21 Spontaneous Day Trips That Are Less Than 3 Hours Away From San Diego
Head out to one of these California dream staycation destinations!
If you live in sunny San Diego, then you know there’s no shortage of fun to be had within the city’s limits. But for those seeking a quick escape to one of California’s many tourist hot spots, these 21 day trips are the perfect solution. The best part? They’re all less than three hours away*!
2 hours 22 minutes
Head up the 5 to the City of Angels and live among the stars for a day. There’s no shortage of things to do, see and taste in the entertainment capital of the world. Over 100 museums tell the story of this cultural mecca’s incredible artists, actors, singers, founders and major cultural contributors.
Take the Walk of Fame and see over 2,600 of L.A.’s most famous celebrities’ names set in stone beneath your feet. Head to Malibu Beach to catch the rays and enjoy the town’s sunny, idyllic weather. You’ll never want to go back to San Diego after spending the day in L.A.
Grab your passport and head south of the border to Baja California’s most popular city. Home to one of the most beautiful scenic roads in Mexico, Tijuana draws visitors from Mexican natives and California dreamers alike. In fact, the city is so popular that the area is the most heavily trafficked along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Exciting nightlife is the major draw here, with nightclubs, fine dining, trendy art galleries and craft beer breweries among the most popular activities the town has to offer. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Tijuana is it’s actually the birthplace of the Caesar salad. Yup—Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini went south of the border during the Prohibition Era where he opened a restaurant and, with his limited supplies, threw together what is now known as the classic Caesar salad.
1 hour 53 minutes
Head even farther south to another of Mexico’s vibrant cities, Ensenada. This coastal town in Mexico offers visitors a rich beach-side vacation destination, with Guadalupe Island touted as the best place in the world to see white sharks and the great migration of elephant seal colonies coming from Alaska in order to mate and reproduce.
The hilly landscape is part desert, part tropical valley, with mountains framing its epic beauty to create an unforgettable backdrop for all your vacation needs. Find cave paintings and the La Bufadora marine geyser within the nearby national parks, or see thousands of gray whales as they travel from the northern seas to give birth in the natural refuge south of Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, San Ignacio Lagoon and Bahia de Ballenas in Baja California Sur.
2 hours 14 minutes
Make your way to beautiful Palm Springs for a day trip that won’t disappoint. The welcoming, eclectic and vibrant community offers visitors a place where they can truly be themselves. Take warning though: This place is known for its high temps. But with plenty of pools and air-conditioned restaurants to take shelter from the heat, you’ll be able to enjoy the weather while also experiencing the town’s recreational offerings and local flavor.
This town exudes the same provenance characteristic of L.A. See where Elvis honeymooned. Drink at the same bar Sinatra frequented. You’ll find a plethora of hidden hot spots such as these in sunny Palm Springs. Be sure to hit the shops, as this town has some great high-end retail for the modern home decorator.
1 hour 2 minutes
Get your lobster bibs on because Maine’s got nothing on the sensational shellfish in this Mexican beach town. The fried lobster served here is out of this world, but the town has some other big draws that make it a great day trip destination for San Diego residents.
Get pampered at one of Baja California’s best spas, Spa Ventana al Mar, where you can enjoy a massage, facial, waxing or take a dip in their pool or hot tub. Head to one of the vibrant beach bars to watch the sunset and enjoy a specialty cocktail. Love to surf? Puerto Nuevo has some seriously sweet swells that will appeal to any surfer. What are you waiting for? Head south of the border to this town for your next spontaneous day trip!
Yet another Baja fave, Rosarito Beach is one of the most popular destinations on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Positively bursting with luxurious resorts and outdoor recreation, it’s no wonder so many people clamor to spend time at this oceanside beauty.
Sport fishing is one of the most popular activities in Rosarito, with various companies providing boats and guides to the best fishing spots. Scuba-diving and whale-watching are also some unique offerings that catch tourists’ attention while staying here. Spend a day in luxury in this immaculate coastal town.
Home to the world’s first skateboard park, a trip to Carlsbad will reveal some of California’s best-kept secrets. Taste the town’s world-famous strawberries, play in the Flower Fields, or release your inner child at Legoland California in Carlsbad. You can also say hi to Shaun White while you’re in town—you’re in the Olympic snowboarder’s hometown, after all.
While you’re in the area, take a trip to one of Carlsbad’s three lagoons: Batiquitos, Agua Hedionda and Buena Vista. While Agua Hedionda is the only one of the three that allows for water activities, you’ll still love witnessing the natural beauty each of these gorgeous places has to offer.
