From stunning natural wonders to quirky roadside attractions and a bucolic backcountry where dramatic topography makes for inspiring, Instagramable moments, San Diego’s diverse landscapes and neighborhoods make it the ultimate summer road trip destination.
The following are four epic roadways in San Diego, along with the best places to stop for visitors to live out their SoCal road trip dreams.
Coastal Cool – Highway 101
No highway better captures the laidback, beachside vibe of San Diego and its surf heritage than Historic Highway 101. Hugging 70 miles of sun-soaked coastline from Oceanside to La Jolla, Pacific Coast Highway links some of SoCal’s coolest beach towns like La Jolla, Del Mar, Encinitas and Carlsbad. Views of sandy beaches and beautiful cliffs make this iconic highway a bucket list adventure.
Oceanside: A classic beach community, Oceanside marks the beginning of the 101 in the north and is home to some of California’s widest beaches, historical landmarks and a distinct SoCal surf culture.
Carlsbad: The charming “Village by the Sea,” Carlsbad was named after a famous spa in Karlsbad, Bohemia and boasts family-friendly attractions and outstanding shopping.
Encinitas: Known as “Surftown USA” and home to one of the best surf spots in the world, Encinitas is also a sanctuary of relaxation and botanic wonders.
Solana Beach: This quaint coastal town lures surfers and beachgoers, as well as art and music lovers and savvy shoppers.
Del Mar: Since the legendary days of Hollywood’s golden years, Del Mar has been the destination of choice for movie stars, as well as fairgoers and those who enjoy betting on the ponies.
La Jolla: Spanish for “The Jewel,” La Jolla is a scenic seaside enclave with a wonderful array of world-class arts and culture, attractions and stunning natural wonders.
Head for the Hills – Highway 80
Traversing 150 miles between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona, Historic Highway 80 winds through the scenic, chaparral-covered rolling hills of San Diego’s East County. Along this nostalgic route there are several charming towns and roadside wonders worth exploring:
- Visitors can giddyup to the Olaf Wieghorst Western Heritage Center in El Cajon, paying tribute to artist Olaf Wieghorst, the “Dean of Western Art,” who lived in San Diego for more than 40 years. The museum exhibits dozens of his paintings portraying the 19th century American West, including cowboys, Native Americans and settlers.
- Roadtrippers can soak in the scenery, as well as in the natural hot springs, at Jacumba Hot Springs, a small oasis featuring two pools of mineral water high in sodium, calcium and magnesium, believed to have healing properties for the body.
Mountain Splendor – Highway 79
Highway 79, which begins in the East County town of Descanso and continues 45 miles north to Warner Springs, is the perfect way to explore San Diego’s charming mountain communities.
- For a roaring good time, Lions, Tigers & Bears in Descanso is a non-profit rescue facility dedicated to providing a safe haven for abandoned and unwanted animals, including exotic big cats, wild bears and more. The animal reserve allows animals to live out their lives in a safe and caring environment while also educating the public about some of nature’s most magnificent wildlife. Tour reservations are required.
- The quaint mountain town of Julian, founded during the Gold Rush of 1869, is famous for mouth-watering apple pies and cider from local orchards, and a charming Main Street of Victorian and Old West architecture, housing handicraft and antique shops, a general store, country-style restaurants and bakeries. There’s also gold panning at the Eagle and High Peak Gold Mines, wine tasting at Menghini Winery and David Lewis’ fascinating Historical Tours of Julian.
Miles of Smiles – 59-Mile Scenic Drive
Visitors in town for only a day or two who want to see as many sites as possible can take San Diego’s official driving tour, the 59-Mile Scenic Drive – the ultimate overview of San Diego. This beautiful iconic drive, marked every quarter mile by blue and yellow signs depicting a white seagull, encompasses a good portion of the city’s most outstanding attractions and neighborhoods and can be covered in about three hours.
For step-by-step driving directions of the entire route, visit the San Diego Tourism Authority’s 59-Mile Scenic Drive webpage. A great starting off point, visitors can get their bearings and pick up a complimentary 59-Mile Scenic Drive brochure/map of the route at the San Diego Information Center (996 N. Harbor Drive).
Major points of interest along this milestone route include:
- The downtown Embarcadero is lined with fun bayfront attractions and activities, including Waterfront Park, the Maritime Museum of San Diego and USS Midway, harbor tours and whale watching excursions aboard Hornblower and Flagship Cruises, and shopping at Seaport Village and The Headquarters at Seaport.
- History buffs can enjoy Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and the Junipero Serra Museum on Presidio Hill, the first European settlement on the U.S. West Coast (founded in 1769), San Diego’s first “downtown” and the birthplace of California. Old Town celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2019 with festivities throughout the year.
- Balboa Park, America’s largest urban cultural park (the “Smithsonian of the West”) features 17 museums set amidst ornate Spanish-Colonial style buildings, performing arts venues like the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theatre, lush gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
The open road awaits in San Diego. To shift your summer vacation into high gear and for more information on San Diego’s offerings, including exciting vacation packages and valuable coupons for attractions, restaurants and more, visit the San Diego Tourism Authority’s website at www.sandiego.org.