Got an extra day or two to spare on your trip to Southern California? Explore more of the Golden State on some of the best day trips from San Diego, CA. Within driving distance of California’s second-biggest city, travelers can explore mountainous state parks, desert wonderlands, and beautiful beaches. The natural wonders surrounding San Diego perfectly complement the city’s lively energy.
Explore upscale beach communities within a few hours’ drive, like La Jolla and Laguna Beach, or enjoy cultural landmarks and historic churches. Enjoy outdoor recreation opportunities in some of California’s most beautiful state parks, or hop on a ride at famous amusement parks.
Ready to spice up your visit to San Diego? Adventure beyond the city limits with this complete guide to the top-rated San Diego side trips.
Top-rated San Diego day trips
If beautiful beaches are on your to-do list during your Southern California vacation, head to La Jolla. Only 22 miles from downtown San Diego, La Jolla is a luxurious town located right on the water in San Diego County. Take in the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean while you relax on the extensive stretches of sandy beaches or explore the rocky coves.
Surfers can enjoy a variety of prime spots, like Windansea Beach. Unless you’re a pro, you might want to enjoy watching because the waves are enormous and powerful. But there’s plenty to enjoy here, even if you aren’t among the expert surfers catching waves. Photographers will love the sunsets at Windansea Beach; be sure to pack your camera!
For beginner surfers, La Jolla Shores is a great option. The waves are smaller and more gentle, making it a great place to practice catching the waves. Ocean kayaking is another popular activity at La Jolla Shores.
For even calmer waters, head to La Jolla Cove. Surrounded by sandstone cliffs, it’s an excellent place for diving, snorkeling, and swimming. Walk the pristine paths surrounding the area while searching for sea lions. Or enjoy the family-friendly amenities like picnic areas, restrooms, and showers. After your beach day, enjoy a meal at one of the oceanfront dining restaurants.
After you’ve had your fill of surf, sand, and sand, visit downtown La Jolla to enjoy world-class dining options and great shopping. Prospect Street and Pearl Street are local favorites for shopping and dining.
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If you’re an art lover, enjoy the Murals of La Jolla scattered throughout the downtown on the sides of buildings. To experience more art & culture, don’t miss a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.
Palm Springs is a desert oasis that’s been a popular tourist destination since the glamorous days of Old Hollywood. It first gained popularity in the 1930s as a winter resort town for Southern California’s wealthy elite.
The weather in Palm Springs is beautiful year-round, making it an ideal escape to enjoy the outdoors with swimming, hiking, golfing, and even rock climbing. Palm Springs is about 84 miles from San Diego; you can reach it in a little over 2 hours by car.
A plethora of gorgeous hiking trails surrounds Palm Springs. Palm Canyon, Andreas Canyon, and Murray Canyon are a few popular spots for hiking and taking in the epic views of the unique landscape.
If you want to enjoy the natural surroundings without breaking a sweat, consider a scenic drive along Palm Canyon Drive, where there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the views.
Mount San Jacinto is a famous landmark for day trippers to enjoy visiting Palm Springs. You can skip the strenuous hiking and still experience the gorgeous view by riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The tramway soars 10,000 feet into the air onto the mountain top that’s often covered in snow year-round. Spectacular vistas await; be sure to pack your camera!
Palm Springs has many exciting museums and art galleries featuring rotating exhibits for culture lovers to enjoy on their visit. Palm Springs Art Museum, which celebrates modern architecture and art. There’s also incredible shopping for every budget, from luxury boutiques to locally owned arts and crafts and trendy vintage and consignment shops.
Laguna Beach is an iconic destination near San Diego, made famous by a popular reality TV show. But there’s more to the pretty beach town than privileged high school kids. Laguna Beach captures the spirit of SoCal with a gorgeous coastline, plenty of waves, hiking, and a thriving arts scene.