1 hour 51 minutes
What do Jurassic Park and a one-legged, kidnapping horse thief have in common? Both claim Borrego Springs as their home. Holding some of California’s more eclectic oddities, Borrego Springs features the Galleta Meadows Estate, where giant, metal sculptures of prehistoric creatures roam the earth. You’ll also find the Pegleg Smith Monument—an homage to the famed peg-legged charlatan that asks visitors to throw rocks in a pile if they seek Pegleg’s treasure.
Font’s Point offers up an amazing view of the surrounding California badlands, where visitors can gaze down at the massive expanse of land that is rife with fossilized remains. Be warned: This overlook is only accessible through a stretch of sandy, sun-baked road that’s four miles long. Only 4WD vehicles are advised as assistance for stranded visitors is very limited in this remote location.
Breathe in the fresh, mountain air on Mount Laguna, one of San Diego’s lesser-known wilderness gems. On the eastern edge of San Diego County, let the mountaineer within enjoy the region’s only alpine area, with peaks ranging from 4,000 to 6,400 feet in height. With breathtaking views, ample hiking trails, mountain biking opportunities and even the chance to play in some snow (you read that right: SNOW in CALIFORNIA), Mount Laguna is the perfect place to experience nature.
While viewing the mountain first-hand through its series of hiking trails is definitely a must for your day trip to-do list, some of the best vistas can be seen from viewpoints along the Sunrise Highway. The best one? Kwaaymaii Point. Located on the edge of the Laguna escarpment, this overlook provides visitors with breathtaking views of the mountains and the Anza-Borrego Desert. You’ll definitely want to bring your camera along to capture these incredible views.
Who needs the ocean when Lake Poway is so close? Nestled in the rolling hills of Poway, California, this incredible outdoor paradise has been offering up amazing adventures to residents since 1972. There’s plenty to do and see on this beautiful lake: fishing, boating, hiking, picnicking and even archery are just a few of the things that make this place so great.
Stock up for your day at the lake at the Lake Poway Concession Stand. Here you can find all the refreshments and fishing gear you’ll need for a perfect lakeside escape. You can also rent a boat here, so you can enjoy all that the lake has to offer without towing your boat along.
Mount Palomar Observatory
1 hour 29 minutes
Located at the top of Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County, the Mount Palomar Observatory has been at the forefront of astronomical research for almost 100 years. Owned and operated by Caltech, the observatory is home to three active research telescopes, including the Hale Telescope, the Samuel Oschin Telescope and a 60-inch telescope.
Visitors are welcome to the observatory between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. While you won’t be able to catch a glimpse of the night sky through the facility's telescopes, you will be able to take a guided tour to learn all about the massive Hale Telescope that has earned world renown. Be sure you monitor the observatory’s website for updates about when the facility is open to the public, as times tend to change due to weather and safety concerns.
1 hour 38 minutes
Take a trip to one of Orange County’s hidden gems: The artist colony of Laguna Beach makes southern California’s premier coastal destination a unique and ethereal experience you won’t soon forget. Halfway between L.A. and San Diego, visitors will get the chance to explore sea caves, tide pools, ocean side bluffs, and glorious beaches.
This coastal town is also home to the most beachfront lodging offerings in all of California, making it the perfect place for a beachside getaway. Aside from the beautiful beaches, you can also opt to explore the town’s world-renowned mountain biking trails, hiking spots, dramatic scenery, and thriving marine sanctuaries. Get a piece of this paradise on your next day trip.
Head to this hip and stylish destination for some beachside bliss that’s not even a half an hour away. La Jolla’s seaside village has been inspiring artists and immersing locals in shimmering sunshine for decades and was once home to such notable celebrities as Dr. Seuss, Senator John McCain, and presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
There’s plenty to do and see here, with fantastic spots for water sports and other outdoor recreation. Perhaps one of the best things about this city is its award-winning collection of restaurants, featuring some of the most delicious dishes under the California sun. Elevate your palate with local flavor you won’t find anywhere else in this beautiful beach town.
2 hours 23 minutes
If you’re looking for a thriving art community coupled with an exciting nightlife, Pasadena is the place for you. It will be difficult to take in everything this amazing town has to offer in just one day, but lucky for San Diego residents, it’s close enough to make day-tripping her a frequent event.
