Beautiful San Diego is an easy sell. The city has so much to do, from art galleries, street art, and museums in Downtown San Diego to its impressive portfolio of sandy beaches for the more laidback tourists. You can carve out spots for whale-watching cruises or wine tasting – and if you are staying for longer than a day or two, you should definitely plan some day trips. San Diego is ideally located on the southern California coast, ideal for venturing to some of the state’s prettiest destinations and most exciting attractions.
Best Day Trips from San Diego
Whether you are a nature lover or prefer contemporary art, San Diego has a trip that will be up your alley. In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the top contenders, from hours spent in Los Angeles to afternoons wine tasting amidst rolling hills. It is safe to say that there’s plenty of variety. Grab a pen and paper because San Diego’s day trips do not disappoint.
Book your airport transfer to your downtown San Diego hotel in advance for a private worry-free journey.
1. Newport Beach
Newport Beach is simply the place for a part-glitzy, part-cheesy seaside experience in California. As a day trip from San Diego, it is an ideal beach day destination. You can kick back on numerous sandy beaches, head surfing, or try some delicious ice cream. There are off-beach activities, too, like amusement park activities on Balboa Pier and at Balboa Fun Zone.
This is a light-hearted day trip to choose from San Diego. If you want a fun day out or are traveling with young children, it is a great bet. Check out 28 Best Beaches in California
Distance from San Diego: 1.5 hours How to get there: Car
2. Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is something pretty special. The unusual natural lake is famous for its super high salt levels, home to only a handful of marine life species. Only the hardiest creatures and plant life can hack a life in the Salton Sea. The white sands around the lake are aesthetic enough to draw photographers, not just swimmers. Overall, Salton Sea is just the perfect unusual day trip to add to your San Diego itinerary.
Once you’ve admired the lake, there is a historic town around its perimeter to have a potter around. There’s also Rock Hill Trail if you fancy a leisurely 2-mile stroll with panoramic lake views and potential bird watching.
Distance from San Diego: 2 hours 40 minutes How to get there: Car
A Tijuana day trip is the ultimate persuasion to head out of downtown San Diego for a day. The border city has a reputation for being full of life and culture – the most accessible point of Mexico to reach on a day trip from San Diego. It is hugely popular for those wanting to squeeze a glimpse of Mexico into their San Diego itinerary. If you want an ambitious day out, Tijuana is ideal.
You can wander the old town, watch wrestling events, or visit the Tijuana Cultural Center. You can visit independently or take a guided tour.
Distance from San Diego: 1 hour and 15 minutes or 35 minutes by car How to get there: Shuttle or car
4. Borrego Springs
Borrego Springs is one of the absolute best places to visit for stargazing – entirely surrounded by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and a designated International Dark Sky Community. This means that while we are adding it as a ‘day trip’, you might want to visit at night in a slightly more unconventional trip. If you get there before night, though, you should check out some of the trails in the state park. The Slot Canyon Trail is particularly popular. Clark Dry Lake is a cool spot, too; it is a cracked lake that looks like something straight out of a Hollywood film.
Distance from San Diego: 2 hours How to get there: Car
5. Palm Springs
Chances are you’ve already heard of Palm Springs. This city is sat on – unsurprisingly – hot springs, meaning you’ll find tons of thermal pools and lush plant life. As a city, it is also action-packed in a luxurious way, with tennis courts, golf courses, horseback riding, and nightlife galore. Palm Springs is essentially an adults’ playground. It is the ideal place to let your hair down for a day. Read more: 16 Best Cities in California
As a quick side note, Palm Springs is directly between San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park. You can combine the two with a quick stopover in Palm Springs en route to the national park.
Distance from San Diego: 2.5 hours How to get there: Car
6. Los Angeles
We won’t mince our words; ideally, you’d have more than a day in Los Angeles; it is easily one of California’s best cities. From theme parks to the Walk of Fame and Beverly Hills, Los Angeles is pretty much everybody’s dream destination when it comes to visiting California. The mega-city got its reputation from A-listers and Hollywood movies, and it has some of the best attractions and tours the entire state offers. That said, Los Angeles is doable on a day trip from San Diego. You’ll just have to have a military-style itinerary. You can also invest in a guided day trip. This way, the 2-hour drive each way won’t tire you out too much.
