San Diego, California, is a fantastic starting point for several exciting day trips. You won’t have to travel more than two hours to go between the coastline and the mountains.
While America’s Finest City offers plenty of activities to keep you busy, other unique locations await you outside the urban limits.
Join us as we catch waves along the coast and smell flowers lining mountain trails around San Diego.
Let’s hit it!
Discover San Diego, California
No matter what you’re into, you’ll likely find it in this sunny California beach town. So maybe with over one million people, it’s more of a city. But San Diego can feel big or small, depending on which area you’re in.
Directly to the south is the Mexico border. And the Pacific Ocean meets the city’s western edge, providing miles of beaches to enjoy.
The San Diego mild Mediterranean climate is excellent for outdoor activities year-round. You’ll love this city if you’re the kind of person most comfortable in temperatures in the 70s! Even in winter, you’ll rarely experience days that dip below the mid-60s.
For hiking, biking, and water sports at any time of the year, it’s hard to beat. However, you’ll also have various museums, galleries, restaurants, and retail shops to choose from during your visit.
While you could spend a week exploring San Diego neighborhoods, we suggest checking some nearby areas for easy road trips.
#1 San Clemente
San Clemente is about 60 miles north of the city. Depending on traffic, it’ll take roughly an hour to drive between the two locations traveling on Interstate 5. However, if you’re not in a rush, you might enjoy a more scenic route out of San Diego for this day trip.
For gorgeous ocean views, head north on Highway 101 until it meets I-5 in Oceanside. Once you arrive in San Clemente, you’ll have more beaches to explore. In addition, the town’s nearly 100-year-old pier offers a great vantage point for pictures and videos.
From the pier, you can access the mid-point of the Beach Trail. The paved pathway runs over two miles and is excellent for walking, biking, running, and people-watching.
And you won’t want to skip visiting Casa Romantica. Located on the cliff overlooking the ocean, it’s the former estate of San Clemente’s founder, Ole Hanson. The impressive gardens and panoramic views are worth the modest entrance fee.
Need a place to camp? Here’s Every San Diego RV Park, Ranked.
#2 Temecula Valley
Heading inland, Temecula Valley is an hour’s drive northeast of San Diego. If you enjoy wine tasting, take your pick from numerous local wineries to visit. Or enjoy the view from a hot air balloon ride where you’ll see the beautiful landscape in a whole new way.
Old Town Temecula feels like a step back in time with its historic 1880s buildings and storefronts. California’s Gold Rush age seems alive and well here.
You’ll also find antique shops, craft breweries, restaurants, and spas to visit. Depending on the day you make your trip out of San Diego, you might encounter one of three farmers’ markets. It’s hard to beat the fruit and vegetables available from the rich Californian soil.
Don’t forget to bring your bike to a ride through Temecula Valley’s trails stretching over 100 miles. You can also rent bicycles from a few shops in town.
#3 Crystal Cove State Park
For this next trip, we suggest leaving San Diego early to enjoy a full day exploring the state park. Located 86 miles north, Crystal Cove remains one of the largest open spaces in the heavily-populated Orange County.
Hiking trails weave their way through 2,400 acres of wilderness. But if you’d rather spend the day on the beach, three miles of sandy shore is there for your enjoyment.
In addition to swimming and water sports, tide pooling is another popular activity. You and the kids will have fun searching for sea urchins, anemones, abalone, and other creatures in the shallow waters.
Another area to check out is the Crystal Cove Historic District. The 12.3-acre coastal colony built in the 1930s and 40s includes 46 original vintage cottages.
And when you get hungry, the Beachcomber Cafe is a great place to enjoy a meal with an ocean view. The restaurant is in a restored beachfront cottage offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner options.
San Diego has some of the best restaurants: 7 Can’t-Miss Foodie Experiences in San Diego.
Located in the nearby Cuyamaca Mountains is the town of Julian. It’s a little over an hour from San Diego and worth taking a day trip to check it out.
If you visit in the fall, the local apple orchards will be popping! But any time of the year is good to be in this area. You won’t lack for fun activities. Choose from touring old gold mines, checking out art galleries, or exploring the hiking trails on foot or horseback.
In case your day trip extends into the night, you’ll be in for a treat. Julian’s distance from urban light pollution allows stargazers to see the Milky Way.
Even though Julian has less than 1,500 residents, it’s not as sleepy of a town as you might think. You can often catch local musicians playing at a few restaurants and pubs for evening entertainment.
And lastly, we suggest a day trip to Encinitas since it’s only a half hour out of the city. Known as one of the best surf towns in the world, it’s an excellent spot to watch surfers catching waves. Swami’s Beach is a favorite place for locals and visitors. The Beach Boys immortalized it in their song Surfin’ USA.
But checking out the water action isn’t the only thing to do here. The San Diego Botanic Garden has over 4,000 plant species from around the world and is worth a day trip alone.
Birdwatching and trail walks at the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center are another great way to spend an afternoon. Admission is free, so it’s an excellent opportunity to save cash while exploring a unique location.
Encinitas also has a variety of fantastic restaurants to choose from, many of them with ocean views. From quaint cafes to upscale dining, you’ll find someplace to fill your belly with delicious food and drink.
Plan your San Diego destinations with Fodor’s San Diego.
Expand Your San Diego Experience with Local Day Trips
Our list is just the crest of the wave when it comes to day trips around San Diego. Of course, you could easily spend a week in the city and never get bored.
However, variety is the spice of life, so exploring a bit more of the area is our recommendation. From surfing to hot air balloon rides to hiking mountain trails, the activities seem endless in this region of Southern California.
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