As a San Diego local, I’ve come to appreciate “America’s Finest City” even more for all of the incredible nearby places to explore. Whether you want to spend a day hiking, enjoying some beautiful sandy beaches, or exploring unique historical sites, you’re sure to find several day trips from San Diego to choose from.
Lucky for you there’s nothing I love more than gushing about my hometown (I even wrote up a mega guide to my 47 favorite things to do in San Diego, which you should also read).
This guide is here to help you pick the best Southern California excursions when you just want to get out of the city for a quick getaway. So let’s dive into my picks for the 31 best day trips in and around San Diego.
Table of Contents
- 21 Best San Diego Day Trips
- La Jolla
- Dana Point
- Catalina Island
- Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park
- Palomar Observatory
- Ensenada, Baja California
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Laguna Beach/Laguna Art Museum
- Anza Borrego Desert State Park and Borrego Springs
- Palm Springs
- Tijuana, Mexico
- Cleveland National Forest/Mount Laguna
- Salton Sea
- San Clemente
- Torrey Pines
- Rosarito Beach
- San Juan Capistrano
- Jacumba Hot Springs
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21 Best San Diego Day Trips
Lying just a quick drive or rideshare northwest of downtown San Diego, La Jolla – Spanish for “the jewel” – truly is the jewel of San Diego. The upscale beach town offers tons of boutiques and restaurants, ranging from fine dining to eat-with-your-hands taco joints. Grab lunch, then head down to La Jolla Cove to hang with the true locals–the attention-loving sea lions, seals, and pelicans.
Feeling adventurous? Join this 7 cave kayak tour and explore the breathtaking sea caves hidden along the cliffs of La Jolla. Or, if lounging in the sun on a long stretch of sandy beach sounds more appealing, La Jolla Shores is the perfect place to lay out. You’ll soon realize why La Jolla tops this list as the best day trip from San Diego!
⛱️ Love beaches? Check out my epic guide to the best beaches in San Diego and its surroundings!
Dana Point is one of my top day trips from San Diego, and lies just a short drive up the coast into Orange County. Visit Dana Cove to paddle board, hang out on the sandy beach, and explore along the cliffs.
But the highlight of Dana Point is the whale watching – it’s so spectacular, in fact, that it’s considered the “Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World” and was the first Whale Heritage Site in the Americas. Be sure to book in advance with a reputable provider, such as this popular whale and dolphin eco watching tour (just be aware they do tend to sell out).
Catalina Island lies 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles and this little piece of paradise is a must-see excursion from San Diego.
When you arrive at Avalon’s main town, you might be content to stroll along the beachfront watching the boats rock calmly in the waves. But the real treasure lies off the coast beneath the water in the form of diverse and abundant marine life. The best way to get a glimpse of the underwater world is to take a glass bottom boat tour.
To get to Catalina from San Diego, you’ll drive to Dana Point where you’ll take an hour long ferry ride on the Catalina Express. The boat leaves at 9:30 am and returns to Dana Point at 5:00pm.
🛏️ Have more than a day? Catalina also makes for a great weekend adventure and if you need a hotel, check out the breezy, beachside Hotel Atwater.
Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico
I recently visited Valle de Guadalupe for the first time, and let me tell you, it’s worth it! I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I heard that the “Napa Valley of Mexico” was only a couple of hours away from San Diego, I was sold.
On top of great wine tasting, the scenery was incredible, with elegant wineries scattered between rolling hills of Mexican countryside and dusty pueblos reminiscent of old western movies.
👉 Local Tip: The best, no hassle way to experience Valle de Guadalupe is on this wine tasting tour that will pick you up in San Diego, take you across the border to some wineries in Mexico, and then return you to San Diego.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Growing up, the Safari Park was a staple for my family and me. I still love going whenever I want to feel like I’ve been transported across the globe. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located in eastern San Diego County, and sprawls across 1,800 acres. With so much space, the zoo offers actual safaris rides in open jeeps through some of the animals’ enclosures, making it the perfect place for animal lovers.
Julian is a quaint mountain town nestled in the Cuyamaca mountains and is known for two things – apple pie and gold. Julian is one of my all-time favorite day trips from San Diego when I want to escape the city’s hustle and bustle for a day.
Julian started as a gold rush town that sprung up in the 1870s. Today, you can spend the day panning for gold and touring the historic infrastructure from the gold rush.
Some would argue that Julian’s most precious export isn’t gold at all, but rather its apples – and, of course, the subsequent pies. I’ve been known to make the 75 minute drive east from the city just to pick up a fresh apple pie.