Explore the Norton Simon Museum, featuring one of the most remarkable private art collections in the world, including artwork by Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Rodin. Visit the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see the only museum devoted entirely to California artists. At night, catch a play at the Pasadena Playhouse or revel in an elegant night at the Pasadena Symphony. A day of sophistication and creativity awaits you in this amazing city.
Joshua Tree National Park
2 hours 45 minutes
Where the Colorado and Mojave deserts meet is home to Joshua Tree National Park. Named after the park’s abundant, twisted Joshua trees, the area didn’t earn national park status until 1994 after Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act.
Park visitors will enjoy plenty of recreational activities, including hiking through the Hidden Valley, camping at one of the many grounds available throughout, or climbing one of the many rocky surfaces that claim the park as their home. The best part about Joshua Tree National Park is that it’s a designated dark sky area, meaning visitors will get an unparalleled view of the stars without all the light pollution from nearby cities.
1 hour 17 minutes
See the place where gold was discovered in the 1870s in California’s premier mountain town. Julian boasts a rich history (pun intended) with plenty of opportunities for visitors to learn about the California Gold Rush and experience gold mining first-hand. You’ll also enjoy the outdoor recreation available in this quaint mountain town.
Hike the trails of Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve or learn how to make apple cider at one of the many orchards featuring century-old apple trees. Make sure you take time to visit in April for a Taste of Julian. During this one-day event, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the town’s restaurants, wineries and breweries to get a mouthful of local flavor without breaking the bank.
Calling all foodies: Your one-stop shop for artisanal eats, craft beer, and vibrant wineries is in beautiful Temecula Valley. With over 40 wineries in the region, Temecula is one of California wine country’s best-kept secrets and features gorgeous rolling hills for breathtaking panoramic views of the valley.
Visitors will not only enjoy the chance to tour the many wineries that dot the valley, but they’ll also be able to take a hot-air balloon ride to appreciate the vineyards with a bird’s eye view. Make this a trip of sophisticated luxury by living it up at one of the many full-service spas in town after your day of wine tasting and hot-air ballooning is complete.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
1 hour 4 minutes
The Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded more than 200 years ago as the seventh of 21 statewide missions and is the birthplace of Orange County. Known as the “Jewel of the California Missions,” the historic chapel boasts upwards of 300,000 visitors each year.
Considered the American Acropolis, ruins from the Great Stone Church can be found here, among many other unique artifacts, treasures, and paintings displayed throughout. Be sure to visit during the daily bell ringing, used to honor Saint Junipero Serra who founded the mission in 1776. A spiritual and delightful experience, you’ll have to carve out time to take a trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano for a once-in-a-lifetime visit you’ll never forget.
2 hours 5 minutes
Nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains is magical Idyllwild. With tall pines and cedars encompassing this small town haven, you’ll be able to smell the difference of mountain living as soon as you get to town. Local shops and merchants provide a quaint shopping experience while the beautiful mountains give a much-needed escape from city life.
Once voted America’s cleanest forest, Idyllwild’s gorgeous woodland sanctuary is a perfect getaway for all nature-lovers. Turn your day trip into a mini vacation by camping at one of the many sites located along Lake Hemet in Garner Valley for a camping adventure you and your friends will be talking about for years to come.
1 hour 31 minutes
You didn’t think we’d forget about Disneyland, did you? Home to the Disneyland Resort, Anaheim is just a short drive away from sunny San Diego. Head to Tomorrowland to the Star Wars Launch Bay or hitch a ride on the Disneyland Railroad for a leisurely ride through the park.
Your inner child will thank you for passing the time in one of America’s most-loved theme parks. You’ll see plenty of your favorite characters strolling alongside park visitors as you make your way to and from Disneyland’s iconic and thrilling rides. All the fun you could ever imagine is just beyond the castle walls at this magical theme park.
2 hours 27 minutes
Love is all around you when you visit Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain. Located in the lower desert of Southern California, this “outsider art” masterpiece is a tribute to God, sending one simple yet powerful message: God Is Love. Not just a place rife with biblical and religious scripture, the art piece showcases flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds and many other intriguing and colorful objects.
Standing 50 feet tall and 150 feet wide, Salvation Mountain is made entirely of local adobe clay and donated paint. One of the most unique destinations in the United States (and arguably, the world), one thing is certain about this curious creation: Love is everywhere at Salvation Mountain.
While we may not fully understand your need to escape the confines of beautiful San Diego, we hope this list of spontaneous day trips helps make your next excursion one you’ll never forget. What is your favorite staycation destination in the San Diego area? Let us know all about it in the comments below.