You can also book this two-day private sightseeing tour combining Los Angeles and San Diego. Read all the things you can do in Los Angeles on your day trip or weekend getaway at 37 Best Things to Do in Los Angeles – By A Local
Distance from San Diego: 2 hours How to get there: Car, train, or tour
7. Catalina Island
Catalina Island is one of the most adventurous places you can visit from San Diego. The stunning island has a natural rugged allure, with shrub-covered mountain ridges and small villages hugging the beachfront at their base. Catalina Island is 22 miles off the coast of California, meaning you’ll be catching a ferry. The ferry leaves from Dana Point, approximately an hour’s drive north of San Diego.
Once you reach the island, you’ll have hiking, fresh seafood restaurants, and wildlife watching to entertain you. Catalina Island is famous for its beauty and great hospitality. And in a day, you’ll definitely be able to get a real experience of the island.
Distance from San Diego: 2 hours How to get there: Ferry
8. Rosarito Beach
If you are looking for San Diego beaches, this sandy beach is further than you might have initially thought to look. Across the Mexican border, Rosarito Beach is the ideal spot for a serene walk on the sands. As a whole, the beach town of Rosarito is excellent fun – best known for its footloose style of nightlife and passionate surf culture. It doesn’t take much to explain why Rosarito is a popular getaway amongst US tourists. But even just on a day trip, it is a great beach day destination. It has fantastic scuba diving opportunities, too, with an artificial reef lying just offshore.
Less than a 50-minute drive from San Diego, what more could you want? You’ll combine two countries in one trip and get a refreshing dose of Mexican culture.
Distance from San Diego: 50 minutes How to get there: Car
9. Go Whale Watching
As far as animal encounters go, seeing a giant humpback whale surface from the Pacific Ocean tops most experiences. For any wildlife lovers, going whale watching is one of the best possible day trips from San Diego. And while you can get lucky almost all year round, the best period is winter and early spring. Most tour operators offer a guarantee, too, where if you don’t see a whale on your tour, you get a free tour the next day.
Even if you don’t spot whales, there are definite sweeteners. There are almost guaranteed sightings of sea lions and dolphins, which will help you crack a smile. This highly-rated tour is likely to sell out.
Distance from San Diego: N/A How to get there: Tour
10. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is one of the most beautiful day trips from San Diego. If you want to go hiking for a few hours, the shaded oak woodland at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is irresistible, especially in the morning of a hot day. Many camp in this park and complete overnight hikes, but it’s equally well-suited to day trippers. It isn’t just scenic; stay quiet, and you can spot anything from cougars to coyotes and mule deer. The park is a magical place for wildlife enthusiasts.
Distance from San Diego: 1 hour How to get there: Car
11. Cleveland National Forest
Cleveland National Forest is a dream for hikers and mountain bikers; it even has horseback riding trails. This spot is the southernmost national forest in California and sprawls over a respectable 460,000 acres. Cleveland National Forest is also home to three mountain ranges, including Santa Ana, Palomar, and the Laguna Mountains – meaning plenty of summit hikes and challenging trails to get your teeth into.
To escape Downtown San Diego for a day, you can’t beat the shaded trails in Cleveland National Forest. The forest has all sorts of wildlife, too, including mountain lions, coyotes, and mule deer. It’s a good idea to bring binoculars. Read more: 15 Best Hikes in California – Inspiration to Get Outdoors
Distance from San Diego: 1.5 hours How to get there: Car
12. San Clemente State Beach
San Clemente State Beach stretches a mile long, with spacious sands and dramatic views that pack a definite wow factor. If you want a beach day, San Clemente State Beach has the space to beat the crowds on a busy day. It is also just an hour north of the city. It takes you on a rather scenic miniature road trip through multiple Californian beach towns as the route hugs the shoreline. At San Clemente State Beach, you can enjoy many different water sports, picnic, or relax with a book. Remember to visit the nearby San Onofre State Beach as well, which is a more rocky beach but backed by dramatic cliffs and a beloved surf spot.
Distance from San Diego: 1 hour How to get there: Car
13. Lake Poway Recreational Area
Lake Poway is where to head for an independent fishing trip from San Diego. You may need to hire gear in the city if you didn’t bring yours, but the serenity when you arrive will make it worth the extra organizing. The reservoir is set against a scenic backdrop of multiple small hills. When you aren’t fishing, you can complete an easy perimeter hike of under 3 miles. Lake Poway is a small slice of peacefulness only 30 minutes away from San Diego’s city center by car. Plus, you’ll very likely come back with trout.
