A Nature Lover's Guide to San Diego's Outdoor Beauty
By: Alexis Mills
What truly sets apart a San Diego getaway isn't just the packed foodie scene or lively culture but its diverse natural beauty. With 70 miles of coastline and an average of 266 sunny days a year, it's typically a coastal getaway. But that sunshine also nourishes lush grasslands, open deserts full of mud caves and slot canyons, rolling hills full of vineyards, and majestic mountains.
"San Diego is the most biologically rich county in the continental U.S.," according to The Nature Conservancy. Full of wildlife and terrain, we'll show you how the true nature of San Diego will leave you with the most memorable trip – full of life.
Feel the seabreeze and take in the beach town lifestyle
Soak up the sun and fully embrace San Diego's laid-back beach town lifestyle. Visit the downtowns of almost any coastal city (Encinitas, Carlsbad, La Jolla), where you can stroll through boutique shops, grab a quick bite, and head to the beach. Also, check out Coronado Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla Shores, and Mission Beach for well-known beach staples.
For more nature-focused beaches, visit Cardiff State Beach in Encinitas to explore the reef, Torrey Pines State Beach in La Jolla for rugged cliffs with loads of trails, and Windansea Beach in La Jolla for a tucked away small beach with a palm-covered surf shack.
For picturesque easy beach-side trails, do the La Jolla Beach Trail (Coast Walk Trail) and Tide Pools Walk, both in La Jolla, full of greenery mixed with the bright blue ocean.
Head south for must-visit Sunset Cliffs for a long walk along the coast, with stunning cliffside views featuring hidden caves, tidepools, and enjoy watching surfers jump in.
There are so many places where you can post up for the day to enjoy an unforgettable beach day. But, no matter where you find yourself, you must witness the magic vibrancy of San Diego's sunsets, each a unique masterpiece in the sky.
Head inland for a variety of wild habitats
To explore the wild habitats beyond the beaches, head inland and explore the diverse landscapes.
Near the quaint local mountain getaway, Julian, are meadows, mountain peaks, and epic waterfalls to hike through and explore. Head to the mountain peaks for unreal views, hike 2.3 miles to Garnet Peak Trail in Cleveland National Forest, hike 3.9 miles to Stonewall Peak Trail in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park with a climb through the forest and a stone-carved staircase to the top, or Volcan Mountain Trail in Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve for a 4.9-mile hike full of oak trees, waves through green wildflower meadows, and windy views.
For an easy, short waterfall, hike less than half a mile to Green Valley Falls to hear the raging water in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. For more of a trek, but worth it, is the hike of 4.1 miles (out & back) to Three Sisters Falls in Cleveland National Forest for streaming views of water flowing into three separate pools surrounded by the green mountains.
For a unique desert inland experience, head to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This vast desert landscape is home to various unique plant and animal species and stunning natural wonders. Head into The Slot, where the narrow slot canyon mazes you through 2.3 miles of a towering rocky canyon, offering some shade in the hot desert. Hike through Borrego Palm Canyon for a large palm oasis, and, if you're lucky, spot some bighorn sheep climbing the rocky landscape. Hike Wind Caves Trail for a short less than a mile hike with large holey rocks to climb into and vast views of the desert. Or, for an epic adventure, take your four-wheeler to the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves to drive on a dirt road to explore the numerous mud caves with grand views inside the play of dark and light in the mountain caves.
Create a connection and get close to the wildlife
From camels, whales, and oysters, San Diego has an extensive range of wildlife to connect with.
The San Diego Tide Pools are home to various marine life, including starfish, anemones, and crabs. A guided tour can help visitors learn about the delicate balance of life in these tidal habitats. You can also visit La Jolla Underwater Park, where you can kayak or snorkel to see or swim with the fish, seals, and sea lions. Or hang around La Jolla between June and September and interact with the abundance of leopard sharks in the shallow. Between December and May, get a peak of baby harbor seals and their moms from the sidewalk of Children's Pool Beach. To protect the seals, they close the beach yearly for the pupping season, but you can still witness the cuteness from afar.
You can spend a day at sea whale watching year-round for gray whales in winter and spring and blue whales in summer and fall. And even if you don't get lucky with a whale sight, you will most likely see dolphins, sea lions, and fish and spend a day exploring the great blue sea. A bit closer to shore, visit the Carlsbad Oyster Farm, where you can get a tour and taste oysters fresh from the source.
San Diego is also full of farms where you can visit many farms or zoos. If you are heading out in the way of Julian, on your way, you can stop for a tour at the Oasis Camel Dairy to meet, feed and even ride the camels. Or simply wave to them on your drive inland. About an hour south, you can visit Alpacas and Friends to feed the fluffy alpacas. Or head to a small zoo Nurtured by Nature inland in north San Diego to swim with adorable little otters.
Curated, unique outdoor experiences
San Diego also offers unique, more humanely curated outdoor experiences, from gardens to outdoor venues, but you'll still be outside enjoying the beauty of San Diego. The Del Mar Horse Races are a classic San Diego event. You can enjoy live horse racing, bet on your favorite horse, and enjoy the stunning ocean views from the stands. The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park is perfect for enjoying a concert waterside under the stars. This outdoor venue offers a stunning backdrop of the San Diego skyline and bay, where even boats will gather to enjoy some of the best acoustics in the city.
Balboa Park is another must-visit outdoor destination in San Diego. This sprawling urban park is home to over 17 museums, gardens, and attractions, including the San Diego Zoo. You can easily spend an entire day exploring the park and its many outdoor spaces, including the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Botanical Building, and the Spanish Village Art Center.
The San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas is a beautiful and serene oasis for those looking for a plant-filled paradise. The garden features over 4,000 plant species worldwide, stunning waterfalls, a tropical rainforest, and a children's park. Guided tours are available to learn more about the ecosystems in the garden.
Another unique outdoor experience is the Torrey Pines Gliderport. This site is one of the country's most popular paragliding and hang-gliding spots and offers breathtaking views of the ocean and surrounding cliffs. So even if you're not up for flying, it's worth a visit to watch the gliders take off and land and take in the stunning scenery.
No matter where your San Diego getaway takes you, it’s impossible to have a trip that isn’t impacted by the diverse natural beauty. With its abundant sunshine and rich biodiversity, this city invites you to embrace its natural wonders and create lasting memories. From unforgettable sunsets, abundance of wildlife, and land full of life, take in the true luxury of San Diego, all of its natural beauty.