The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking San Diego - All You Need to Know

Backpacking San Diego

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San Diego is a great city for backpacking at any time of year thanks to its mild climate, beautiful natural scenery, and exceptional cultural attractions. It’s easy to see why San Diego earned the nickname “America’s Finest City,” and just a few days in San Diego provide all the makings of an unforgettable adventure. This itinerary balances getting to know the center of San Diego and exploring the places to get out in nature that it has to offer.

Although San Diego is California’s oldest city, some of the state’s wildest stretches of landscape reside here. Just in San Diego County alone, there are plenty of state parks and natural reserves for an exciting backpacking trip. My itinerary takes you to some of the most popular San Diego neighborhoods and to several of the most scenic locations in Southern California.

I saved time for historic districts near downtown San Diego and visited the waterfront. But the natural wonders outside the city were too enticing, and I had to include them in my itinerary. In total, I spent five days in the San Diego area and it’s definitely high on my list of best places to backpack in America. If you have time to venture out further from San Diego here are some Day trips from San Diego to try out. 


Top Tips | Getting Around | Backpacking San Diego Itinerary | Costs

Day 1Explore Downtown San Diego

Day 2Delve into San Diego’s Cultural Side

Day 3Watersports & Beach Day

Day 4State Park Adventures

Day 5Hiking


Budget Wisely – San Diego is one of America’s most popular cities to live and vacation, so naturally, it’s among the country’s priciest destinations. It frequently lands in the top-10 most expensive cities in the united states.

Consider Camping – Since many places on my itinerary venture off into the outdoors, you should definitely consider camping to save money. The weather is fabulous most of the year and staying in hotels and Airbnbs will put a strain on your budget.

Purchase a Go San Diego Pass – To make the most of your time exploring San Diego’s attractions, the Go San Diego Pass provides the most bang for your buck. There are three types of passes available that give you access to over 55 of the best places to visit in San Diego. The All-Inclusive lets you visit as many places you want for 1, 2, 3, or 5 days and the Explorer pass lets you choose between 3, 4, 5, or 7 attractions.

Free Summer Concerts – If you decide to visit San Diego between June and September, you’re almost guaranteed to hear festive tunes in the evenings. Del Mar, Coronado, Mission Hills, and Liberty Station are only a handful of areas that offer free nightly entertainment in San Diego.

Farmers’ Markets – Many neighborhoods in San Diego have weekly markets that sell fresh produce, meat, seafood, and scrumptious desserts. Due to its Mediterranean climate, San Diego is a farming paradise and the locals take full advantage of their environment. Some of the best places to taste the local flavours include Little Italy, Ocean Beach, and La Jolla.

Rent a Bike – Exploring San Diego by bike is great for your budget and health. Whether you decide to stay in downtown San Diego or within its seaside communities, San Diego has lots of bike routes to explore its delightful neighbourhoods on two wheels.

Avoid Conventions – San Diego hosts numerous conventions throughout the year that attract thousands of visitors to the coastal city. July’s Comic-Con is the granddaddy of San Diego conventions that draws well over 100,000 tourists into the city for one weekend. Unless your plan is to attend a convention, make sure you don’t schedule your trip during the same time as one.

Craft Beer – San Diego is a hot destination for beer enthusiasts and the city is jam-packed with craft breweries. If you find yourself craving a beer in San Diego, scheduling a trip to one of its local breweries is a must.

Dreary Weather in May & June – If you visit San Diego during late spring/early summer, don’t expect non-stop sunny skies. Known as “May Gray” and “June Gloom,” it tends to be overcast a lot during this time of year.



San Diego is large and spread out, but there are plenty of public transportation options when staying inside city limits.

This itinerary takes you around San Diego County as well and to several scenic places unreachable by public transport. Renting a car will be the most convenient way to get around once you start exploring the San Diego suburbs, state parks, or 70 miles of gorgeous coastline.