👉 Local Tip: If you visit Julian in Fall, try picking your own organic, heirloom apples at one of these U-pick orchids.
The Palomar Observatory is an astronomical research facility that sits on top of Palomar Mountain, just North of San Diego. The observatory operates a few telescopes, including the famous 200-inch Hale Telescope, which claimed the title of the largest telescope in the world from 1949-1975.
The Palomar Observatory is open to visitors and has a few different guided tour options. To make it a full day excursion from San Diego, I suggest also exploring some of Palomar Mountain State Park’s beautiful hiking trails.
Ensenada, Baja California
Get a taste of Mexico in the seaport town of Ensenada which is just a short 2 hour drive from San Diego and over the border into Baja California. The village offers rich culture, incredible seafood, and bustling nightlife that runs on cheap beer and tequila.
Ensenada also sports gorgeous, undeveloped coasts and tons of outdoor activities to choose from. Go whale watching from November to February, or kayaking, horseback riding on the beach, and mountain bike riding year around!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is not only one of the best day trips from San Diego, but also my favorite national park in Southern California. The park is due east of San Diego, and is part of the Greater Palm Springs area. Its name comes from the spiky and twisted Joshua trees that dot the rugged desert landscape and make the scenery so otherworldly and photogenic.
You can enjoy Joshua Tree National Park any time of the year. Summer evenings make for incredible stargazing, or visit in Spring to catch the wildflowers in bloom, and take advantage of beautiful hiking year-round.
🛏️ Need a Hotel? Since Joshua Tree is a bit of a drive from the city of San Diego, you may want to spend the night. For a fun experience, you can stay in a private airstream at AutoCamp Joshua Tree.
Laguna Beach/Laguna Art Museum
Laguna Beach is a beautiful beach town situated halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles and is a top destination for art lovers. The whole town is a celebration of its many local artists. You’ll find street art on every corner, murals covering storefronts and lampposts, and countless art galleries and expositions.
While you’re in Laguna Beach, don’t skip the Laguna Art Museum, which collects and curates art by California artists or art that tells the history and life of the state.
👉 Local Tip: Visit in summer and check out the series of world-renowned art festivals put on by the local art galleries.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park and Borrego Springs
Though it’s just a 2 hour drive from San Diego, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to another planet when you arrive in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. California’s largest state park is 600,000 acres of slot canyon mazes, dramatic badlands, and miles of hiking trails.
On your way into the state park, stop in Borrego Springs to check out artist Ricardo Breceda’s 130 giant metal sculptures depicting prehistoric creatures that once roamed the region.
👉 Local Tip: Visit in spring to be dazzled by the blooming desert wildflowers. If you’re lucky, it might correspond with a super bloom year, when higher-than-normal rainfall triggers dense flower booms.
Carlsbad is an idyllic, slow-paced beach town in north county San Diego. Its quaint downtown area has lots of shops, restaurants, and shops to browse, and its beautiful beaches and famous surf breaks attract both locals and tourists year-round.
Carlsbad is also home to Legoland and the Carlsbad Flower Fields, a huge, photo-worthy garden that blooms vibrant flowers from March through Mother’s Day.
🍽️ Local Tip: For an incredible Italian seafood meal, check out Jay’s Gourmet, a local Carlsbad favorite.
Palm Springs, a few hours northeast, is one of the most popular day trips from San Diego. It is an especially attractive excursion for those of us wanting to escape the city and spend a day relaxing by the pool and soaking up the sun. The desert city is also known for its luxurious spas and world-class golf courses as well as its boutiques and interior design shops along Palm Canyon Drive.
Tijuana is a bustling border town immediately south of San Diego. Despite it being in another country, Tijuana is actually one of the easiest day trips from San Diego! Visiting Tijuana will satisfy your appetite for delicious food, Mexican culture, and exciting nightlife.
I highly recommend a visit to Avenida Revolución, or “La Revu”, which has become the beating heart of Tijuana’s cultural scene. The streets themselves are a sight, with quirky architecture and vibrant colors, inside of which are cafes, restaurants, bars, and trendy art galleries.
Although you can visit Tijuana independently, if you prefer the comfort and convenience of a guided tour, check out this highly rated one that leaves from San Diego.
👉 First Time in Mexico? Be sure to check out our guide on what to know before visiting Mexico.
