cleanup do their part to reduce ocean pollution. | Photo by Alexander Siegel

Volunteers at the Surfrider Foundation’s coastal cleanup do their part to reduce ocean pollution. | Photo by Alexander Siegel

Ecotourism can also mean giving back. While the Surfrider Foundation’s group cleanups have been suspended due to the pandemic, you can still care for local beaches by removing trash as part of a solo beach cleanup. You’ll reduce marine pollution and conserve the ocean’s health, all while enjoying a day by the water.

Shop green

Mustard flowers used in cooking are available for sale at a neighborhood farmers market.

Mustard flowers used in cooking are available for sale at a neighborhood farmers market. | Photo by Cheryl Rinzler/stock.adobe.com

Support your local farmer by visiting your neighborhood farmers market. You’ll usually find more than just produce; nuts, tamales, and handmade soaps are also typical staples. If you’re looking for other sustainable goods, such as green household products or Earth-friendly kids’ toys, The Ultimate Green Store in Encino is your one-stop shop. Pick up recycled glassware, waste-free lunch containers, and organic baby clothes.

Soak in natural hot springs

A soak in the bluish sulfury waters of Gaviota Hot Springs can soothe tired muscles.

A soak in Gaviota Hot Springs’ sulfury waters can soothe tired muscles. | Photo by Gregory Bergman/Alamy Stock Photo

Gaviota Hot Springs, about 32 miles north of Santa Barbara, is an oasis of tranquility. Two rustic geothermal pools are easily accessible to the public thanks to their location in Gaviota State Park. The springs’ natural minerals are said to have healing properties and are well worth the short hike from the trailhead.

Kayak in sea caves

Everyday California tours teach kayakers about the marine ecosystem at the La Jolla sea caves.

Everyday California tours teach kayakers about the marine ecosystem at the La Jolla sea caves. | Photo by Robin Bigge/Everyday California

Paddle among leopard sharks, sea lions, and garibaldi in the waters off La Jolla. The San Diego–La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, home to one of California’s densest concentrations of marine life, is an ideal place for ecotourists to spend a day on the water. Outfitters like Everyday California will guide you through the marine ecosystem, including the cove’s seven sea caves.

Learn about water-wise gardening 

Spring poppies brighten the Desert Garden at South Coast Botanic Garden.

Spring poppies brighten the Desert Garden at South Coast Botanic Garden. | Photo by Thomas Zimmerman

Those with a green thumb (or those who wish they had one) should visit South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Situated on a former landfill, the garden showcases trees and native plants in themed collections, like the Bohannon Rose Garden and the Garden of the Senses. Species from cacti to acacia trees remind visitors that water-efficient gardens can still be visually stunning.

Tread lightly

The easy Long Valley Loop Trail offers views of the Coachella Valley as far as the Salton Sea.

The easy Long Valley Loop Trail offers views of the Coachella Valley as far as the Salton Sea. | Photo courtesy visitgreaterpalmsprings.com/Greater Palm Springs CVB/@visitgreaterps

Hiking is a fun and healthy eco-friendly activity for all ages, and trails abound in Southern California. The foothills, mountains, and backcountry offer a rugged escape just a short drive from urban areas. Consider an outing in the San Jacinto Wilderness in the San Bernardino National Forest. Long Valley, the park’s most popular area thanks to easy access via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, leads to trails for all levels, from easy strolls to strenuous summits. For other Southern California hikes, check out the Afoot and Afield hiking guide series, which includes editions featuring Los Angeles County, the Inland Empire, Orange County, and San Diego County. 

Eat plant-based food

Cafe Gratitude’s healthful Pad Thai: gluten-free kelp noodles and farm-fresh vegetables in an oil-free Almond Thai Sauce.

Cafe Gratitude’s healthful Pad Thai: gluten-free kelp noodles and farm-fresh vegetables in an oil-free Almond Thai Sauce. | Photo courtesy Café Gratitude

Going meatless isn’t just better for the Earth—it’s also delicious. At least that’s the case at Gracias Madre in Newport Beach and West Hollywood, which features traditional Mexican cuisine made with plant-based ingredients (think mole and mushroom tamales). Other tasty restaurant options include Nectarine Grove in Encinitas, which offers locally sourced organic foods, and Café Gratitude (five Southern California locations), where the words “plant-based” and “gourmet” go together like market vegetables and garlic tahini.

Stay sustainably

The Ranch at Laguna Beach's green practices include water conservation and organic gardening. | Photo by Eric Rubens

The Ranch at Laguna Beach's green practices include water conservation and organic gardening. | Photo by Eric Rubens

Canyon, creek, garden, and sea make up the natural backdrop to The Ranch at Laguna Beach. The term “eco-lodge” might conjure images of a yurt in the woods, but The Ranch proves it’s possible to blend luxury and sustainability. Among its green initiatives, the hotel practices water conservation and sources seasonal produce for its Harvest restaurant from an on-site organic garden (open for guest tours on Thursdays and Saturdays). While you’re at The Ranch, take in Southern California’s natural beauty by taking a walk in the surrounding canyons or at nearby Aliso Beach.

Annelise Jolley is a San Diego–based freelance journalist and essayist who covers food, travel, and ecology. Her work appears in a variety of publications, from National Geographic to Life and Thyme.

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Get the latest on where to dine, what to see, and more happenings in Southern California at @aaasocal_westways.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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