Airport Transfer – San Diego International Airport is less than four miles from downtown San Diego, and it’s easy to reach many of the city’s best attractions from the airport. Bus route 992 is the most convenient way of getting to and from the airport. The bus stops outside of each terminal, and the ride to downtown takes less than 15 minutes. Once you get off the bus, you can connect to other public transportation services.

Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) – San Diego’s Rapid bus lines offer frequent service to many of the city’s popular attractions. There are multiple routes that crisscross San Diego and the easiest way to ride is with a Compass Card or the Compass Cloud app.  

Trolley Lines – San Diego has one of America’s oldest light rail transport systems and four Trolley lines serve the city. The Trolley system includes over 50 stations that take you across much of the San Diego metro area.

Taxi/Uber/Lyft – If you plan on hopping around different San Diego neighborhoods, you may want to download ride-sharing apps or save the phone number of local taxi services. There are plenty of cabs and ride-sharing services across San Diego and at major attractions, but I wouldn’t recommend using them often as they’re expensive.

Bike – I mentioned this in the tips section, but San Diego is one of America’s most bike-friendly cities. There are waterfront cycling paths, many roads have bike lanes, and you’ll find lots of places to rent a bike.

Amtrak – With numerous routes making stops in the San Diego area, Amtrak is another option to explore San Diego and other beautiful places in Southern California. The Pacific Surfliner lets you explore the Pacific coast from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, and the Sprinter takes you to the historic town of Escondido.

Rental Car – To get the most out of your San Diego itinerary, renting a car is the most convenient mode of transportation. Although traffic can be chaotic at times, it doesn’t compare to the madness of the Los Angeles metro area. There are many car rental companies near the airport, and you’ll have access to several scenic drives in and around San Diego. Or if you’re feeling adventurous you could make it a road trip and drive from San Francisco down to San Diego.



See the map below for the route I’d recommend for your backpacking San Diego trip and the best places to visit in the list below.


Day 1 – Explore Downtown San Diego

Little Italy – The former tuna fishing mecca has transformed into one of San Diego’s liveliest enclaves. Satisfy your culinary cravings at the weekly Mercato Farmers’ Market, enjoy Al Fresco dining, and browse through stylish boutiques. Head to the Waterfront Park for enchanting views of the harbour and find some of San Diego’s renowned craft breweries.

East Village – This real estate hotspot is among San Diego’s fastest-growing neighbourhoods with its high-rise condos, hotels, brewpubs, and live music. The district houses Petco Park, the stadium of the MLB’s San Diego Padres, and tons of eateries, art galleries, and boutique shops.  


Gaslamp Quarter – Complete your first day by hanging out at San Diego’s nightlife epicentre. The historic district is teeming with bars, hip clubs, upscale lounges, and renowned theatres. Whether you’re looking for a world-class restaurant or pulsating party, the Gaslamp Quarter has a spot for everyone.


Day 2 – Delve into San Diego’s Cultural Side

Balboa Park – The massive 1,200-acre park is San Diego’s cultural hub with over a dozen museums, intimate theatres, peaceful gardens, and the San Diego Zoo. Adorned with incredible architecture, walking through the Balboa park alone is a magnificent sight to see. Street performers entertain tourists, the Natural History Museum is one of the country’s best, 3D movies air inside the IMAX Dome, and the Fleet Science Center has many hands-on exhibits.


Other attractions inside this cultural whirlwind include Balboa Theatre, The Old Globe, San Diego Junior Theatre, Japanese Friendship Garden, and the San Diego Museum of Art. With so many amazing attractions, this is a fantastic spot to use a Go San Diego Pass.

Old Town San Diego – Head to Old Town and discover the neighborhood that birthed the state of California. The area’s history goes back to the mid-18th century when it was only a simple mission. San Diego’s Mexican culture is on display through Old Town’s restaurants, shops, and authentic Mariachi bands.


Day 3 – Watersports & Beach Day

Mission Bay – Less than 10 miles from downtown San Diego, Mission Bay is an aquatic wonderland with all sorts of fun-filled activities. Go on a sailing excursion, try jet skiing, or head to the oceanfront boardwalk to sprawl on the sandy shores or catch some California surf. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach boast vibrant atmospheres, and animal lovers can skip across the channel and play with furry friends at Dog Beach.