Cleveland National Forest/Mount Laguna
Distance from San Diego: 90 minutes | Google Maps
If you’re like me and love chasing waterfalls, head east from San Diego into the Cleveland National Forest where two of San Diego’s best waterfalls are hidden.
To get to Three Sisters Falls, you’ll have to make a rather steep 4.5 mile round trip hike, but the reward is worth it! The series of three waterfalls is the perfect place to take a dip and cool off after the hike.
Cedar Creek Falls, locally known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl, is a beautiful cascade that falls into a deep pool where you can swim. It’s accessible by San Diego River Gorge trailhead or Saddleback Trailhead, which are each 6 miles roundtrip.
👉 Local Tip: After the long hike head to the tiny town of Mount Laguna for a bite to eat at the Pine House Cafe.
Temecula is the home of Southern California’s very own wine country. You can easily spend a day in Temecula wine tasting, golfing, or relaxing in a spa.
I’m personally a huge fan of Old Town Temecula, which celebrates the old western roots of the town and features shops selling local artisanal wares, restaurants, and local breweries. If you’re looking for a laid back day trip from San Diego, Temecula is calling your name!
Quick trivia question – What’s one of the largest inland seas in the world that is also one of the lowest places on Earth and is shrinking each year? The Salton Sea, of course!
This unique saline lake is 227 below sea level and is situated unexpectedly in the middle of the desert east of San Diego. Because of droughts, the sea is losing water consistently which is causing the salt levels to rise dramatically. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is a popular destination for jet-skiing, fishing, boating, water-skiing, hiking, and birdwatching.
Distance from San Diego: | Google Maps
With a nickname like “Spanish Village by the Sea”, it’s no wonder San Clemente is such a popular day trip destination from San Diego. I recommend making the trip to this Orange County beach town if you love quaint towns with Spanish style architecture and beautiful sandy beaches with great waves.
San Clemente State Beach has great surf for any level, but if you’re up for a more off-the-beaten-path spot, visit San Onofre State Beach, a favorite surf spot among the Orange County locals. After a day of surfing or exploring, nothing beats watching the sunset over the beach from the San Clemente Pier.
Torrey Pines, an area of San Diego between Del Mar and La Jolla, is my number one recommendation for hikers and for golfers looking to escape San Diego for the day. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a piece of rugged Southern California coastline dedicated to habitat preservation and hiking trails.
Just south of the reserve is the world-famous Torrey Pines Golf Course, which sits atop cliffs that look out over the ocean. The golf course hosts the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open, which occurs annually in January or February.
Rosarito Beach, located a mere 10 miles south of the border on the Baja California coast is one of my favorite day trips from San Diego to Mexico. This sunny resort town welcomes anyone wanting to enjoy the beach, surf, ATV, or dive.
But Rosarito also has more to offer than just the beach. You’ll find a growing artistic scene, including many art galleries where you can buy locally crafted artisanal blankets, jewelry, leather goods and artwork.
San Juan Capistrano
Feel like you’ve been transported back in time when you visit the historic San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. The main attraction here is the 200 year old Mission San Juan Capistrano. This Catholic mission is considered the birthplace of Orange County, which sprung up around the mission. Today, the mission boasts the oldest in-use building in California, the Serra Chapel.
San Juan Capistrano is also known for the protected cliff swallows which migrate from Goya Argentina to the California town where they nest from mid March through October. The Swallows are so famous that the whole town holds a daylong festival in their honor every March 19th.
If you’re longing for peace and tranquility only found in small mountain towns, then I can’t recommend a visit to Idyllwild enough. The small town is a 2 hour drive Northeast of San Diego, and is nestled in the alpine forest high up in the San Jacinto Mountains where nature lovers can explore hiking trails and spot abundant wildlife.
Jacumba Hot Springs
Distance from San Diego: 60 to 90 minutes | Google Maps
Although it’s a bit of a ghost town these days – the population as of 2010 was 561 – Jacumba was once a bustling town known for its hot springs that were believed to have healing powers.
It’s worth checking out Jacumba’s other attractions besides the hot springs too. The desert view tower gives you panoramic views of San Diego, and at Coyote’s UFO Repair Shop you can get a tour of his flying saucers!
👉 Enjoy This Article? Then you’ll love my guide to the best stuff to do in San Diego!
You could spend your whole life visiting San Diego’s surrounding areas – I’ve spent a good part of mine doing so and still have so much to discover. So hopefully these day trips from San Diego inspired you to get out and explore!
Oh, and before you go be sure to check out my guide to the top beaches around San Diego!