San Diego is an ideal springboard to the many and varied cities, beaches, national parks, and historic attractions of Southern California. Within 30 to 60 minutes of the city, you can visit the beautiful beach towns of La Jolla and Carlsbad, or escape to the mountain resorts of Mount Laguna and Julian. If you are up for a longer drive, you can reach Disneyland, Big Bear Lake and Joshua Tree National Park in two to three hours. Here are the best day trips From San Diego.
1. La Jolla (25 min)
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Situated less than half an hour from downtown San Diego, La Jolla offers visitors miles of beautiful beaches, some of the best surfing and diving in California, and many more attractions. The beach at La Jolla Cove is part of the La Jolla Ecological Preserve and is home to reefs, kelp beds, and caves, where you can snorkel or dive all year round, while La Jolla Shores is an ideal beach for families and novice surfers.
You can take the kids to see the seals at La Jolla Children’s Pool or take a break from the beaches and head to Torrey Pines State National Preserve to go hiking along some of the best trails in the state. Art lovers can visit the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego or visit the many public art installations dotted around the Village. Things to Do in La Jolla
2.Julian (1 hour)
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Situated just an hour east of San Diego in the scenic Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian is a historic town dating back to the Gold Rush days of the 1870s. You can start your visit by going on a 15-minute narrated historical carriage ride or learn about the town’s history on a guided historical tour with David Lewis or Julian Tours.
A highlight of any visit is a tour of one of the gold mines, where guides will lead you deep into the heart of the mine and relate colorful stories of the Gold Rush. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy hiking in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park or the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, fishing on Lake Cuyamaca, or horseback riding at the Integrity Stables. Things to Do in Julian
3. Carlsbad (45 min)
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Although Carlsbad is primarily known for wonderful beaches, there are also many other activities to entice you away from San Diego for a day or two. Carlsbad State Beach (aka Tamarack Beach) is great for families and you can enjoy just about any beach activity on this long stretch of golden sand. You can try surfing, kayaking, scuba diving, and windsurfing or drop a line off the Carlsbad jetty to catch a big one.
Carlsbad is also home to three amazing lagoons that offer brilliant wildlife watching, hiking trails, and kayaking opportunities. You can set off to explore over 50 miles of trails that vary from comfortable strolls to strenuous hikes and are mostly also suitable for biking. Families should set aside plenty of time for the kids to enjoy LEGOLAND.
4.Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (45 minutes)
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History buffs will be pleased to learn that southern California is home to many really old historic missions, including Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, which is the largest and one of the oldest, dating back to 1798.
Visitors are welcome to come and spend a day of peace and tranquility exploring the extensive working mission complex, which encompasses several historical structures, including the lavanderia (a complex water system which was used as a laundry, irrigation system, and bathing area), Spanish-style arched colonnades, ruins of soldier’s barracks, and the old friar’s living quarters, which now house the museum. In addition, you can see the oldest living pepper tree in California, which was planted way back in 1830.
5.Lake Poway (35 min)
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Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts will be pleased to find that the Lake Poway Recreational Area, just 35 minutes from downtown San Diego, offers a host of exciting activities all year round. You can rent paddle boats, rowing boats, or power boats and spend a few hours exploring the lovely lake or try landing some trout for your dinner.
There are three hiking trails for you to choose from, all of which are also suitable for cycling and horseback riding, and for a change of pace you can visit the archery range. Lake Poway is ideal for picnics and there are plenty of grassy areas for the children to let off some steam as well as a playground for smaller children.
6.Disneyland (2 hours)
Families, kids, and kids-at-heart will all be clamoring to visit Disneyland in Anaheim, one of the most popular day-trip destinations from San Diego. Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park are both packed with attractions and activities for all ages and you will need more than a day to get the most out of your visit.
You can get a great overview of the park on the Disneyland Monorail or on a horse-drawn carriage ride with Main Street Vehicles. Younger children will love all the gentler rides in Fantasy World and Paradise Pier, while braver adventurers will want to head straight to Hyperspace Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The nightly fireworks shows are a highlight of any visit and should not be missed.
7.Rosarito Beach (1 hour)
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For a complete change of atmosphere, you can easily nip over the Mexican border into Baja California in under an hour to enjoy all the lively attractions of Rosarito Beach. Miles and miles of sandy beaches offer a variety of activities ranging from surfing, windsurfing, kite-surfing, paddleboarding, and underwater adventures (either scuba diving or snorkeling).
