In the Antelope Valley on the western side of the Mojave Desert, Palmdale is a small city surrounded by a vast arid landscape that evokes the golden age of western movies. One of the city’s claims to fame is its US Air Force testing centre, where aircraft like the legendary Lockheed Blackbird took their first flights.
For day trip inspiration set off into the Antelope Valley for stark and beautiful desert scenery, or ascend the San Gabriel Mountains, which receive plenty of snowfall in winter.
Los Angeles is also within range, with Hollywood around an hour away by car.
1. Joe Davies Heritage Airpark
On the north-eastern edge of Palmdale is the United States Air Force Plant 42, where many of the US Air Force’s aircraft have been manufactured and tested since the 30s. You don’t need to be an aviation enthusiast to enjoy the Joe Davies Airpark, which showcases Plant 42’s remarkable heritage.
Free to the public, the display comprises 21 planes that have come through Plant 42. Craft here include a Convair B-58A Hustler, a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter and Northrop X-4, all from the early years of jet aviation after the Second World War.
A newer addition is the state-of-the-art F-22 Raptor, introduced in 2005.
2. Blackbird Airpark
On the same site as the Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, but an attraction of its own, the Blackbird Airpark is devoted solely to the Lockheed SR-71A, or Blackbird.
This was a reconnaissance aircraft introduced in the 1960s after a highly-classified development project. Only 32 were ever built, and the Blackbird Airpark is the only place in the world where you can get up close to one of these spectacular machines.
Also here is an early drone, the D-21, which operated at high speeds to escape detection in hostile airspace.
3. Dry Town Water Park
From May to September this is a fun option for kids, especially when the mercury rises in mid-summer. Cool off at this attraction with six water slides for big kids and grow-ups, while toddlers can make splash at the Little Miner’s Camp fun zone with shallow pools, amusements and three smaller rides.
The main attraction for older visitors is Dusty’s Mineshaft Racer, with twin flumes that let you race side-by-side against a rival on specially-made mats.
Accompanying the park’s pools and slides is a juice bar and branch of the fast food chain, Subway.
4. Antelope Valley Mall
Built in 1990 this giant mall is Palmdale’s premier shopping destination, also featuring a 16-screen cinema complex. In all there are 140 stores and services at the Antelope Valley Mall, and the five anchor stores are Macy’s, JC Penney, Sears, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Forever 21.
A day of shopping can be hungry work, so the mall has a varied food court, as well as a “restaurant row” with sit-down eateries like Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Arby’s.
5. Transplants Brewing Company
Open for tours Thursday to Sunday, Transplants Brewing Company has assembled a band of beer experts from across the country to produce Palmdale’s only craft beers.
The brewing company comes out with a range of weird and wonderful ales, such as Cumber Some, wheat ale with strong notes of cucumber, of all things.
Filbert meanwhile is brewed with hazelnut and chocolate, and Black Bayou is a dark ale enriched with roasted coffee beans. The tasting area here is a congenial bar with an open seating area, and you’re free to bring your own lunch or dinner from local take-outs to enjoy here with a glass of craft beer.
6. The Palmdale Amphitheater
At this outdoor venue you can watch concerts under the desert sky in the summer months, and it’s touted as the best place for live music in the Antelope Valley.
Every year there’s an eclectic calendar of performances, and since 2005 the likes of The Four Tops, The Blue Oyster Cult, Styx and The Temptations have all played here.
You’re invited to bring a blanket and get food from the vendors that represent local restaurants. Throughout the month of August there are also weekly family movie nights, where films like Despicable Me, Harry Potter and Finding Nemo are screened.
7. Antelope Valley Indian Museum
It’s worth remembering that Antelope Valley has been settled for thousands of years, and at the Indian Museum you’ll get an insight into the area’s rich anthropology.
The museum dates to 1928 when it was set up by a self-sufficient farmer and artist called H. Arden Edwards who made a homestead here.
