Most know San Diego for its sparkling coastline, but just a short drive from the beach is a largely undiscovered side of San Diego. A wide open area of rolling hills and winding country roads, San Diego’s North County Inland region offers an abundance of activities and attractions ranging from beer tasting along the Hops Highway and at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens to golfing at more than 40 courses carved out of the natural landscape; hiking miles of mountain trails; casino gaming, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park where visitors can virtually venture to the wild plains of Africa and Asia.
The following are 10 of the top hidden gems in San Diego’s North Inland that are sure to make a visit to the area fun and unforgettable.
- Located in the foothills of Encinitas, San Diego Botanic Garden is a 37-acre oasis of lush garden trails, restful vistas, ponds, waterfalls, flowering trees, majestic palms and the nation's largest bamboo collection. Thanks to San Diego’s mild climate, 4,000 plant species from all over the world thrive here. The garden’s diverse topography provides a variety of microclimates from a desert landscape to a tropical rainforest. Popular areas include a subtropical fruit garden, bird and butterfly garden, interactive children’s garden and native coastal sage preserve.
- Nestled in the verdant and serene Valley Center, Keys Creek Lavender Farm is San Diego's only USDA-certified organic lavender farm. Visitors can stroll through 8½ fragrant acres of more than one dozen varieties of lavender. In addition to being a working farm, Keys Creek hosts English High Teas, tours, healing retreats, several classes and workshops. At the distillery, visitor can see lavender blossoms distilled into the essential oil used to produce more than 50 lavender products sold in the Farm Store.
- At Wild Wonders in Bonsall, visitors can tame their curiosity for wildlife by getting up close and personal with 150 animal ambassadors including parrots, desert tortoises, an alligator, wallaby, foxes, groundhogs, bobcats, monkeys and a Siberian lynx. Tour groups are assigned their own personal guide, led by a professional biologist and animal trainer. In addition to providing guests a dynamic animal adventure, Wild Wonders’ goal is to foster a desire to preserve and learn about wildlife and the important role they play on the planet.
- Located in Valley Center, Nurtured by Nature offers three-hour guided tours for guests to touch, feed and interact with several exotic animals, including armadillos, a kangaroo, sloth and porcupine, and then swim and play with adorable Asian small clawed otters in a heated pool. Proceeds from the otter swim encounters go directly towards caring for the animals and funding free programs for children visiting from organizations like Make-A-Wish Foundation.
- Visitors can flutter over to the Butterfly Farms in Vista to experience the magic of butterflies in a 2,000 square-foot vivarium, the largest native butterfly free house in Southern California. Guests of all ages can meander among several different butterfly species, including Cloudless Sulfur, Cabbage Whites, Painted Ladies, Gulf Fritillaries, Anise Swallowtails and their most popular butterfly, the Monarch.
- Experience the Old West at the family friendly Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park, a hidden gem of California history located in the heart of a landscaped 27-acre canyon in Carlsbad. Named after the late actor/owner Leo Carrillo (who starred in the 1950s TV series “The Cisco Kid”), the former working ranch is the perfect place for a picnic, to view dozens of brilliant peacocks and explore several historic adobe buildings including a magnificent Hacienda Compound and courtyard, Deedie’s House (Leo’s wife’s private retreat), a cantina, carriage house, stable, the Old Hay Barn, blacksmith shop, plus antique windmills and a reflecting pool. Entrance to the park is free; self-guided walking tour brochures are available in the parking lot.
- A vacation destination since the 1930s and popular for inner tubing down the San Luis Rey River, the La Jolla Indian Campground recently opened its newest attraction: La Jolla Zip Zoom, the longest zip line in California. The 6,273-foot zipline course nestled in the foothills of the Palomar Mountain range and running parallel to the San Luis Rey River provides riders with spectacular views of mountain peaks, lush green canyons and rustic steep slopes.
- Popular for biking to the top of its majestic 6,142-foot peak, Palomar Mountain is home to Palomar Mountain State Park, featuring forested hiking trails and fern meadows, campsites, a fishing pond and scenic coastal vistas. Nearby, the striking, Art Deco-style white dome of Palomar Observatory houses the 8th largest telescope in the U.S., a seven-story Hale Telescope pointing toward the heavens. Visitors can explore the free museum spotlighting Palomar’s stellar discoveries, including the first brown dwarf and a planetoid called Sedna. A massive photo of the twinkling Andromeda galaxy graces the back wall. Inexpensive guided tours are available Saturdays and Sundays.
- Located on a four-acre parcel surrounded by a wildlife preserve, the rustic setting of the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas stirs artistic exploration and appreciation. Architecturally-striking, Lux redefines the museum experience with San Diego's only artist-in-residence program that invites artists to live and work on site, while producing a commissioned work of art from start to finish. This one-of-a-kind institute welcomes visitors to not only see art, but also see art happen. Guests can stroll through expansive gardens featuring native plants, hardwood bridges, an amphitheater and commissioned on-site art installations.
- Tucked away in Escondido’s Kit Carson Park, the kaleidoscope-colored Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden beckons visitors to discover the only American sculpture garden and last major international project created by famed French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Inspired by California's mythic, historic and cultural roots, the fantastical garden features nine large-scale sculptures, a circular "snake wall" and maze entryway bearing the brilliant mosaic ornamentation that defined Saint Phalle's later work. A towering sculpture of the mythical Queen Califia standing on the back of a five-legged eagle commands the center of the garden, which is open to the public on the second Saturday of each month, 9 a.m. to 12 noon.