Off-beach activities for you to try include hiking and trekking through the backcountry, cycling, camel and horseback riding, and motocross/ATV excursions. Adrenalin junkies can go zip-lining, rappelling, or micro-lighting. When the sun sets, you can watch magnificent sunsets while sipping a Mexican cocktail at one of the many vibrant nightclubs and bars, many of which feature live music.
8. San Clemente (1 hour)
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San Clemente is ideally situated on the coast of California halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles and can be accessed from either city in around 60 minutes. You could spend an entire day enjoying all the attractions centered alongside the iconic San Clemente Pier, including restaurants, coffee shops, and miles of beaches. Surfing is legendary in San Clemente – you can hire a board and catch some waves on San Onofre State Beach, a favorite spot for both beginners and seasoned surfers.
Walkers, joggers, and cyclists will enjoy the scenic San Clemente Beach Trail and everyone should make time to visit Casa Romantica, which includes a cultural center and inspirational gardens. Shopaholics can get some retail therapy at the outlets at San Clemente or on Avenida Del Mar in Downtown. Things to Do in San Clemente
9.San Juan Capistrano (1 hour)
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A day trip to the historic town of San Juan Capistrano will introduce you to the one of the most beautiful missions in California, teach you all about the multi-cultural history of the town, and surprise you with a varied list of cultural attractions. The Mission San Juan Capistrano is over 200 years old and is a fascinating place to visit – you can hire an audio guide and explore at your own pace.
History buffs can also visit the Los Rios District, California’s oldest neighborhood, to see some of the original adobe homes that have been carefully preserved, and then cross the road to admire the beautiful Capistrano Depot railway station. Music lovers can attend the free open-air concerts in the Historic Town Center Park (3rd Wednesday June to September).
10.Temecula Valley (1 hour)
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When you are ready for a break from California’s beautiful beach resorts you can travel inland to the Temecula Valley to tour some beautiful vineyards and sample your favorite California wines. You can download an app and do your own tour of more than 30 wineries or leave the driving to someone else and sign up for a Grapeline Wine Tour, a few of which include vineyard picnics.
If you’re not into wine, there are plenty of other activities on offer in the valley, including plenty of cultural attractions, hot-air balloon adventures, hiking and wildlife watching in the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, or bicycle/ horseback tours through the vineyards.
11.Laguna Beach (75min)
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Laguna Beach is widely considered to be the definitive coastal destination in Southern California, boasting 7 miles of soft golden sand nestled between the Pacific Ocean and impressive inland canyons. You can hire a bicycle (motorized if you prefer) from Laguna Bike Rentals and set off to explore the numerous coves and beaches or take a guided kayak tour to Seal Rock.
Water sports enthusiasts can have hours of fun learning to surf or paddleboard or go snorkeling and scuba diving at the Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve. You can also go whale watching at Newport Beach or keep your feet dry and spend the day visiting some galleries, shopping, and admiring the numerous public art installations in Laguna Beach.
12.Borrego Springs (75min)
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You can escape the hustle and bustle of the city in just 75 minutes when you head to Borrego Springs, which is situated in the heart of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, completely surrounded by the bounty of nature. For hikers, there are miles and miles of great desert trails to be explored – you can go it alone or join a guided hike. 4X4 enthusiasts have hundreds of miles of challenging desert roads to explore, some of which can be negotiated in a normal saloon.
Biking is also very popular in the area – you can rent a bike from Bike Borrego, who will be happy to suggest good routes, some of which include unexpected desert art installations. Other activities include visiting desert gardens, bird watching, wine tours, star gazing, and golf.
13.Mount Palomar Observatory (1 hour and 30 min)
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Situated on the summit of Mount Palomar in the Cleveland National Forest in north San Diego County, the Mount Palomar Observatory has been at the forefront of astronomical research for decades and is home to the world’s largest working telescope, the 200-inch Hale Telescope. You can do a self-guided tour of the visitor’s gallery.
Docent-led presentations are available on most days of the year or plan to visit between April and October, when guided tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays. The facility has a visitors center, an interesting museum, and a gift store and you can pack a picnic to enjoy in the grounds.
14.Mount Laguna (1 hour)
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Within just 60 minutes of downtown San Diego you can find yourself at Mount Laguna, in the heart of extensive pine and oak forests that offer unrivalled opportunities for outdoor fun. You can bring along your hiking boots (or snowshoes) to explore a variety of trails, which vary from the easy Wooded Hill Nature Trail (1.5 miles) to a couple of more strenuous trails that cover over 10 miles of scenic forest offering good wildlife viewing along the way.