On your day trip to Laguna Beach, you can relax on the beach and soak up some sun while watching surfers catch waves—or, perhaps, rent a board and try it out yourself. Afterward, enjoy hiking on some of the coastal trails and taking in the views of the cliffs and coast.
Laguna Beach has some great galleries to explore for arts & culture lovers, with rotating exhibits and rare pieces on display from private collections. Spend some time wandering the picturesque streets and shopping before enjoying a meal at world-class restaurants serving fresh California classics and international cuisine.
A perfect day trip from San Diego, Laguna Beach can be reached by car in a little over an hour.
In just under two hours, day trippers from San Diego can cross the southern border of the United States into Mexico and experience gorgeous Rosarito Beach. The region known as Baja California is the perfect getaway for travelers in search of some international flare during their San Diego vacation.
Spend the day in Rosarito Beach, relaxing on the pristine, beautiful beaches. Or enjoy horseback riding through the sand and taking in the incredible views of the coast. Tour guides offer adventurous experiences like ATV rides, surf lessons, jet ski rentals, and even ultralight airplane rides.
Surfers can’t miss the iconic K38 surf spot with great waves without the crowds of the neighboring San Diego beaches.
After your beach day, stop in for a cocktail at the iconic Rosarito Beach Hotel with its charming architecture and stunning Mexican tile work. You’ll be walking in the footsteps of star-studded guests like Marilyn Monroe and Gregory Peck, who once enjoyed the lovely hotel.
Puerto Nuevo is the nearest village where visitors can sample authentic cuisines like grilled lobster served with rice and tortillas.
Afterward, enjoy shopping at a unique artisan market selling locally produced goods. You can find all sorts of unique souvenirs to take home with you, from leather goods, local art, silver jewelry, and beautiful Mexican blankets.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park might have visitors feeling like they’ve traveled to another planet. The dry-rugged views look like they might belong on a planet like Mars. In stark contrast to the seascapes of San Diego, the desert park possesses a beauty all its own.
California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park features sharp mountain peaks formed from years of erosion. This beautiful desert landscape offers unique views and excellent photo opportunities. While the area may appear barren from a distance, a closer look reveals that the park is teeming with life.
Wildflowers emerge from the earth in the hundreds with colorful varieties that will delight and inspire visitors. The flowers start to bloom as early as late February, and different elevations within the park experience different peak flower seasons. Rare cactus blossoms attract visitors from around the country.
Hiking is the main attraction in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. A large section of the famous Pacific Crest Trail runs throughout the preserve.
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The little town of Borrego Springs is also worth a visit. Located in the middle of the park, Borrego Springs features a quaint downtown area with ice cream shops, restaurants, and a thriving local arts scene. Travelers of all ages will love the larger-than-life installations of dinosaurs and mythological beasts that line the streets of Borrego Springs.
Stick around after the sunsets for an unforgettable view of the night sky; the town is an International Dark Sky Community that protects the night from light pollution, making it the perfect spot for some star gazing.
Escape from the hustle and bustle of San Diego and experience one of California’s most stunning landscapes for your day trip, just an hour and a half drive from the city.
San Juan Capistrano
Travelers will feel like they’ve stepped into a Mediterranean paradise on a visit to San Juan Capistrano, just over an hour’s drive from San Diego. Surrounded by picturesque hillsides and palm trees swaying in the breeze, the landscape here captured the hearts of some of the first Spanish missionaries in California.
Founded by missionaries in 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the main historical attraction in the village. Take in the gorgeous Spanish Mission-style architecture with traditional adobe construction and red tile roofs. Enchanting gardens surround the church with plenty of trees for shade, colorful flowers, and stone walls.
History buffs will be incredibly excited to explore; Mission San Juan Capistrano is the oldest building in California that’s still used today.
After exploring the church, enjoy a leisurely walk to San Juan Capistrano’s charming downtown area. Stop for lunch at a cafe and browse through various quaint shops.
