San Diego, California, is an incredible vacation destination. You can catch the shows at SeaWorld, visit the animals at the San Diego Zoo, or take a relaxing walk through gorgeous Balboa Park. But what happens when the pace of big-city life starts to wear on your nerves? Where do you go when you need a vacation from your vacation?
Luckily, the area surrounding San Diego is full of idyllic nature preserves and quaint historic villages, each one ideal for a day trip from the city. So hop in your rental car, break out the map, and visit any of these day-trip locations to pack even more enjoyment into your next San Diego vacation.
Relax On The Pacific Coast In Carlsbad
This beautiful coastal village is only a 45-minute drive north from San Diego, and it has everything from pristine beaches to museums. It’s even got a kid-friendly theme park and famous flower fields.
Carlsbad State Beach, popularly known as Tamarack Beach, is the perfect getaway for families. Here you can swim, scuba dive, surf, or simply work on your tan and enjoy the scenery. We suggest watching the sunset from this location. If you’re looking for a more active activity, Carlsbad is home to numerous hiking trails that wind throughout the region.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the flower fields at Carlsbad Ranch. Gaze out at the 50-acre field of ranunculus flowers that frames the coastline beautifully. The ranch hosts lots of special events throughout the year, and you can even take a tractor tour of the grounds.
Legoland is another major attraction in Carlsbad. At this resort and theme park, the whole family can enjoy more than 60 rides, shows, and attractions.
Escape Into A Mystic Forest In Mount Laguna
Nestled among the lush pine and oak trees of the Cleveland National Forest is the idyllic community of Mount Laguna. Here you can hike, mountain bike, camp, take in scenic views, or even ski (during the right season).
Mount Laguna is right off the Sunrise Highway, about an hour’s drive east from San Diego’s city center. There are trails throughout the area ranging from easygoing (the Wooded Hill Nature Trail) to more challenging (the Guatay Mountain Trail).
While you’re in the area, be sure to visit the San Diego State University Observatory, just off Morris Ranch Road. Because of the secluded, light-pollution-free surroundings, the observatory is one of the best stargazing spots in the entire country.
If you’re planning a trip during the winter months, know that Mount Laguna does get snowfall a few times a year. When it does snow, that’s the main attraction. Visitors can then ski, snowshoe, go sledding, or even have a snowball fight or two.
Sample California Wines Around Palomar Mountain
Palomar Mountain is another California peak that’s a short drive from San Diego. Located just 2 hours and 30 minutes north of the city by car, Palomar Mountain is a great spot for a weekend vacation. The area offers plenty of outdoor activities, and you can also visit a local winery or the Palomar Observatory, home of the incredible Hale Telescope.
Palomar Mountain State Park encompasses over 1,800 acres of land in the Palomar district of the Cleveland National Forest. Here you can hike, fish, or camp, all before enjoying a star-filled night at the observatory.
Be sure to check out the hidden gem that is Love Valley Meadow. You can find this peaceful mountain valley by following a trail that joins up with East Grade Road (S-7). Look sharp! The trail can be difficult to spot because it’s set back off a deep turnout from the road. From the junction of Highway 76 and East Grade Road (S-7), head north on East Grade Road for approximately 3.3 miles, park in the large dirt turnout, and the trailhead will be on your left.
If you’ve had your fill of the outdoors, you can hop back in your car and head a little farther north to the Mount Palomar Winery in Temecula, about an hour away from the Palomar Mountain State Park. The winery is located on 315 acres of Temecula wine country, and its tasting room is open seven days a week.
Appreciate The Beauty Of The Desert In Borrego Springs
About 2 hours northeast of San Diego, you’ll find Borrego Springs. This unincorporated village may be surrounded by a vast desert, but there’s still plenty to see and do. Borrego Springs is located in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest reserve of its kind in California. It is one of the best parks in the nation for birding and stargazing. Be sure to stop by the visitor center for information about the area and to see the ongoing museum exhibits.
There are also lots of hiking options in Borrego. You can try a guided tour or set out on your own. The Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail and the Pictograph Trail are two of the most popular hiking options.
In town, you’ll find the Borrego Art Institute, a nonprofit contemporary art gallery that offers classes and workshops to the public. Grab some delicious local fruits and vegetables from the Borrego Springs Farmers Market (open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Fridays, November through April). Then work on your short game over at Rams Hill Golf Club, one of the top golf courses in the country.
Experience Mountain-Town Luxury In Idyllwild
A relaxing getaway in the heart of the San Bernardino National Forest is just a 2-hour drive north from San Diego. Idyllwild is a quaint mountain town with no shortage of outdoor activity options, as well as a handful of museums and restaurants to keep your travel itinerary -- and your stomach -- full to the brim.
The Mount San Jacinto State Park features trails of various levels of difficulty, one of the most popular being the path to Tahquitz Peak. Alternatively, simply take a stroll or enjoy an afternoon of fishing at Lake Fulmor.
In town, you can visit the Artspresso Gallery, the Town Gallery, and the Idyllwild Area Historical Society Museum. After you’ve worked up an appetite, we suggest stopping by Café Aroma or Gastrognome for a delicious meal.
Learn About California’s Missionary Past In San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, located a quick 1-hour drive up Highway 5, is a stunning historic California city. You’ll find small shops perfect for antiquing, local art for sale, cafés, and restaurants all mixed in with beautiful historic residences. Be sure you see the Mission San Juan Capistrano. You can tour this 18th-century Spanish chapel any day of the week between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Follow this visit with a walk through the Los Rios Historic District, the oldest neighborhood in the entire state. While most of the buildings are private residences, you can quietly stroll through history, enjoying adobe homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Pick Apples Or Pan For Gold In Julian
Julian is known for two things: apples and gold. Just an hour northwest of San Diego, Julian is full to bursting with apple-related treats. You can pick your own apples at family- and pet-friendly O’Dell’s Organic Orchard. This is far from your only option, though; check out the full array of orchards here. There’s also an actual gold mine to tour.
Quaint downtown Julian consists of a single street with a few antique shops, local businesses, and restaurants. Don’t leave without stopping by the Julian Pie Company to try the signature apple pie. Orfila also has a wine tasting room located on Julian’s main street.
Joshua Tree: Enough Said
The drive to Joshua Tree National Park -- and the nearby community that shares its name -- may be a little on the long side (the park is about 3 hours northeast of San Diego), but for nature lovers, it's worth it. Joshua Tree is a small town filled with quirky art galleries, local shops, antique stores, and great home-base hotels from which to launch adventures out into the Mojave Desert.
In town you can find shops and museums like the World Famous Crochet Museum, Hoof & The Horn, Ricochet, and Coyote Corner. Stick around to catch a movie at the Smith’s Ranch Drive-In without leaving your rental car.
When you’re ready to head out into the desert, be sure to check out the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art. The Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park offers a beautiful flora-filled walk. If hiking longer distances is your thing, check out the Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail, which loops through a true desert oasis.