Exhibits include ceramics and textiles to give a glimpse of the norms and lifestyles of both aboriginal and present-day Native American groups. At Joshua Cottage you can see how Native Americans started fires or processed grains for meals.
8. Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Now, if you’re in Palmdale between February and May you simply have to come to this natural reserve 30 minutes northwest of the city.
Poppies are the California state flower and for a few short months whole fields of them are in bloom, adding a Technicolor tint to the otherwise stark desert scenery.
The sight is absolutely breathtaking and you’ll come away with photos to be proud of. Visitors can stroll along seven miles of trails, a portion of which have been paved to provide access for wheelchair users.
9. Rancho Vista Golf
Palmdale isn’t an area known for its golf, but is still home to a PGA -class public course. The oasis-like greenery of Rancho Vista contrasts perfectly with the vast desert scenery all around, and many tees have inspiring views of the distant mountains.
The 18-hole course was designed by Ted Robinson, a golf architect responsible for 160 courses from America to South Korea.
After a round you can tuck into a meal at the course’s restaurant, which also has a terrace with elevated vistas of the course and desert beyond.
10. Rainbow Ridge Ranch
One glimpse of the rugged desertscape of the Antelope Valley may awaken cravings that only a day behaving like a cowboy can quench. Luckily the Rainbow Ridge Ranch is on hand, realising childhood dreams of riding off into the wilderness on horseback.
This can be achieved on an Adventure Ride when you’ll spend two hours trotting or galloping through rocky terrain, working your way up mountains and crossing bodies of water that will reach your boots.
If you have kids in tow they’ll be able to get their first taste on a pony ride in an outdoor arena.
11. Mountain High
Palmdale is in an elevated region known as the High Desert, so while summers can be fierce, winters are often cold enough to bring snow. If you’re in town during the cooler months you can reach a ski resort within an hour.
Mountain High is 2,000 metres up in the San Gabriel Mountains and made up of three ski areas, the headliner of which is the West Resort. This has the highest elevation of the three, giving it the longest season and the best chance of snow. It brings in both skiers and snowboarders who head for the excellent glade trails, off-piste runs that guide you through picturesque wooded areas.
Summers at Mountain High mean hiking and frisbee golf at a stunning course in the Angeles National Forest.
12. Six Flags Magic Mountain
Take the CA SR-14 South for 40 minutes or so to reach one of the best family days out in Southern California. Six Flags Magic Mountain is flagship for the Six Flags brand, and is suitably impressive, packing 19 roller coasters into its 260 acres.
That is more roller coasters than any other amusement park in the world, and the great thing is that they’re always adding more. Five have been unveiled since 2011, among them Full Throttle, which has the world’s largest vertical loop at 49 metres.
It’s not all white-knuckle of course; the High Sierra Territory is a Looney Tunes-themed area for young ones, while Rapids Camp Crossing simulates an adventure into the American backcountry.
13. Explore Hollywood
It’s not like this place even needs an introduction. Movie and pop-culture buffs can of course “geek out” at the hundreds of immortalised shooting locations throughout the city.
Turn almost any corner and you’ll see something you recognise. But there are some essentials, and one of these is Hollywood Boulevard where Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame draw the crowds.
In the hills Griffith Park is also a must; this is where the iconic Hollywood sign looks out over the city and the Griffith Park Observatory provides that legendary vista of the city that has appeared in countless movies.
14. Trip to Pasadena
One of the oldest of Los Angeles’ 88 cities, Pasadena is in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. It won’t take you more than an hour to get here from Palmdale and once you arrive you can poke around Old Pasadena.
This district was the city’s original central commercial area, but fell into decline before it was revitalised in the 90s.
Now it’s a walkable and trendy neighbourhood across 22 blocks, where the pick of Pasadena’s shopping and entertainment is located. It’s where you come to catch a movie, live music show or a meal with friends at a contemporary eatery.