Mount Laguna is a dream come true for nature and outdoor recreation lovers. A quaint alpine town, it’s less than an hour from the sunny beaches of San Diego, but you’ll feel as if you’ve journeyed to a whole other world. Thick forests, beautiful meadows, and towering mountains offer a refreshing change of scenery.
Mount Laguna towers a whopping 6,000 feet above sea level. The high altitude allows for a vastly different climate than the rest of Southern California. In the winter, the mountain is often covered with snow. San Diego locals visit on the weekends for sledding and other winter sports.
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Whatever the season, Mount Laguna makes the perfect mountain retreat and is an excellent choice for a day trip. Enjoy hiking or mountain biking on the amazing trails before heading into town to enjoy a meal at the historic Pine House Cafe and Tavern.
California wine usually brings to mind the famous vineyards of Northern California. But SoCal’s Temecula has its very own wine country. This gorgeous wine-making district is located just 58 miles from San Diego, making it an easy day trip.
Producing award-winning wine, Temecula has been a top destination for wine enthusiasts for years. An ideal climate with warm and cool nights and abundant outdoor recreation opportunities add to the draw of this incredible day trip from San Diego.
Enjoy wine-tasting experiences at the various vineyards scattered through the picturesque landscapes, and then enjoy a delicious meal at one of the many world-class restaurants. Browse through boutiques that feature local artists and craftsmanship.
Looking for some recreation? Hike some of the trails, go biking, or book a horseback riding tour to make the most of your visit to Southern California’s wine country.
Experience a trip to Europe without ever leaving Southern California on a trip to San Clemente. Dubbed the “Spanish Village by the Sea,” the charming town is within an hour’s drive from San Diego.
Architecture enthusiasts and history buffs will adore perusing the streets of the picturesque village and taking in the abundance of Spanish-style architecture. The downtown area is incredibly charming, with quaint shops, restaurants, and cafes around every corner.
On a trip to San Clemente, you can also enjoy some great surfing, with waves appropriate for all experience levels. Looking for seclusion? Head to San Onofre State Beach. This off-the-beaten-path spot features long stretches of sandy beach with plenty of space to spread out and carve a little slice of paradise all for yourself.
End your day by admiring a breathtaking sunset from the San Clemente Pier.
Hop in the car for an easy 45-minute adventure to Carlsbad, a relaxed SoCal beach town that’s home to the popular amusement park, LEGOLAND, California. Families traveling with kids shouldn’t miss this day trip destination that’ll offer plenty of fun for the whole family.
LEGOLAND is one of the top family-friendly tourist attractions in SoCal. There are more than 60 thrilling rides and plenty of live shows and performances to entertain every type of traveler. Right in the heart of Carlsbad, the unique amusement park is a must-visit for fun-lovers of all ages.
If you’re lucky enough to explore Carlsbad during the spring, don’t miss a stop at the Carlsbad Flower Fields. The giant garden blooms from March through May and features thousands of colorful blooms that are perfect for Instagram-worthy shots. Be sure to pack your camera!
Lovely dining options, farmers’ markets, and beautiful beaches can all be found in Carlsbad, making this quick day trip from San Diego a perfect destination for every type of traveler.
Palomar Mountain State Park
Travelers who’ve had their fill of the beautiful San Diego beaches will love a visit to Palomar Mountain State Park. Perfect for travelers in search of some physical activity and outdoor recreation, Mount Palomar offers excellent hiking and panoramic views of the rugged landscape. Various beautiful hiking trails provide the perfect opportunity for fresh air, and hikes are available for all skill and fitness levels.
Palomar Mountain State Park features 1,862 acres of pristine mountain wilderness. Outdoor enthusiasts will love escaping the city and relaxing in the peaceful natural retreat. Activities like fishing and picnicking are popular pastimes in the state park.
Regardless of the time of year, the mountain oasis makes an excellent day trip destination from San Diego, with mild weather even in the winter months. Best of all, it’s only an hour and a half inland from San Diego by car.