7 National Parks Near San Diego
San Diego easily makes the list of one of my favorite places to travel in the United States. There is so much to take in — the beaches, museums, and if you’re an outdoorsy person like me, hiking and brisk morning walks are all part of the charm.
One of my most treasured memories was the visits to national parks near San Diego. This city’s location in the southwestern corner of the United States, on the pacific coast and very close to the Mexican border may not offer a massive opportunity for visits to national parks.
However, just about half a day’s drive from San Diego, you would find up to half a dozen National Park Service sites. Within a 5-hour drive of San Diego, there are seven national park units.
Of these three are national parks, two are national monuments, and you’ll also find a national preserve and a national recreation area.
Most of the parks are easily accessible and require just a bit of a road trip which of course, is a bonus!
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7 National Parks Near San Diego
1. Joshua Tree National Park | 2. Death Valley National Park | 3. Point Reyes National Seashore | 4. Yosemite National Park | 5. Cabrillo National Monument | 6. Santa Monica Mountains National | 7. Bonus Parks
1. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National is aptly named for the multitude of trees that you will find all over the landscape. These trees are a weirdly tall species of yucca and lend the park an otherworldly feeling.
Beyond the trees present here, you would find unique rock formations — boulders of various sizes that glitter when the southern California sun reflects off of them.
This park is a major attraction for rock climbers all over the world and it goes without saying that while you don’t need to be a pro to enjoy some rock scrambling, you do need to be careful.
With a land size of over 800,000 acres, this park is an epitome of beauty and offers endless sites for you to relax and explore.
If you’re big on birding or stargazing or perhaps some rock climbing, the Joshua National Tree pack offers adventures of all sorts.
At night, the stars over this park come alive, and with little or no humidity and light pollution eliminated, you have an amazingly vivid picture of the Milky Way.
To enjoy the best of this stargazing experience, you can schedule your trip to fall around the occurrence of a meteor shower such as the Orionids in October, the Leonids in November, or the Geminids in December.
The best conditions are in early spring, late fall, and winter, and the campsites provide a taste of living outdoors. Of the nine campsites in the park, only two — Cottonwood and Black Rock offer running water and none have an RV hookup service.
The park is located about 125 miles east of Los Angeles, very close to the desert oases of Twenty-nine Palms and Palm Spring which have air-conditioned accommodation ranging from highly affordable to luxurious.
Hike the 7.2-mile round trip trail to the Lost Palms Oasis, a hike that comprises a historic Native American footpath that leads to a boulder canyon with a cool oasis hidden deep within. You may even notice some big-horned sheep during the hike.
2. Death Valley National Park
The name may sound like that of one of the parks from a horror movie but don’t be taken in by the ominous name.
While this vast area of land of Death Valley National Park, found in the East Californian desert is unbearably hot for most of the year, a visit in early spring or winter would show you a large expanse of land that boasts of so much beauty and vibrancy.
On your first visit, you might be amazed by the vividness of the desert’s colours.
There’s a bit of a story to this place — the people of the Timbisha tribe have lived and thrived here for thousands of years, with seasonal migration between the fertile mountains and the valley floor.
It got its name Death Valley in 1849 from a band of California-bound gold rushers who got lost and lost a member of their band while trying to cross the valley.
However, this history hasn’t prevented an annual 135-mile race, Badwater Ultramarathon, from taking place in the massive valley every mid-July.
Accommodation is no issue with the park boasting of nine campsites as well as a host of air-conditioned lodges including the Panamint Springs resort (doubles from $79, quadruples $94), the Ranch at Death Valley (doubles from $140) and the Furnace Creek Inn with a bit of history itself (doubles from $365).
One sight that you definitely do not want to miss out on is a view of the Zabriskie Point in all of its multicoloured glory either at sunset or sunrise. A great vantage point is available at a very short distance from the parking area.
3. Point Reyes National Seashore
California is definitely known for its beautiful beaches filled with bikinis and shorts. But if you would rather a different type of beach, one that brings you more in tune with nature, the Point Reyes national seashore is where to go.
Located about 36 miles north of San Francisco, it is home to seals and remains one of few wild beaches that California has left.
This peninsula has been under protection since 1962 to save it from being transformed into a residential area.
The division of this 180-square-mile park from the mainland is almost completed by Tomales Bay, an elongated body of water created by the San Andreas default which sits in the rift zone.
The sea cliff and headlands are a haven for a variety of wildlife including nesting seabirds and raptors. You can also find a significantly large herd of tule elk that once had the entire state of California as their habitat, peacefully grazing the peninsula’s northern highlands.
Reyes national seashore is visited all year round with highs around late December to mid-March.
This is when the longest mammal migration takes place — up to 20,000 grey whales migrate from their Alaskan feeding grounds past the peninsula to just off of Baja California, where their breeding grounds are located.
Point Reyes is located only about an hour north of San Francisco and therefore about six hours from San Diego. The park offers boat-in and backcountry camping but no RV camping or car camping is available.