Most of the Mount Laguna Trails are also suitable for mountain bikers and horseback riders – you can get all the maps and info you need from the visitors center. While you are in the area, you can visit the San Diego State University Mount Laguna Observatory for some star gazing.
15.Ensenada (2 hours)
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Whether your interests lie with beautiful beaches offering varied water sports, thrilling adventure sports on land, or visiting vineyards and wineries, Ensenada ticks all the boxes. Offering visitors a plethora of outdoor activities combined with some of the most interesting and varied cuisine in Mexico, Ensenada attracts surfers, divers, whale watchers, foodies, and just about everyone else who would like a taste of Mexico.
You can tour the wine producing area of the Guadalupe Valley, try your hand at surfing (the calm waters are great for beginners), or play a round of golf. After an active outdoor day, you can relax in one of the spas before enjoying some great wines and some Ensenada cuisine, which fuses Mexican, Mediterranean, and Oriental elements.
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16.Idyllwild (2 hours)
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For a charming small-town experience and excellent outdoor activities in the heart of the scenic San Jacinto Mountains, head to Idyllwild, situated just 2 hours from downtown San Diego. You can learn about local flora and fauna, have a picnic, or go on a guided nature hike at the Idyllwild Nature Center, which also has bicycle and bridle trails for you to explore.
Suicide Rock and Tahquitz Peak offer challenging rock climbing and there are several great mountain biking trails. Art lovers will enjoy the exuberant arts scene coordinated by the Art Alliance Idyllwild, which operates many galleries, studios, and exhibitions.
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17. Los Angeles (2 hours)
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California’s famous City of Angels has been beckoning visitors to come and enjoy a wide variety of attractions for decades. The good news is that the drive to Los Angeles winds along the Pacific coastline through sleepy seaside villages, offering wonderful coastal views around each bend of the road. Once you reach Los Angeles, you will have some tough choices as there are a myriad of attractions to choose from.
You can sip a coffee or a cocktail and do some people watching at Venice Beach, walk the iconic Santa Monica Pier, do some shopping along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, or visit a Taoist Temple in Chinatown. Art lovers can head to the eastern edge of downtown, where the vibrant Arts District can be found.
18.Valle de Guadalupe (2 hours)
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You can find yourself in the heart of the Valle de Guadalupe wine growing region of Mexico within a 2-hour drive from San Diego. Although this region in Baja California has been enticing food and wine lovers for years, a recent influx of innovative chefs and wine producers has put the area firmly on the map for foodies.
You can look forward to tantalizing your taste buds with impressive limited-release wines, some of the best olive oils on the continent, and great cheeses to pair with them both. This is also where you will find some of the most popular restaurants in the region offering fresh, innovative food created by subtly combining Mexican, Mediterranean, and Oriental influences. In addition, there are brilliant beaches and golf courses nearby.
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19. Pasadena (2 hours)
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Pasadena is situated just 10 miles from Los Angeles and offers day-visitors and vacationers a great selection of historical, cultural, and outdoor activities to fill every moment of the day. Art lovers are spoiled for choice – you can start by visiting the Norton Simon Art Museum, which features work by illustrious artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Warhol and then work your way around the Armory Center for the Arts and the many performing arts venues.
Outdoor enthusiasts can have fun with Bikes and Hikes LA, hike Eaton Canyon, or tour the beautiful Descanso Botanical Gardens. History buffs will enjoy the Historic San Gabriel Mission District and everyone will love the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
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20.Palm Springs (2 hours 30 minutes)
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In less than 3 hours you can swap the beaches of San Diego for year-round sunny skies and beautiful desert scenery in Palm Springs. There are plenty of opportunities for walking and hiking in the Mount San Jacinto State Park or the Coachella Valley Preserve – Desert Adventures offer guided hikes.
You can get a great aerial view of the city from the Palm Springs Tramway, tour the Palm Springs Air Museum to see World War II air force exhibits, or stroll through the Moorten Botanical Garden to see intriguing desert vegetation. Be sure to be in Palm Springs on a Thursday night to enjoy art, food, and entertainment at the Village Fest in Palm Canyon Drive.
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21. Joshua Tree National Park (2 hours and 30 minutes)
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Joshua Tree National Park is unique in that it is home to two separate desert ecosystems, the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, both of which are filled with fascinating desert flora and fauna for visitors to discover.
