If you’d like to take a walk on the wild side of San Diego then why not explore some of the city’s spectacular parks? With everything from rugged hiking trails to stunning ocean views, public art displays to botanical gardens and museums, there’s so much to see and do, all within a short drive of the city center. Ideal for a family picnic, a romantic stroll with a loved one or a solo trip to reconnect with nature, San Diego’s parks provide a tranquil haven in the midst of a city that never sleeps.
But San Diego has more than 400 parks that span over 40,000 acres, making it pretty hard to decide exactly where you should visit! Fortunately for you, we’ve hiked, biked and surveyed San Diego’s immense parklands, and have compiled a list of the parks that you simply can’t afford to miss out on.
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Boasting more than 85 recreational facilities spread over 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is the nation’s biggest urban cultural park and is a must-see for anyone in San Diego. If it’s your first time in the park, you should start by dropping into the Visitor Center to pick up a map. And trust us, as you start to explore Balboa Park you’ll soon see why you need a map!
Containing 18 museums, the San Diego Zoo, a miniature railroad, cultural and art centers, several theaters, children’s playgrounds, countless exquisite gardens and a botanical building that houses more than 2000 species of plants, you could easily spend weeks in the park without running out of things to do.
Pro Tip - Buy a Balboa Park Explorer Pass at the Visitor Center, or on the official Balboa Park website, to save money on entrance fees for the park’s museums. You can buy a limited pass for a single day, a pass that lasts 7 days, or a 365-day annual pass.
Balboa Park Map - You can download a free Balboa Park map pdf from the official website, here.
The newly upgraded Waterfront Park at 1600 Pacific Highway is San Diego’s premier oceanfront space. It’s fantastic for the kids, with its splash fountains, reflecting pool and lots of children’s play equipment. While you’re in the park you can take in the ocean views, admire the public art displays and, since kids are always hungry after tiring themselves out in the play areas, don’t forget to pack a picnic!
Pro Tip - If you do forget your picnic, don’t panic. Waterfront Park is just across the block from Little Italy, so you can always swing by to grab a bite to eat at any time.
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle
The strange, bizarre and mildly psychedelic Queen Calafia’s Magical Circle is situated in Kit Carson Park and is one of San Diego’s best-kept secrets. Queen Calafia’s Magical Circle is a permanent outdoor sculpture exhibition that was designed and created by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The sculptures include snakes, a five-legged eagle, eight totemic sculptures and a mosaic-tiled circular wall, all covered in bright patterns and tiles. It’s designed to be interacted with and is fun for kids to climb around on but it’s equally popular with local artists.
You’ll find Queen Calafia’s Magical Circle in the Iris Sankey Arboretum and the good news is that entrance is free. Definitely a good option for art lovers although do be aware, the park may be closed if it’s raining. Although the sculpture park is the headliner show of the park, it’s surrounded by 12 acres of natural habitat that is great for walking your dog or reading a book in the sun.
Cabrillo National Monument
Located high on the cliffs on the southern tip of Point Loma Peninsula, Cabrillo National Monument has stunning views across Downtown San Diego and the Bay. Commemorating the landing of the 16th Century Portuguese explorer, Juan Rodrigeuz Cabrillo, after whom the park is named, the main highlights include the huge statue of Cabrillo and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
Pro Tip - After taking in the panoramic views from beneath the Cabrillo statue, make sure that you follow the signs from the monument down to the tide pools on the shore. Try to time your visit to coincide with low tide so you can marvel at the amazing sea life that is exposed in the pools as the tide rolls out.
Mission Bay Park
Mission Bay Park spans over 4,200 acres and includes almost 27 miles of shoreline, most of which are beautiful sandy beaches, with 8 official swimming areas. There are numerous paths for hiking, jogging, roller skating or cycling, as well as sand volleyball courts, picnic tables, children’s play areas and more than one wildlife sanctuary where you can spot some pretty rare native birds. The aquatic park is also a great place for watersports such as paddle boarding, kayaking and aqua cycling, although if you’re feeling more low-key, you can just sunbathe on the beach and watch the world go by.
Mission Trails Regional Park
The vast Mission Trails Regional Park covers more than 7,000 acres and is as close to the authentic wilderness as you’re ever going to find in a San Diego park. With over 40 miles of trails for hikers and hardcore mountain bikers, there’s also a beautiful lake, several campgrounds and a Visitor Center where you can find out about the history of the area.
Pro Tip - If you don’t fancy heading out into the wilds alone, the park runs free trail-guided hikes each week on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. During the hike, your guide will take you to all the best viewpoints, tell you about the plants, birds and animals that live in the park, and, most importantly of all, ensure that you get back home in one piece.
Alta Vista Botanical Gardens
Secreted away within Brengle Terrace Park is one of the finest botanical gardens in the state. The Alta Vista Botanical Gardens uses modern technology to create an interactive space where you can explore different environments, including a sub-tropical enclosure, a musical garden, several ponds, a herbal labyrinth and even a prehistoric garden complete with stone sculptures.
There’s a lovely community atmosphere in the park which runs regular volunteer days and educational classes for the public. This makes Alta Vista Botanical Gardens a fantastic place to meet new friends. Of course, you don’t have to join the club and can simply wander about and enjoy the delightful flora on display.
Containing 2.5 miles of trails, picnic tables, a museum and public restrooms, Felicita Park is the site of some of the oldest Indigenous village remains in the country. Even today, you can see original grinding holes and other artifacts within the park which has earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places. This gives the whole park a special aura because you can really feel a connection to San Diego’s lost past.
Pro Tip - The park runs classes and guided interpretive hikes, on a reservation-only basis, for people who want to learn more about the history of the Indigenous community of Northern Kumeyaay.
Guajome Lake Park
The 12-acre Guajome Lake Park has 4.5 miles of trails that lead you on a meandering route through the ancient woodlands, wetlands and mixed grassland plains that surround the lakes. The park has two main ponds where you can test your fishing skills, two day-use recreational areas with playgrounds and a basketball court, as well as lots of green space to sit beside the water and enjoy the view.
Pro Tip - Guajome Lake Park also has camping facilities and an RV site for visitors who want to overnight in the park and wake up early to watch the sunrise over the lake. The lakes and marshlands attract a whole host of migratory birds, many of which gather to feed in the waters in the early morning light. So for any serious bird watcher, overnighting in the park is a surefire way of seeing some usual migratory species.
Kate Sessions Neighborhood Park
With magnificent views of San Diego, this 79-acre park is located on Mount Soledad. Named after Kate Sessions, a pioneering plant biologist and landscape architect, the park is the ideal place to let your dog off the leash for some tail-wagging fun on the slopes.
Kates Sessions Neighborhood Park is also a popular place for picnics, playing frisbee, or taking a walk along the trails that crisscross the park from one viewpoint to the next.