There is a multitude of hiking trails to pick from such as the Earthquake trail which is less than a mile and straddles the San Andreas fault, as well as the Kule Loklo trail which comprises a coastal Miwok Native American village that has undergone some restoration.
If you’ve got more than enough energy to burn, you can set off on the 800-mile American Discovery Trail, the US’s longest hike starting at Point Reyes and trailing to the east of the Atlantic Ocean.
The only indoor lodging available is the Point Reyes Youth Hostel, which offers private rooms from $82 and can sleep up to five to dorm beds at $25.
4. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National park is a sight. The mind-blowing glacier-sculpted geology, fantastic recreational opportunities, and the diverse mix of various wildlife make it one of the most noteworthy national parks near San Diego.
Located about 200 miles east of San Francisco, the story of this park goes as far back as 3 million years ago when the amazing sights were carved by massive glaciers and ice-covered all but the very peaks of Sierra Nevada.
Today, the park is a haven for big-wall rock-climbing enthusiasts, rafting, scenic hiking, as well as fishing and wildlife watching. In the summer, the park brims with people but with winter comes a snowy and quiet paradise that you would want to get lost in.
Although a lot of park roads and trails are either inaccessible or get closed down from mid-November until late spring, the Yosemite valley stays open all through the year for cross-country and backcountry skiing as well as snowshoeing. To get an unforgettable experience here, take your time exploring.
The park is best explored on foot since the towering walls are way too high to be seen via a car’s windshield.
Great hiking trails include the 1½-mile Tuolumne Meadow and the one-mile Glacier Point which offers incredible sights. If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge, you could take on the 7.2-mile walk to the top of Yosemite Falls.
The gruelling 14-mile hike up Half Dome is for the brave and requires clinging to cables bolted into the rock face. And it requires a permit
For lodgings, you can explore accommodation ranging from cabins to wilderness campings to the luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel, where you can board with doubles starting from $360 a night.
5. Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument is located west of the city centre at the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula. It is the only National Park Service site located in San Diego.
The monument was erected in commemoration of the spot in San Diego bay where Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo, in late-September 1542, first stepped onto — West Coast of the eventual United States. History is that Cabrillo was the first European on that spot.
The Cabrillo National Monument which was established in 1913 houses a statue of Cabrillo, overlooking the famous bay where his ship was anchored.
A visit to the Visitor centre and you will learn about the Spanish conquistador and explorer’s life as well as the times when he held residence at the Visitor’s Center.
Away from history, the park offers amazing views of the skyline and harbour of San Diego and on clear days, you can see as far as Coronado Islands and Tijuana in Mexico.
Another attraction in the Cabrillo monument is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse that was the highest lighthouse in the US when it was still in operation and was sited at the top of a bluff about 400 feet above sea level.
Its spiralling height, however, caused the light to be hidden by low clouds and fog so that the lighthouse keepers had to warn ships using gunshots. This ancient lighthouse is a history museum now.
The Cabrillo National Monument also offers a number of outdoor activities and thanks to year-round perfect temperatures, San Diego brims with lots of outdoor life. Activities ranging from cycling to tide-pooling to whale watching, you just can’t get enough.
If you’re a birding enthusiast or hiking is your thing, the calm San Diego climate supports all of these!
6. Santa Monica Mountains National
Sited in the greater Los Angeles region, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area offers a much-needed break from L.A’ s urban layout. Regarded as one of the most popular parks in Southern California, it offers an amazing opportunity for a hiking trip from San Diego
It also offers a wide range of activities such as wildlife viewing and if you’re a history junkie, there are a lot of sites for you to check out. Its size makes it not only one of the largest urban parks in the USA, but also in the world as well.
Within the park are various protected natural areas comprising up to six California state parks and a number of individual parks.
Adjacent to this massive National Park Service site, you’ll find a number of California state beaches, prominent of which are the world-famous beaches of Malibu located close to San Diego.
There are over 500 miles of hiking trails available to visitors and adventurers and they provide you with an opportunity to personally take in the stunning views.
One other thing that you should know is that even though the Santa Monica Mountains are very close to L.A, they are still home to one of the densest mountain lion populations in America.
7. Other Parks Worthy Of Mention
Some other parks that are noteworthy include the Channel National Islands located close to the coast of the U.S. state of California, in the Pacific Ocean.
The Grand Canyon National park is maybe one of the most famous national parks in the US if not in the world with Grand Canyon being one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. You find this national park in north Arizona just around a day’s drive from San Diegon.
The Mojave National Preserve includes features like water- sculpted canyons, limestone caverns, ancient lava flows, massive sand dunes.
The Kings Canyon National Park is also wrought with deep valleys, skyscraping trees, and distinctive rock outcroppings.
Castle Mountain National Monument is known for its twisting trees and dramatic peaks.
What is your favourite national park near San Diego? Let me know in the comments below.
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