Sculpted over millions of years by the forces of wind, fire, and water, the geological features of the park are equally compelling. Nature lovers can bring a tent or RV and immerse themselves in the peace and solitude of the park, spending their days doing gentle nature walks or strenuous backpacking hikes, joining in ranger-led explorations of the park, and partaking in some wonderful nocturnal star gazing. Key areas to visit include Black Rock Canyon, Cottonwood Spring, and Indian Cove and you can get all the information you need at any of the three visitors centers.
22.Salton Sea State Recreation Area (2 hours and 30 minutes)
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Located in the Salton Basin of the Sonora Desert in southeastern California, the Salton Sea is a huge inland saline lake bordered by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The 35-mile sea attracts over 375 recorded species of birds and massive numbers of migratory shore and water fowl.
Besides bird watching, you can hike the Rock Hill Trail to the observation tower for sweeping views over the sea. Other activities in the recreation area include camping (for both tents and RV’s – there are 1600 camp sites), boating, picnicking, fishing, swimming, windsurfing, and ranger-led guided tours. The best months to visit are October to May to avoid the excessive summer heat.
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23. Catalina Island (2 hours and 30 minutes)
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Catalina Island is situated in the California Channel Islands just southwest of Los Angeles and is well known for offering vacationers and day-trippers a great selection of attractions, including many extreme-sport activities. Get a great overview of the island on a Skyline Tour, which will take you deep into the heart of the island for great views and wildlife watching.
You can dive through amazing underwater kelp forests, have a go at parasailing and jet-skiing, or keep your feet dry and your adrenalin soaring as you enjoy an adventure with Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tours. When you’ve had enough sun and sea for the day, you can visit the Catalina Island Museum and the Catalina Art Gallery, play a round of golf, or join a Taste of Catalina Food Tour.
24. Big Bear (3 Hours)
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Situated 99 miles west of Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake offers an almost endless list of adventure activities to tempt all outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. Here the fun never stops regardless of the season – in summer you can go zip-lining or enjoy a myriad of water sports on the 7-mile lake, including jet-skiing, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, wake-boarding, and parasailing.
Spring and fall are the best times for you to go hiking and biking around the miles and miles of trails or try your hand at fishing. In winter, Big Bear really comes to life, offering every kind of snow-related activity you can imagine, including skiing, snowboarding, tubing, sledding, and snowman building. Shopping and dining are great all year round.
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25 Best Day Trips From San Diego
- La Jolla (25 min), Photo: Courtesy of patma 145 - Fotolia.com
- Julian (1 hour), Photo: Courtesy of Dudarev Mikhail - Fotolia.com
- Carlsbad (45 min), Photo: Courtesy of Kit Leong - Fotolia.com
- Mission San Luis Rey de Francia (45 minutes), Photo: Courtesy of Don - Fotolia.com
- Lake Poway (35 min), Photo: Courtesy of mkl design - Fotolia.com
- Disneyland (2 hours), Photo: Disneyland
- Rosarito Beach (1 hour), Photo: Courtesy of Justin - Fotolia.com
- San Clemente (1 hour), Photo: Courtesy of rb92673 - Fotolia.com
- San Juan Capistrano (1 hour), Photo: Courtesy of Zack Frank - Fotolia.com
- Temecula Valley (1 hour), Photo: Courtesy of Steve Minkler - Fotolia.com
- Laguna Beach (75min), Photo: Courtesy of juancat - Fotolia.com
- Borrego Springs (75min), Photo: Courtesy of Eric - Fotolia.com
- Mount Palomar Observatory (1 hour and 30 min), Photo: Courtesy of steheap - Fotolia.com
- Mount Laguna (1 hour), Photo: Courtesy of Jeremy - Fotolia.com
- Ensenada (2 hours), Photo: Courtesy of kgrif - Fotolia.com
- Idyllwild (2 hours), Photo: Courtesy of Heater - Fotolia.com
- Los Angeles (2 hours), Photo: Courtesy of Mike Liu - Fotolia.com
- Valle de Guadalupe (2 hours), Photo: Courtesy of karandaev - Fotolia.com
- Pasadena (2 hours), Photo: Courtesy of Kit Leong - Fotolia.com
- Palm Springs (2 hours 30 minutes), Photo: Courtesy of Byron Moore - Fotolia.com
- Joshua Tree National Park (2 hours and 30 minutes), Photo: Courtesy of garytog - Fotolia.com
- Salton Sea State Recreation Area (2 hours and 30 minutes), Photo: Courtesy of Patrick - Fotolia.com
- Catalina Island (2 hours and 30 minutes), Photo: Courtesy of Atomazul - Fotolia.com
- Big Bear (3 Hours), Photo: Courtesy of glow on concept - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Kit Leong - Fotolia.com