The City of San Diego stretches across a series of canyons and lagoons. While one of the largest counties in the country, the central area holds many discoveries if you like to get outside in nature.
Originally the Missions were positioned to have access to fresh water and, soon after the bays and swamps were dredged bringing commerce and people.
For all the industry, what visitors and locals have historically marveled at most are the natural highs – sunsets and ocean views year round, especially when seen from a lofty vantage.
Here’s a small list of the more popular. You’ll need a car to reach these when you’re looking for what to see in San Diego.
What to see in San Diego – North Trails
Photo credit: “Pacific Coast at La Jolla, CA, from Mount Soledad DSCN0203” by Billy Hathorn – Own work.
Just north of Mission Bay and immediately west of the I-5 highway is a tall hill with a cross at its pinnacle. The road up curves past multimillion dollar neighborhoods that stop short of the apex. A 360-degree view waits at the top with benches and the Veterans Memorial, with its disputed cross. Easy hike from the top lot. Find out more.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve:
The Reserve with over 2,000 acres of land were set aside over a hundred years ago and walking the trails through chaparral, past elegant Torrey pine trees, its easy to imagine what the early settlers or California’s first native residents, the Kumeyaay people, experienced here. This is one of the most popular hiking areas in the region, so expect some company. You can park along the strand or pay lot then begin the journey up the trail directly. The other option is to start out on the beach, tracing the beach bluffs to a staircase and trail to the top. Watch for hang gliders flitting along the cliffs to the south. Easy to moderate hike depending on how much of the bluff trail you do. More here.
La Jolla Shores trail
This trail is a bit tucked away from park routes and the trailhead is just north and left of the Sunny Jim Cave store. The small parking lot adjacent was once featured in a scene from the John Huston movie, Chinatown. The trail leads you along cliffs and past mansions but you’re here for the stunning views across the bay to the north with the La Jolla Shores beach and the Scripp’s Institute Pier. A short, easy hike unless you trek to the beach. More info here.
What to see in San Diego – East Trails
Cowles Mountain Trail:
East of town this 3 mile, switchback trail is just east of Mission Valley. It’s rated moderate but be sure to take water and a hat if you tackle it on a sunny day. There’s no shade along the route. Dogs must be kept on a leash. The summit offers 360 degree views and on clear days you can see across the border into Mexico. More here.
Mt. Helix Park:
Mount Helix rises further east from Cowles Mountain, its flanks ringed by homes. Not many visitors realize there’s a public park, run by a the private Mt. Helix Foundation, at the summit. The 1,370 foot peak hosts an outdoor Amphitheater and a 35 foot cross. There’s limited parking at the top but additional space near Mt. Helix Drive and Vivera. Visitors are welcome from sunrise to sunset. An easy hike from the top. More information.
“To promote knowledge and culture, to relieve the distressed in body, mind and spirit, to cultivate a love for beauty in art and nature, to foster an interest in the love of music and elevate and refine mankind.” ~ Mt. Helix Trust, 1929
Mission Trails Regional Park
East of town with over 54 miles of trails, the park hosts a creek and dam that are hedged in by tall hills. The hill trails earn a hardy hiker unique views of the region. The area was originally used by the Kumeyaay, and the Old Mission Dam, was built to store water for the Mission San Diego de Alcala. Moderate to challenging trail. More here.
What to see in San Diego – West Trails
Cabrillo National Monument and lighthouses:
Not far from central San Diego you can skirt the bay and pass the military installations at Liberty Station (now a cultural center that’s worth a half day’s visit on it’s own with museums, galleries, shops and restaurants.) Head uphill, pass the vast Rosecrans Military Cemetery and you’ll cross a military gate to enter the Cabrillo Park area. The views are stunning across to downtown, over Coronado Island and into Mexico. More here.
What to see in San Diego – South Trails
Living Coast Nature Preserve