San Diego is “America’s Finest City” for a reason. Between the quick access to the desert, mountains, and beaches, plus year-round 70-degree weather, this city has so many outdoor adventure possibilities. San Diego is a big, widespread city with so much to do so it’s hard to decide what things are worth seeing or doing, especially if you are looking for nature, outdoor adventure, and great food. If you’re looking for something more than just walking around towns and shopping, this blog will help you find cool hikes, the best beaches, and fun rock climbing. So without further ado here is a guide to the fantastic city of San Diego for outdoor adventure.
Best Beaches and Towns:
Cardiff by the Sea
Encinitas is a super hipster, somewhat yuppie, surf town that consists of dozens of foodie restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, and surf shops like Ripcurl and Hansen’s. If you like spending your days walking around and eating in cute towns head here, but if you’re looking for some nice views and great waves, head a minute south to Cardiff-by-the-Sea and San Elijo State Beach, a 2 mile stretch of beautiful beach and pristine reef.
This is one of the best beaches in San Diego due to the amazing surf break, moderately low crowds, and the proximity to the Cardiff town center which is a quick five minute walk just across the highway.
I highly suggest you spend your day here swapping between surfing, chilling, and walking across the street for donuts, brews, and acai bowls. Don’t miss the foodie spots across the street like VGs donuts, Sambazon Acai Cafe (click here to read our blog about why acai bowls are the best post surf snack), and The Lost Abbey Confessional Brewery.
This beach town holds an odd mix of the young, hipster scene mixed together with what us locals call the “PB crazies”. But don’t let this eclectic mix deter you from experiencing the amazing views, fun ambiance, and retro surf vibes here.
Pacific Beach is a great spot to go for a jog or just walk along the boardwalk. From Crystal Pier to Tourmaline there are lots of amazing waves to surf varying from fast corners, to whitewash that’s perfect for learning to surf, and cruiser waves at Old Man’s (Tourmaline Surf Park). Read our blog Guide to Surfing the California Coast for more info on PB and Cardiff.
Be sure to grab a scone at Brick and Bell, they’re the best I’ve ever had.
Do you know the difference between hippie and hipster? Come to Ocean Beach and you’ll find out. The largest population of hippies reside in this OG surf town.
With some renowned surf at north jetty, and some decent waves at Avalanche, and fast rides the Pier, Ocean Beach’s waves draw plenty of crowds.
Grab a delicious brunch at Wonderland before heading to the beach. Dog Beach is a great place to hang it if you have a dog. If you’re up for a game of volleyball, no better place to play then Ocean Beach right next to dog beach.
Finish your day with a sunset seen from the pier. Along with Coronado, Ocean Beach has some of the best sunsets in the world.
Silver Strand State Beach
The Silver Strand isn’t a beach town, but it sure is one of the most beautiful and secluded beaches in Southern California. Staying at the campground gives you instant access to one of the most gorgeous stretch of beach.
Walk south on the shore at low tide and you’ll be amazed by the dozens of sand dollars and pretty seashells you will find.
Almost every single morning, dozens of dolphins in pods can be spotted playing in the surf. Nowhere else in the world have I seen dolphins as often as I do here. It’s even more amazing when you’re sitting in the water surfing because the dolphins will swim right under your board (remember, they’re harmless).
There is also a nice bike path that gives you quick access via bike, skateboard, or rollerblade to the island of Coronado to the north or Imperial Beach to the south if you want to visit a town for a day. Like I mentioned before, the sunsets here are some of the best I’ve ever seen and that’s not to mention the sunrises which are also amazing. Go under the freeway and watch the sunrise from the peninsula of the nature reserve.
The name is fitting at this pristine location. This is another a great place to watch sunset. It isn’t much of a beach but the long stretch of steep cliffs that meet the open ocean is quite beautiful. This is a fantastic place to surf with slow, fat waves, which you can access via a long silver staircase along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. If you’re looking for a little adrenaline, go cliff jumping at the popular spot. It’s in a large cove next to the sign that says, ‘warning, cliff jumping or diving is prohibited,” just look for a large group of people gathered by the cliff. If you’ve never cliff jumped before, don’t try this, it can be very dangerous, and remember to only try it if it’s high tide.
Though I wouldn’t recommend going to overrated La Jolla, it’s neighboring small town of Windansea is a rich, locals town with fantastic reef beach and good vibes. Though the waves crash against the shore in some spots, just a little bit south there is great place to swim in the pretty, blue cove. Windansea is also an epic surf spot. It picks up a good amount of swell when it’s flat in other places but it also holds big swell.
If you only have time for one hike in San Diego, you have to hike Torrey Pines. Torrey Pines has pretty much the best views you can get in San Diego. Torrey Pines is a network of trails sitting on the cliff side which overlooks the beautiful coastline from La Jolla to Del Mar. There are a bunch of trails that stem off from the main trail to overlooks so your hike can vary between two and six miles. Go in the morning for glassy seas and gorgeous lighting.
