Outdoor Guide to San Diego
Activities abound on and above this famous 3-mile stretch of beach. On the southern end, the Torrey Pines Gliderport (flytorrey.com, 858-452-9858) offers hang-gliding and paragliding lessons year-round, including tandem flights and equipment rentals, starting at $150 for a tandem flight. High above sandstone cliffs, flying affords the glide-alongs an idyllic view of the bluffs, the ocean, La Jolla and surrounding areas—maybe even some of the Black’s Beach nudists. Hikers and trail runners love Torrey Pines State Reserve (858-755-2063, torreypine.org), where eight short trails—ranging from 100 yards to 1.3 miles, amid 2,000 acres of chaparral, Torrey pine trees and infinite ocean vistas—are perfect for day treks.
With gentle winds and a sterling pedigree, San Diego is a sailing paradise. And learning is easier than you think. Instead of hanging out in yacht clubs hoping for a lift, check out one of San Diego’s sailing and rental clubs: Harbor Island Yacht Club (800-553-7245, harboryc.com), Harbor Sailboats (619-291-9568, harborsailboats.com) and Seaforth Boat Rentals (619-239-2630, seaforthboatrental.com). All offer lessons, and in no time you’ll be heading out for all-day or overnight voyages. For the thrill of big-boat racing, check out Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup Experience (800-644-3454, stars-stripes.com) and help sail 80-foot, America’s Cup–winning boats on the open ocean.
Surfing, Stand-Up Paddle Surfing and Kitesurfing
When swells assail the coastline, nothing can contain the hordes of surfers migrating west. We have an enormous array of surfing breaks to choose from. If you’ve never surfed but always wanted to learn, start by checking out Pacific Surf School in Mission Beach (619-742-2267, pacificsurf.org). Group and privatelessons are available—including all-important etiquette guidelines for how to act in the water—starting at $85. Now you’re ready to surf. Patagonia Cardiff’s manager, Devon Howard, recommends easing into gentle peelers at La Jolla Shores or Tourmaline Surf Park in Pacific Beach. If the water’s flat, give stand-up paddling a try. Traverse Mission Bay or other uncrowded spots with the help of Bob’s Mission Surf Shop (858-483-8837, missionsurf.com). Finally, the wind doesn’t have to be a harbinger of doom for surfers. Manta Wind and Water Sports (858-610-6000, mantawatersports.com) offers kitesurfing lessons starting at $179.
When the tide recedes, a bustling underwater world comes into view at Point Loma’s tidepools. For the best time to visit, contact Cabrillo National Park (619-557-5450, nps.gov/cabr) and keep an eye on the tide charts. Rangers lead daily walks during low tide and point out sea creatures such as octopus, sea anemone, lobster, starfish and crabs. Perfect for families—but expect to get wet, wear shoes with good traction, and respect the ecosystem.
Swimming, Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Explore the open ocean powered only by your arms and legs. La Jolla Ecological Reserve, between La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores, is packed with swimmers and divers. Swim 1.5 miles from Cove to Shores, or participate in La Jolla Cove Swim Club’s frequent events. For snorkeling, San Diego Bike & Kayak Tours (858-454-1010, sandiegobikeandkayaktours.com) provides tours and rentals. View seals, rays, sharks, dolphins and an amazing diversity of life in the protected reserve. For more time underwater, learn to scuba with Ocean Enterprises (858-565-6054, oceanenterprises.com) or another dive outfit. You’ll be certified in no time and ready for the deep blue sea—“the great unifier,” according to Jacques Cousteau.
Tandem or single, kayaking is a great workout and an exhilarating way to explore our waters. Numerous kayak rental companies line Avenida de la Playa, including San Diego Bike & Kayak Tours. Boats launch from La Jolla Shores, and rentals are available for tours or solo outings (two hours minimum). Explore the caves lining the nearby cliffs, paddle all the way to the Cove and back—and maybe catch a wave on the way in.
Sleep under the stars and on the bluffs at San Elijo State Beach (760-753-5091, parks.ca.gov) and Carlsbad State Beach (760-438-3143, parks.ca.gov). Whether you want unrivaled beach access, the sound of crashing waves lulling you to sleep or a jump on the dawn-patrol surfers, these campgrounds offer it all without leaving the city. So build a fire, roast some hot dogs and inhale that healthful, briny air. A little farther north, camp at San Onofre State Beach (949-492-4872, parks.ca.gov), near Camp Pendleton.
Anthony Thomas, operations manager at Fallbrook-based Ellsworth Bicycles, shares a great bicycle ride through the beautiful mansions and landscape in Fairbanks Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe, finishing along the coastline. The start at Sorrento Valley Road—take your choice of back roads—leads through eastern Del Mar and on to Rancho Santa Fe. Once you’re in Rancho Santa Fe, there are miles of road, lined with gorgeous estates, to ride around. It’s easy to continue up through Encinitas, finishing along Highway 101, “one of the most breathtaking coastline rides you could ever imagine,” Thomas says. “This 50- to 60-mile, three- to four-hour loop along back roads offers the best scenery San Diego has to offer and minimizes conflict with cars and other motorists.”Google recently added a bike-route-finding feature to its maps software (maps.google.com).
San Diego is rich with picturesque trails for mountain bikers. Anthony Thomas of Ellsworth Bicycles suggests, among many, a 19-mile loop combining Los Peñasquitos Canyon and Del Mar Mesa. Or there’s the hilly terrain of Palomar Mountain. However, his top pick is Mission Trails Regional Park. Full of botanical scenery, wildlife and steep hills to get a rider’s adrenaline pumping, it also offers easy access and trails for beginners and advanced riders.