Distance from San Diego: 40 minutes How to get there: Car
14. Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve
Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve is a stunning 2,900 acres of conifer woodland with a mountain peak. Volcan Mountain has great indigenous importance, and it is worthwhile learning about the culture and history behind the mountain before visiting just to make your hiking even more special. The best hike is a 5-mile round trip that takes you right to Volcan Mountain’s summit. But if that sounds a bit much, there’s also a 3.2-mile mid-summit hike you can opt for. Both have stunning views over the preserve and are brilliant for nature lovers and those wanting a fitness challenge with beautiful views.
Distance from San Diego: 1.5 hours How to get there: Car
15. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is sea lion heaven. This rocky outcrop is situated just north of the city center, making La Jolla Cove one of the shortest day trips from San Diego. However, La Jolla Cove is worth allocating a few hours or more, as these animals can keep you entertained for ages.
La Jolla Cove is a tiny stretch of beach that sunbathers share with the huge animals – sunbathing or walloping their way along the sands. You mustn’t touch them, and the resident lifeguards are super strict on enforcing respect for the animals. At La Jolla Cove, sea lions reign supreme. What’s not to love about this super fun setup?
Distance from San Diego: 20 minutes How to get there: Car
16. Julian Pie Company
This is one of the whackiest day trips from San Diego. The Julian Pie Company is just over an hour’s drive inland from the city and is most known for its delicious apple pie. For good old-fashioned American cuisine, this spot is worth the mini road trip. You’ll be enjoying your pie in a diner-style café. Seriously, if you are a foodie, it is well worth a visit. You could even stock up on takeaway pies as souvenirs. On your way back, consider stopping at one of the scenic spots you drive past. These include the wineries in the San Diego Country Estate region and Cedar Creek Falls.
Distance from San Diego: 1 hour 15 minutes How to get there: car
17. Wine Tasting Tour
Going wine tasting is an interactive day trip choice to spice up your San Diego itinerary. You can actually drive to most of the vineyards, which are located just a short drive outside of the city center. However, for obvious reasons, there are guided tours that include shuttle services – a much better idea and well-established service in the San Diego tourism industry.
One of the leading wine destinations near San Diego is Temecula Valley. The valley has more than 45 different wineries to choose between, and it’s known for its Rhone and cabernet sauvignons. Its warm climate demands these better-adapted grape varieties. However, Temecula Valley still has more than 24 grape varieties thriving in its hills.
This private wine tasting side car tour is a unique way to explore San Diego while tasting wines at different locations.
Distance from San Diego: Approximately 1 hour How to get there: Tour
Are you ready for one of the most fun activities near San Diego? Disneyland is just 1.5 hours north of San Diego and is a great day trip for the whole family.
Embarking on a day trip from San Diego to Disneyland offers a magical escape into a world of wonder and excitement. Just a short drive north, Disneyland, known as “The Happiest Place on Earth,” is the perfect destination for families, friends, and Disney aficionados alike. From the thrilling adventures in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to the whimsical rides in Fantasyland, there’s something for everyone.
Plus, with year-round sunshine and the convenience of proximity, San Diego residents can spontaneously decide to explore the enchanting realms of Disneyland for a day without the need for extensive planning. It’s the ideal quick getaway that promises a lifetime of memories and a much-needed dose of joy and entertainment.
Distance from San Diego: 1 hour 45 minutes How to get there: Car
19. Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is one of the most popular day trips from San Diego and – honestly – anywhere else nearby in California. Laguna Beach is famed for its boho vibe and beautiful coastline. For glitzy people in a scenic setting, Laguna Beach ticks every box. Visiting is an experience in itself, even just for a day. You can make the most of great surf by renting a board, spending a day on a beautiful beach, or hiking while admiring Pacific Ocean views. Laguna Beach is one of the most famous places on the California coastline, which is an incredible feat in itself. For a ‘happening’ beach day, it is a perfect day out.
Distance from San Diego: How to get there:
20. Lake Mathews Estelle Mountain Reserve
Lake Mathews Estelle Mountain Reserve is a scenic reservoir surrounded by approximately 13,000 acres of protected land. Nature lovers will adore this reserve, especially with all the bird-watching opportunities. In winter, you can get lucky and spot bald and golden eagles. While, as a slightly more unusual animal encounter, you can also see kangaroo rats all year round if you look carefully enough. Kangaroo rats look like little gerbils and are some of the cutest animals you can see. They are nocturnal and highly savvy when it comes to noticing could-be-predators nearby. But if you hang around Lake Mathews Estelle Mountain Reserve a little later, you could get lucky with sightings. Otherwise, just lap up the waterfront views and bring some bird-watching binoculars.
