San Diego is more than palm trees, amusement parks and beach sunsets and if you’re able to drive a bit away from the coastline, you’ll find so much to explore. A native San Diegan, our Day Trips Traveling Mom shares a five free inland activities. If you’ve already explored the coast and downtown, these are five free day trips in San Diego county that will really give you a varied flavor of this beautiful city!
Free Day Trips in San Diego County
From Imperial Beach to Oceanside, San Diego is definitely chock full of beach-side activities. The downtown area is hopping from the Gaslamp Quarter to Balboa Park. So if you’ve already toured the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and LEGOLAND, what else is there to see in San Diego? If you have a day to explore and a car to take you there, here are five off-the-beaten-path ideas in San Diego county. Bonus, they are all free!
Owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology, the Palomar Observatory offers free self-guided tours. The highlight of the observatory is the 200-inch Hale Telescope. You’ll be able to see the telescope but unfortunately visitors aren’t able to view through the telescope. If you have an astronomy-fan in your group, consider purchasing tickets to the weekend-only hour-long guided tour ($5 for adults, $3 for children 5-12). Note that children under age 5 are not allowed on the guided tours. The scenic roads are long and winding, so take your time on the drive up. Be aware that the observatory is closed during inclement weather (generally during winter months, when the road is icy) so it’s a good idea to call ahead and make sure the facilities are open. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the cooler weather at the high elevations!
Olympic Training Center
Budding athlete in your group? Head to the South Bay area for a guided tour of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. On the tour, you’ll hear an overview of the history, purpose and general facts about the center. You can also take the self-guided tour by grabbing a map from the Visitor’s Center and listening to the audio tour on your cell phone. Guests can take a walk down the mile-long Olympic Path to see where athletes are currently training in archery, rugby and track & field (among others). Stop by the Team USA gift shop on your way out to pick up official Team USA-branded merchandise (with proceeds from all sales supporting U.S. athletes).
Take a Tour
There are several free tours in the San Diego area that allow guests in on a guided tour. Informational tours are usually boring for young children and might be more appropriate for families with upper elementary-aged kids.
Taylor Guitars gives a free, guided tour of the Taylor factory every Monday through Thursday at 1 p.m. (excluding holidays). Check in at the front desk about 10 minutes prior to sign up for this approximately hour-long tour where you’ll learn the steps of guitar construction.
A tour and a tasting? Ballast Point Brewery offers 45 minute tours of the facilities to learn about their brewing process.
Mission Trails and Santee Lakes
This is my hometown areas, folks, so I’m partial to the East County of San Diego. Here are two great day trips to make on your San Diego visit.
Slip on your hiking shoes and hit the trails at Mission Trails Regional Park. We always make the Visitor’s Center a first stop as you can pick up maps, see displays of natural plant and animal communities and to use the restroom! (Some of the trails don’t have toilets, so definitely make this stop!) From here you can set off on foot to explore the trails, including Old Mission Dam. Mission Trails is a beautiful area for bird watching, nature spotting, tent camping, mountain biking or just to get some exercise and take in the fresh air. If you’re up for more vigorous hiking, ask at the visitor’s center how you can take on the 5-Peak Challenge!
When you’re ready to cool off after your hike, head east about 5 minutes more to Santee Lakes. Seven lakes are surrounded by walkable sidewalks, grassy lawns, picnic areas with barbecues and playgrounds for the kids. There is also a splash pad for a nominal fee. If you have your RV, Santee Lakes is a perfect camping spot with shady lots right on the lakefront and stocked catfish and trout. No RV? You can still camp in one of the 10 well-appointed lakefront or floating cabins! It’s one of our favorite places to pack a lunch, take a walk and let the kids play. There is a parking fee to bring your vehicle into the lake but you can easily park in the residential areas that surround the lakes and just walk in (that’s what we do!)
Do you have a favorite place to explore in San Diego that’s off the beaten path? Share with us in the comments!