One recommended ride in the park starts at the Jackson Drive trailhead. Speed down a fire road, crossing the San Diego River. Proceed up a steep gravel road with a breathtaking vista of the valley below. Follow the road into the valley, turn onto the Suycutt wash trail, and ride north. Back down into the valley, ride to the saddle between the Fortunas. Hold on as you bike back down the “Alley.” Riding through grasslands, you’ll encounter the Father Junípero Serra Trail. Ride to Mission Gorge Road, turn right for two-tenths of a mile, and you’ll complete the loop of about 6 miles. For many more detailed routes around San Diego County, Thomas suggests visiting mountainbikebill.com.
Don’t just get out, get up. Climbing is a serious physical and mental workout, and while San Diego County isn’t blessed with an abundance of climbing spots, here are several that offer a tremendous test for beginners and pros alike. Jeff Leads, climbing team manager for Vista-based climbing brand Prana, shares some of his favorites.
First, visit a local climbing gym. Solid Rock (619-299-1124, solidrockgym.com) has locations in Old Town, Poway and San Marcos; Vertical Hold (858-586-7572, verticalhold.com) is in Miramar. If you prefer instruction, Adventure 16 and REI offer classes indoors and out on the rock, where you’ll learn basic climbing skills, knot-tying, belaying and rappelling.
Next, check out the popular wall at Mission Trails Regional Park, with 185 lead and top-roping routes. Equally popular is the 300-foot El Capitan Wall (619-561-0580, sdcounty.ca.gov/parks) near Lakeside. With more than 150 established routes ranging from intermediate to difficult, there are climbs for determined newcomers and veterans. Views from the top range from Mexico’s Coronado Islands to the San Bernardino Mountains.
Finally, Leads says Mount Woodson near Poway is an established, old-school climbing mecca popular since the 1950s, with numerous routes.
Better news: Bouldering, rock-climbing’s low-altitude sibling, is untapped in San Diego, according to Leads. From Santee to Fallbrook, thousands of rocks are waiting to be discovered. Better-known bouldering spots include Mount Woodson, the Santee Boulders and the Crest Boulders. For fun in the city, there’s the La Jolla People’s Wall (south of the Children’s Pool on Coast Boulevard) and the Pump Wall in Ocean Beach (below Sunset Cliffs Boulevard between Adair and Osprey streets).
With so many trails, where to begin? Afoot & Afield San Diego County author Jerry Schad shares his picks, factoring in accessibility, beauty and experience:
For scenic vistas, Schad says Cowles Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park (619-668-3281, mtrp.org) simply can’t be beat. On a clear day, you can see downtown, the mountains, the ocean and Mexico. Though there are at least four ways to the top, the 3-mile, two-hour round-trip south approach is the most popular. Trailhead is at the east corner of Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive.
The best mountains in the county, says Schad, are the Palomar Mountains. He recommends the Doane Valley Nature Trail in Palomar Mountain State Park (760-742-3462, parks.ca.gov). He cites the abundance of cedar forest at 0.7 miles (or 2.5 miles when combined with the Weir Trail). Trailhead located in the parking lot for Doane Pond on Palomar Mountain.
For something more strenuous, head to Volcan Mountain (760-765-4098, volcanmt.org). Its 3.2-mile round trip takes hikers through oak and pine forests to a summit with vistas of the forest meeting the desert. Trailhead is on Farmer Road, 2 miles north of Julian.
Every San Diego hiker must visit Cedar Creek Falls. It’s 4.5 miles round trip, and in springtime, as the snow melts, the 90-foot falls make a cool picture, and the 20-foot-deep punch bowl below offers a refreshing swim. Trailhead is off Highway 78, 1 mile west of Julian. Turn onto Pine Hills Road, then Eagle Creek Road, which becomes progressively poorer and bumpier.
Afoot & Afield San Diego County author Jerry Schad also shares his recommendations for desert exploration:
The easy, 1-mile Cactus Loop Trail takes hikers past numerous teddy bear cholla cacti, in addition to other interesting varieties. Look, but don’t touch these “jumping” cacti—underneath that furry exterior lie razor-sharp thorns. Located 18 miles east of Julian on Highway 78, at the Tamarisk Grove Campground turnoff.
A more demanding hike can be found at lower Hellhole Canyon, near Borrego Springs. After a mile or so of the sycamore-, cottonwood- and palmlined 4.8-mile (round trip) hike, you’ll come upon a grotto into which the water of Maidenhair Falls plunges—a welcome sight in the desert. Determined hikers can proceed from there, which involves a bit of bushwhacking. Off Palm Canyon Drive, 0.7 miles north on Montezuma Highway from Borrego Springs.
Dirtbiking and ATV Riding
Whether you prefer two wheels or four, “It’s really a gift we have here in Southern California ... all these acres of land with trails and areas to play with off-road vehicles,” says Mark Gusciora, general manager at North County’s House of Motorcycles. He recommends beginners enroll in a safety-riding course, widely available at state parks and or tracks (many dealers have contact info), including Pala Raceway (888-PALAMX, palaraceway.com), a partner of the cycle shop. From there, start slow, then move to more exciting areas—in safe environments like Pala Raceway—to perfect the basic skills. When you’re ready for the great wide open, the unanimous choice (except in summertime) is Ocotillo Wells, near Borrego Springs (760-767-5391, parks.ca.gov). “There’s unspoiled terrain you can traverse at your own comfort, or be challenged when you want to be,” Gusciora says. “It’s just a great place to go.”