This summit is definitely best experienced at sunrise. We hiked it at a full moon and had plenty of light to get up the mountain and enjoy one of the best sunrises we’ve seen. The trail is moderate with only a little bit of steepness. This 6 mile roundtrip hike takes only an hour and a half each way. I’d recommend giving yourself that much time before sunrise so you can get comfy at the peak and watch the pretty colors unfold.
Potato Chip Rock
For some hikes, the journey is better than the destination. For potato chip rock, the opposite is true.
There are two approaches to the rock, the regular route (8 miles RT) and the backside route (5 miles). The regular route is longer but is less steep and meanders along a dry trail with views of San Diego below. The backside approach is steeper and goes along a paved fire road but you will weave between some large boulders and trees. (I recommend the longer, less steep route).
Be sure to take a cool picture on the edge of potato chip rock which shows the illusion of a sheer drop in a photo but is not very dangerous in actuality.
Corte Madera Mountain
If you can, I urge you to escape the crowded, overrated hikes and drive east of to the outskirts of San Diego county and hike the large mountain, Corte Madera. (Click here to see an adventurous weekend getaway in San Diego which includes hiking Corte Madera).
The trail is diverse starting on a wide dirt trail surrounded by forest then emerges onto grassy plains before you reach a col with great views of the beautiful rock face. The trail then winds up the low inclined side of the mountain, winding in and out of boulders and forest sections.
Stonewall is another great hike on the outskirts of the San Diego area. The hike is short but steep, making it a very popular hike to run up. The top has some fun rocks you can scramble around as well as a beautiful viewpoint with panoramic views of the desert to the east and the ocean to the west.
Blacks Beach via Main Road or the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Next to Torrey Pines, this quick hike will give you the best ocean views in San Diego. This is more of a walk than a hike but it is steep. The path goes down in between a Canyon on a restricted access, paved road The steepness gives you amazing views of the ocean below all the way to Scripps Pier and La Jolla. Relaxing on the beach may not be the best idea since it’s a nudist beach, although the nudists tend to stay further north below Gliderport.
Three Sisters Falls (spring or winter ONLY)
This really is a cool hike when the waterfall is running. There are few places in SoCal where you can jump into and swim in waterfall pools. But that means when there isn’t a waterfall to see, it’s nothing special (IMO) so ask a local if there’s been rain and if the waterfall is running.
This hike starts easy with a flat trail winding among small trees, but then has a very steep and slippery gully to descend and some boulders to scramble over to get to the falls. Though it’s challenging, the waterfall is a fun hiking excursion.
Related Blog: Hiking and Camping Near San Diego: 2 Day Itinerary
Climbing at Mission Gorge
While Mission Gorge is also a popular hiking area, rock climbing at Mission Gorge is a great place to catch epic views of San Diego. Park at the visitor center and hike the one-way road to access the climber’s trails. With a mixture of trad and sport routes, Mission George is sure to fill your adventurous spirit. Be sure to climb Mission Control (5.8 sport), As the Crow Flies (5.7 sport), and the Turkey Chute (5.6 trad).
Best Touristy Things:
Eat in Gaslamp
Though this area is expensive and very un-outdoorsy, it is a very nice area to eat out. This hipster area almost guarantees good food that’s either local, artisan, or organic.
Little Italy Farmers Market
This is a big farmers market with a lot of diversity. There are a lot of local farmers with great produce as well as some small businesses like a nut crumb company (bread crumb alternatives), an artisan Nut Butter Company 5150, kombucha bars, and so much more. Though there are so many good food trucks and restaurants in Little Italy, I encourage you to support local farmers and small business. The farmers market is open on Saturdays from 8am-2pm.
Shop in Encinitas
We pretty much never go shopping and we pretty much never go out to eat. But if we were to shop and go out to eat, we would do it in hipster Encinitas. There are a lot of really good restaurants, coffee shops, and artisan food shops around here, however, it is expensive to eat here. There are lots of shops like Hansen’s, a huge surf shop with tons of brand name clothes, as well as small business storefronts that are locally owned.
Things You Should Skip In My Opinion:
- Skip Seaport Village and possibly skip The Midway unless you love history
- Don’t go to the Hotel Del, if you want great family photos, schedule a beach photo session with our friend Elle at Windansea
- Don’t go to La Jolla Shores, if you want a playground on the beach, hit the oceanside Pier
- Skip hiking Cowles Mountains unless you like crowds and loud music while you hike
- Hiking and Camping Near San Diego: 2 Day Itinerary
- Guide to Surfing the California Coast
- San Diego to Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary
- Weekend Hiking Trip from San Diego: 2 day Itinerary
- California Coast Road Trip: 2 Week Itinerary