Distance from San Diego: 1 hour and 40 minutes How to get there: Car
21. Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is a fascinating museum to visit and is set in an old Spanish chapel. The San Juan Capistrano ‘mission’ was founded in 1776 as a way for Spanish settlers to reach out to the community and preach about Catholicism. You can learn more about this early religion preaching through different exhibits, as well as catch the bell ringing, which occurs each day in honor of Saint Junipero Serra. Mission San Juan Capistrano is perfect for anyone interested in religion, the colonial impact in the US, and the history around San Diego’s region.
Distance from San Diego: 1.5 hours How to get there: Car or train
22. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most classic day trips from San Diego. There is nothing wrong with jumping on the tourist trail occasionally. And that is especially the case when it comes to Joshua Tree National Park. The park covers nearly 800,000 acres and attracts over 3 million visitors yearly, mostly thanks to its bizarre namesake trees. The Joshua Tree is a twisted, bristly tree with green spiky shoots at the end of its branches. It looks like an oversized cactus, an absolute novelty that attracts photographers and non-photographers alike to lift their cameras.
Aside from its trees, the national park has many great hiking trails. Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Mastodon Peak are firm favorites.
Distance from San Diego: 3 hours and 15 minutes How to get there: Car
23. San Jacinto Mountains
Do you like to mountain bike or go rock climbing? The San Jacinto Mountains are where to head on your chosen one-day excursion from San Diego. The mountain range is just east of Los Angeles – northeast of San Diego. A quick Google brings up dozens of bike trails online, and you can either bring your own or hire one in San Diego. The mountains are also dreamy for climbers. The granite peaks overlook stunning meadows and forested valleys. You’ll be well rewarded with any summit climbs, and there are plenty of technical challenges for more experienced climbers.
Of course, there is also San Jacinto State Park itself. This is the highest peak in the mountain range and sits at 10,834 feet. It is only suitable for the most advanced hikers but a brilliant challenge for those with adequate experience.
Distance from San Diego: 3 hours How to get there: Car
Day Trips from San Diego: FAQs
Are you ready to review the FAQs behind the perfect day trips from San Diego? That extra insider information can transform your trip – so it’s well worth scanning over these top four questions. Who knows what might just give you that extra bit of inspiration? Here are the top FAQs for planning day trips in San Diego.
Can you do a day trip from San Diego to Mexico?
Yes, you absolutely can. San Diego is situated right on the US/Mexico border, near the border city of Tijuana. Tijuana is easily accessible on a day trip from San Diego, meaning you can nip across a different country for a day. Tijuana is great for beaches, Mexican cuisine, and cultural experiences like watching wrestling.
Can you do a day trip to Tijuana from San Diego?
Yes, you can easily organize a day trip to Tijuana from San Diego. Multiple tours take tourists across the border for a day, or you could head on an independent day trip by renting a car. Tijuana is excellent fun and the perfect addition to a stay in San Diego. Talk about maximizing your time!
Can you do a day trip from San Diego to Los Angeles?
Definitely, you can take a day trip to Los Angeles from San Diego in just 2 hours by car or 3 hours by train. You can also book organized tours, which is excellent if you want to get taken around the main sights with minimal effort. Los Angeles is obviously very iconic. It is one of the best day trips from San Diego if you want an inspiring getaway.
What is the best Mexican town near San Diego?
Tijuana is the most commonly visited Mexican destination from San Diego. However, we suggest visiting Rosarito. Rosarito is a sunny resort town on the Baja Californian peninsula with a beautiful beach and intense enough nightlife to draw regular US visitors. It is a surfing hotspot and is also brilliant for scuba diving, with a former Navy ship creating an incredible artificial reef just offshore.
Why We Love These Day Trips From San Diego
As you can see, you are super spoiled for choice when it comes to day trips from San Diego. The city is perfect for spreading your wings and experiencing more of California, and what better way to make the most of your holiday? San Diego day trips are a brilliant idea. And if you stay longer than two days, you definitely have time for at least one of the trips on this list.
Are you looking for more San Diego inspiration? You are in the right place. Remember to look at our Where to stay in San Diego guide and ultimate California road trip itinerary. San Diego has much to learn about and is an ideal launchpad for even more adventures. Make the most of your trip.