San Diego isn’t all beaches, microbrews, and surfers. There are parks, neighborhoods, museums, and untold secret hangouts. You could come back year after year and never see all America’s Finest City has to offer. Still, if your beachside vacation needs a day in the mountains or the desert, we’ve got that too. Go ahead and take a day trip outside San Diego and see what else Southern California has to offer. We won’t be jealous, we promise. We’ll even get you started with these seven great ideas.
San Juan Capistrano (1 hour)
An easy way to get to San Juan Capistrano from San Diego is to take the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from the Downtown Santa Fe Depot, although it adds 30 minutes each way to your trip. You’ll step off the train onto the platform of historical San Juan Capistrano Depot. The 1894 Mission Revival-style building houses a New American restaurant with an outdoor patio. Los Rios Historic District features three 18th century adobe homes, gift shops, cafés, and a petting zoo. Mission San Juan Capistrano is the highlight of any visit, but coming in March for the annual return of the swallows is magical.
Joshua Tree National Park (2 hours, 30 minutes)
Outdoor enthusiasts will love a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Avid rock climbers scramble, climb, and boulder throughout the park. There are over 8,000 climbing routes at various levels of difficulty. Six important areas in the park, each with its own unique draw, provide activities like backpacking, birding, camping, hiking, and horseback riding. Visitors can take one of several guided tours through the park. Other activities include nature walks and wildflower viewing, photography, and a number of ranger programs. If you can swing it, night sky stargazing is an experience you won’t soon forget. Overnight guests must register.
Temecula Wine Country (1 hour)
Only an hour north of San Diego up Interstate 15, Temecula Valley offers a popular wine tour destination for day trippers. You can take tours of Temecula Valley Wine Country by shuttle or limousine from many San Diego hotels, even if you live in San Diego. Other Temecula highlights include exploring Temecula’s Old Town, whiling away the hours at Pechanga Casino, golfing, hot air ballooning, biking, horseback riding, taking agricultural tours, and indulging in a vibrant arts and culture scene. Temecula also has a plethora of restaurants and microbreweries ready to satisfy you at the end of a busy day.
Ensenada, Mexico (1 hour, 50 minutes)
When visitors to San Diego want to take a day trip to Mexico, Tijuana is usually their preferred destination, but going just a bit farther to Ensenada is worth the extra effort. Just south of Ensenada on the Punta Banda peninsula, check out La Bufadora, one of the world’s largest marine geysers, reaching heights of nearly 65 feet. In Ensenada climb to the top of El Mirador for epic views, surf San Miguel Beach, go off-roading on the Ensenada sand dunes, or visit the wine museum of Valle de Guadalupe. On the way back to the border, stop in Rosarito for a Puerto Nuevo lobster dinner.
Julian (1 hour, 15 minutes)
Julian is a former 1870s gold mining town in the Cuyamaca Mountains where San Diegans go to get away from city life for a day. The historic main street has been preserved from its gold rush days with an abundance of independent shops and eateries. Other historic sites are the Eagle and High Peak Mines, Pioneer Museum, and Santa Ysabel School at Witch Creek. These days, Julian’s gold is their apples. During harvest season visitors flock to the little town for pick-your-own apple orchards, and every conceivable kind of apple product from pies to cider. Winter months bring snow activities for the whole family.
Borrego Springs (1 hour, 50 minutes)
Borrego Springs is a small town located in the Anza-Borrego Desert. Two of the best natural attractions for the small town are the wild desert flowers and the night sky. While visitors can find desert wildflowers year-round, the best time to catch the desert at its most colorful is from February to April when most species are in bloom. Borrego Springs is the first International Dark Sky community in California. If you plan ahead, you can get in on a Night Sky Tour led by astronomer Dennis Mammana. The Anza-Borrego Desert Visitor Center is a must for exploring the surrounding desert.
Idyllwild (2 hours)
Idyllwild, located in the San Jacinto Mountains, is a nature lover’s dream come true. The mountain village offers visitors numerous opportunities for rugged outdoor exploration. Whether it’s mountain biking you crave or climbing the legendary Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock, there’s adventure to be had in Idyllwild. There are a variety of hiking trails from easy to strenuous; and then there’s Devil’s Slide Trail that leads to another trail to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. You’ll find an eclectic mix of quaint shops, and an array of eateries from fine dining to a European Bakery. There is also a vibrant arts and music scene.
When you’ve had your fun, remember, there’s still so much to see and do right here in San Diego.