Torrey Pines State Beach – Nestled between Del Mar and La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Beach is one of the most dramatic stretches of San Diego’s coastline. The beach stretches for roughly 4.5 miles, and its coastal trails are the perfect place to watch the sunset.



Day 4 – State Park Adventures

If you don’t already have a rental car, this is the day to pick one up and embark on an adventurous journey to the landscapes surrounding San Diego. There’s a lot of driving, and it’s crucial to get an early start to the day.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park – Situated in the Laguna Mountains, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is a nature lover’s paradise only 45 minutes outside of San Diego. A trekking adventure will lead you to tumbling waterfalls, a tranquil lake, and native wildlife. One of the most exhilarating hikes in the area is the six-mile out and back trail to Cedar Creek Falls. The swimming hole beneath the falls is a refreshing break if you’re hiking in hot weather.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – The surreal desert landscapes of this inland park reveals awe-inspiring images of steep slot canyons, blooming wildflowers, and rugged mountains. For a thrilling night of stargazing, the park has nearly 200 developed campground sites and several primitive campgrounds to sleep beneath the stars.


Day 5 – More Fun in the Outdoors

Cleveland National Forest – Leave the desert and drive towards the southernmost forest in the state of California. There are hiking trails close to the highway, scenic viewpoints from lookout towers, and tons of wildlife roaming in the nature preserve.

Iron Mountain Summit – This is one of the most popular day hikes just outside of San Diego. The steep climb works your cardio, and the ocean breeze provides relief as you reach the summit. At the peak, take in the stunning panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and San Diego County on a clear day.

Cowles Mountain – Conclude your outdoor adventure by tackling this popular day hike only 20 minutes outside of San Diego. Located in Mission Trails Regional Park, Cowles Mountain is the star attraction of the 7,220-acre park. The mountain peak gives you breathtaking views of San Diego from the city’s highest point.


Itinerary Duration

As you can see above, I’ve made this San Diego backpacking itinerary for five days. However, this only scratches the surface, and you could spend months enjoying the city’s fabulous weather, delicious food, beautiful nature, and charming neighborhoods. There are festive events throughout the year, and it’s impossible not to find something that piques your interest. Whether you’re a foodie or nature lover, backpacking in San Diego will provide the trip of a lifetime.




Accommodation – Hotels are often more expensive the closer to downtown you stay, but it’s possible to find decent rates without being too far from the action.

Two-star hotels typically range from $50-$90 per night depending on the specific neighbourhood and time of year. One-bedroom vacation rentals or Airbnbs are usually around $80-$100 per night, but the price can vary based on your location and amenities.

Hostels are also available in San Diego for as low as $25-$35 per night for a dorm bed. Thanks to its comfortable year-round weather, San Diego has plenty of campgrounds that are perfect for backpackers to make use of too.

Food – San Diego’s food scene rivals other iconic American cities, and you’ll be able to taste flavours from around the world. In addition to mouthwatering Mexican, Italian, and seafood eateries, local markets provide residents and tourists with all sorts of tasty produce. The city is famous for its fish tacos, but there are always new restaurants with innovative cuisines popping up everywhere.

Although not as pricey as Los Angeles or San Francisco, food prices in San Diego are still higher than the national average. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant will cost around $12-$20, and you can expect to spend roughly $30-$35 per day on food.


What are you most looking forward to doing while backpacking San Diego? Let me know in the comments below.


Find out how to quit your job, travel the world, and transform your life

Hey I'm Chantell

I quit my job to travel in 2014 and it's one of the best decisions I've ever made. I know first hand how hard it can be to get everything in place in order to be able to travel, to know what to pack and where to go, let alone how best to go about your travels once on the road. Here I share everything I've learnt so far so you don't have to learn through as much "trial and error" as I did...Read more

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