The best day trips from San Diego
San Diego may be dominated by surf, sand, and suds. But its unique location near the Mexican border and proximity to myriad coastal and mountain areas (within its own county limits to boot) make day trips from the city as varied as the city is easygoing.
In less than a few hours drive in any direction, soak up eclectic beach vibes, small town appeal, and trade tequila for wine.
As the region’s beach towns go, Oceanside is a bit disheveled, yet it’s highly underrated and undeniably cool. Soaking up its eclectic charms are a cinch when the coastal city is located only 40 miles north of San Diego. Local businesses fill downtown along Mission Avenue and South Coast Highways – think thrift and resale shops, third-wave coffee, an international food scene as well as surf, skate and outdoor gear retailers.
Gaze at sea lions on Sea Lion Island at the end of North Harbor Drive, then update your Instagram feed with the city’s painted murals around downtown’s streets; they run the gamut from celestial to whimsical. Or, commandeer your own self-guided Downtown History Walk and identify architecture dating back to the late 1800s. Mission San Luis Rey will transport you back in time, to when Spanish friars established a number of missions that would stretch from San Diego north to Sonoma and change the indigenous population’s way of life forever
In more recent years, the California Surf Museum dedicates itself to the popular sport, including an exhibit on adaptive surfing; an activity which makes wave-riding possible for people with different abilities. And for some of Oceanside’s best eats, target Coast Highway for Japanese omakase, where sushi meets an all-chef’s choice experience, Balinese-inspired cuisine meets natural wines, and craft beers pour from a former auto repair shop.
Getting there: Take I-5 N from San Diego, or hop aboard Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from the Santa Fe Depot stop.
Julian, a small town situated among the Laguna Mountains, lends itself to four distinct seasons. Yes, we’re talking fall leaves, and snowfall during winter months.
Mine Julian’s distant history during an underground tour with Eagle Mining Co; the town was the site of a brief gold rush before the turn of the 20th century. Early settlers also learned the area was prime for apple growing, and the crisp fruit remain a main draw today. In the fall there are you-pick days at the many area farms and year-round, tuck into its famous apple pie at Julian Pie Company or Moms Pies, and sample its fermented counterpart at Julian Hard Cider.
Throughout the year, sample homesteading life and other 'old timey' activities at family-friendly Fort Cross, a former lilac farm where you can test your dexterity with a slingshot, axe throwing, and archery. Sign up for or request an indigenous cultural experience, which includes a pottery lesson using traditional techniques and a nature walk to learn about the area’s plants and wildlife.
Julian’s minuscule main street invites pedestrian wandering around its independently-owned shops, like Julian Book House, vintage clothing store The Old Well, nostalgic sweets at Julian Candy Basket and gifts at Julian Mercantile. Seek a longer walkabout through 15 miles of Santa Ysabel Preserves’s moderate to difficult trails, and expect wildlife encounters of grazing cows, soaring red-tail hawks, and maybe some wild turkeys.
Getting there: From San Diego, take I-15 N to SR 78 E to Julian.
3. Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico
Mexico may be known for agave-based spirits (namely, tequila and mezcal), but in Baja California the zeitgeist says Valle de Guadalupe’s wine is the thing. The region’s first grapes were planted by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s, like many of California’s early vines. At one point, to eliminate competition with church production, the Spanish government banned the production of commercial wines.
As if to make up for lost time, these days you’ll find more than 200 wineries throughout the Baja Peninsula. Two seas, warm days, cool arid nights, and a lauded 'anything goes' approach to wine making shape the region’s red blends and lesser known varietals. You can experience this wealth of wine two ways.
One: Grab a map of the Ruta del Vino and go it alone, stopping at notable vineyards like Monte Xanic’s architectural marvel and Lechuza Wines’ appointment only tasting room, and dining everywhere from elevated establishments to roadside food trucks in between.
Or two: let the pros do all the planning and book an excursion with Club Tengo Hambre. These tours will guide you across the border and greet you with breakfast tacos in Tijuana before making the 1.5 hour drive to the vineyards, where tastings and a multi-course meal in el aire libre await.
Note: Don’t let the Valle’s rustic surrounds fool you. The dress code is decidedly chic; buttoned shirts, dresses and heels won’t be out of place in Mexican wine country.
Getting there: Cross the border in San Ysidro from I-5 and continue south on Mexican Federal Highway 1 (Carretera Federal 1) before exiting onto Carretera Transpeninsular/Rosarito – Ensenada/México 1 toward La Ruta del Vino. Bring cash for tolls (USD or Peso), and don’t forget your passport.
4. Anza-Borrego Desert State park
The largest of California's state parks, Anza-Borrego is a majestic quilt of creased mountains rising from parched badlands and cool palm oases cocooned with narrow canyons. There's an abundance of wildlife and wildflowers as well as traces of thousands of years of Kumeyaay life and culture. The 500 miles of dirt roads and hiking trails are a serene playground for backcountry explorers. At nighttime, stargazing is a favorite pastime in this designated International Dark Sky Park.
Anza-Borrego's commercial hub, Borrego Springs (population 2328) centers on a roundabout called Christmas Circle and has restaurants, lodgings, stores, ATMs, gas stations and a handsome new public library with free wi-fi. Nearby are the park visitor center and easy-to-reach attractions, such as Borrego Palm Canyon and Fonts Point, that are fairly representative of the park as a whole. The Split Mountain area, east of Ocotillo Wells, is popular with off-highway vehicles (OHVs), but also contains interesting geology and wind caves. The desert’s southernmost region is the least visited and, aside from Blair Valley, has few developed trails and facilities.
The park is prettiest (and busiest) during wildflower season, which usually runs from mid-Feburary through March. Call the Wildflower Hotline (760-767-4684) for the latest updates.
Our favorite easy hikes in the area are Kenyon Overlook, Yaqui Well Trail, Narrows Earth Trail and the Cactus Loop Trail
Getting there: 90 miles from San Diego, I-8 to County Rte S2 is easiest, but for a more scenic ride, take twisty Hwy 79 from I-8 north through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and into Julian, then head east on Hwy 78.
6. San Juan Capistrano
Famous for its swallows that fly back to town every year on March 19 (though sometimes they’re just a bit early), San Juan Capistrano is home to the ‘jewel of the California missions,' Roman Catholic outposts established in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Amid that photogenic mission streetscape of adobe, tile-roofed buildings, and historic wood-built cottages, there’s enough history and charm here to make almost a day of it.
Plan on spending at least an hour poking around the sprawling Mission San Juan Capistrano and admiring its tiled roofs, covered arches, lush gardens, fountains and courtyards – including the padre’s quarters, soldiers’ barracks and the cemetery. Admission includes an audio tour with interesting stories narrated by locals. Check out the towering remains of the Great Stone Church, almost completely destroyed by a powerful 1812 earthquake. The Serra Chapel – whitewashed outside with restored frescoes inside – is believed to be the oldest existing building in California (1782).
Check out El Campeon located in a strip mall south of the mission, this multiroom restaurant, panadería (bakery) and mercado (grocery store) serves real-deal Mexican food. Look for tacos, tostadas and burritos in freshly made tortillas, pozole (hominy stew), pork carnitas, and aguas frescas (fruit drinks) in flavors like watermelon, strawberry and grapefruit.
In the bakery, grab a tray and tongs and serve yourself from the display case from breads and pastries starting at just 59¢, croissants to Mexican cheesecake and concha (sweet rolls topped with seashell-pattern cookie topping).
Getting there: From San Diego take the I-5 north some 66 miles take exit 82 for Ortega Highway toward San Juan Capistrano.