Think of any leisure or adrenaline-boosting verb and there’s a San Diego park to do just that, and more. Whether you’re primed for day excursion or prepped for an overnight adventure; whether your goal is to catch an al fresco snooze or striving to bike, hike, or soar – an ideal park experience is never too far out of reach in San Diego. Add in the region’s enviable climate and diverse topography, even the most hesitant recluse can’t help but be inspired to venture outside.
Below, allow these seven San Diego parks to introduce you to all the region has to offer.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there may be additional travel restrictions. Check the latest guidance in California before planning a trip, and always follow local government health advice.
Best for kids
Waterfront Park, San Diego
Downtown San Diego’s Waterfront Park sprays jetstreams of water 14 feet into the air before landing in an ankle-deep wading area, which keeps kids delightfully occupied for hours. The park also hosts a padded, futuristic-looking play area for kids to climb, hang, and slide. Grown-ups can take in views of San Diego Bay, picnic in the grass or at one of the covered tables. Towering, colorful sculptures by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle offer an artistic element, and a concession stand sells snacks and beverages every day of the week.
Best centrally located park
Black Mountain Open Space Park, Rancho Peñasquitos
One of the most centrally located parks in San Diego County is also perhaps one of the most versatile. Black Mountain Open Space Park offers a number of recreational loops for hiking, mountain biking (complete with bike repair station), equestrian trails, and even a glider port for hang gliding and paragliding. The glider port has been a popular spot for foot-launched, and non-motorized soaring since the 1930s.
Trails vary in length from 2 to 6 miles, and they can get rocky in some parts. Access the summit for 360-degree views from Hilltop Community Park – think picnic areas, basketball courts, a playground, and sprawling green space. Additionally, the Jas Arnold Trail for All people is an ADA accessible, 1100 linear foot loop for people of all mobilities.
Come spring, a ‘blue carpet’ appears when California lilacs bloom. More than 80 bird species can be spotted here, including rare ones like California Gnatcatcher, and Northern harrier. Mule deer and bobcats have also been sighted.
Best accessible park
Balboa Park, San Diego
The majority of Balboa Park’s paved surfaces and wide sidewalks means wheelchair users and those with limited mobility can enjoy a classic San Diego experience, too. The park is home to numerous museums, performance spaces (like the open-air Organ Pavillion), restaurants, gardens and other attractions that one can easily spend an entire day within the park. Some museums and attractions (including the San Diego Zoo) offer a caregiver pass to those accompanying an individual with a disability. Others, including the Fleet Science Center, and the Natural History Museum host programming for people with various sensory abilities. Call ahead to inquire.
Accessible parking near a tram stop (also accessible), which runs every ten minutes to various stops throughout the park, is available at Federal Lot, Inspiration Point Lot, Organ Pavilion Lot, and Palisades Lot. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters may be rented from the Visitors Center.
Best bike park
Sweetwater Bike Park, Bonita
Just east of San Diego, Sweetwater Bike Park is a singular experience within greater Sweetwater Regional Park. Built across four acres, this bike park is equipped with beginner to expert level jump lines, a skill zone, flow trails, a kid’s pump track, and more.
The bike park is covered in the same material used on BMX tracks, resulting in smooth jumps and corners throughout. Currently, the park is the only one of its kind in San Diego County, with similar parks in the works.
Elsewhere in Sweetwater Regional Park, there are options to hike, camp, picnic, and cool off at its splash pad–eastern parts of the county get considerably hotter than the coastal regions during warmer months.
Best for camping
William Heise County Park, Julian
Pitch a tent, cozy up in one of 14 wilderness cabins (bring your own mattress and beddings), or park your RV, camper, or motorhome (up to 40 ft.) among William Heise park’s pine, oak, and cedar trees. Call ahead to book a cabin, which sleeps up to six, and includes a fireplace, interior lighting, bunk beds, food pantry, and (if you want it) WiFi. These cabins tend to book up weeks in advance, and note that pets are not allowed in or around cabins. Day visitors have access to 11 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, and picnic areas.
Mule deer and flocks of Rio Grande turkeys are common wildlife sightings throughout the park, as are the gray fox, bobcat, golden eagle, and occasional mountain lion.
Situated on 1000 acres within the Cuyamaca Mountain Range, William Heise is conveniently located five miles from Julian’s quaint downtown. Beginning in the late 19th century, Julian was a thriving mining town. These days, in addition to its fresh air and natural setting, locals and visitors are drawn to the area for its prized apple pie and cider.
Best for skateboarding
Robb Field Skate Park, Ocean Beach
San Diego’s first skateboard park, created with the help of internationally recognized, local skateboarders like Tony Hawk, is one of its most scenic. Robb Field Skate Park is situated along the San Diego River, in Ocean Beach, and features 40,000-square feet of concrete for all skill levels. This skate park is defined by various bowls (including one with an octagon volcano), ledges, handrails, and a pump bump.
Spectators can take in the action from benches located just outside the active skate area. From the skate park, it’s less than a mile from the beach, cafes and restaurants along Voltaire Street and Ocean Beach Pier’s immediate surroundings.
Best dog-friendly park
Kate Sessions Neighborhood Park, Pacific Beach
Dogs run free among expansive, grassy slopes of Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach. The vibe is mellow, and humans will appreciate views of Mission Bay, and the San Diego skyline (even Coronado Bridge on a clear day) in the distance. Pack a cap and sunglasses, or set up your relaxation station beneath one of its leafy pepper, and eucalyptus trees. Other features include a playground and hiking trails.
Pick up provisions on Mission Blvd or Garnet Avenue for an impromptu picnic lunch or accompaniment to sunset.
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