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San Diego’s Ultimate Summer Road Trips

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.

  • The “King of the Missions,” Mission San Luis Rey is the largest of California’s 21 missions, located just a few miles east of the highway.
  • California Surf Museum showcases the state’s fervent surf lifestyle and history with antique surfboards, surf art, memorabilia, historic photos and exhibits on early pioneer surfers.
  • Oceanside Pier, the longest over-water wooden pier on the West Coast, offers 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean and San Diego’s sparkling coastline to the north and south.

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.

  • The first LEGO theme park in North America, LEGOLAND California is where kids power their way through rides, shows and Insta-worthy LEGO sculptures. In celebration of its 20th anniversary in 2019, the park is offering free admission to all children ages 12 and under on their birthday.
  • Carlsbad Premium Outlets mall offers 90 stores with significant savings on well-known designers and renowned brand name stores including Barneys New York, Calvin Klein, Coach, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.
  • A big draw for flower peepers, The Flower Fields of Carlsbad feature 50 acres of giant tecolote ranunculus flowering from early March to early May.

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.

  • Popular beaches include Moonlight Beach, perfect for families, and Swami’s Beach, one of California’s prime surf spots made famous by the Beach Boys’ song “Surfin’ USA.”
  • San Diego Botanic Garden features 37 acres of beautiful and unusual plants from all over the world, including the largest bamboo collection in the U.S.
  • A restful refuge just off the highway, the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple welcomes visitors to stroll through their renowned meditation gardens.

Solana Beach: This quaint coastal town lures surfers and beachgoers, as well as art and music lovers and savvy shoppers.

  • Visitors can find one-of-a-kind road trip mementos at the vibrant Cedros Design District, featuring more than 85 unique shops, fashion boutiques, art galleries, home decor stores and more.
  • Located in the Cedros Design District and one of the hottest clubs on the West Coast (Rolling Stone), the legendary Belly-Up Tavern features some of America’s finest live music performances.
  • Reflecting the town’s creative spirit, the modern Solana Beach Train Station, designed by famed San Diego architect Rob Quigley, features the colorful “Star” sculpture by internationally acclaimed artist Niki de Saint Phalle.

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.

  • Founded by Bing Crosby, the famed Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, “where the turf meets the surf,” presents its exciting summer horse racing season mid-July through early September.
  • The Del Mar Fairgrounds play host to the big annual San Diego County Fair from mid-June through early July. This year’s theme, “Oz-some,” pays homage to the fantastical world of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

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.

  • On every golfer’s bucket list, the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course boasts two of the most picturesque, championship 18-hole golf courses in the world, perched atop scenic coastal bluffs.
  • Nature lovers can enjoy the adjacent Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, featuring wind-swept sandstone formations and the rarest pine tree in the U.S.
  • Brave visitors can soar like a seagull at Torrey Pines Gliderport, America’s most popular coastal soaring site for tandem hang gliding and paragliding.
  • The Birch Aquarium at Scripps features more than 60 tanks and habitats of colorful marine life, including coral reefs, sharks, jellyfish and outdoor tide pools. An interactive museum showcases research discoveries on climate, earth and ocean science.
  • La Jolla Cove and Ecological Reserve, the first underwater preserve on the West Coast, is a popular place for kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving, featuring a menagerie of marine life including colonies of seals and sea lions. Seven famous sea caves include Sunny Jim Cave, the only land-access sea cave on the California coast.



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.
  • Rustic Cuyamaca Rancho State Park features more than 100 miles of hiking trails, and campgrounds and picnic sites nestled among meadows, woodlands, creeks and rivers. The park’s picturesque Green Valley campground offers pristine pools and waterfalls to play and swim during the summer, and Paso Picacho campground features mountain hikes up the Stonewall and Cuyamaca Peaks.
  • The California Wolf Center, a non-profit wildlife education center dedicated to increasing public awareness and understanding of the history, biology and behavior of the gray wolf, offers a thrilling opportunity to view highly-endangered Mexican gray wolves and a pack of Alaskan gray wolves up close. 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.
  • Located in a pastoral valley, Santa Ysabel features a few must-see sights: Dudley’s Bakery, famous for its dozens of types of fresh delicious breads, fruit bars and pastries; Hubbell House and Studios (aka Ilan-Lael, “The Place”), celebrating the creative spirit and work of architect and artist James Hubbel, “San Diego’s Gaudi” whose fantastical compound offers private tours and open houses on Father’s Day and in the fall (reservations required), and Mission Santa Ysabel, an assistencia of Mission San Diego de Alcala that features a museum and Native American burial grounds.
  • The hamlet of Warner Springs features Sky Sailing, a world leader in the sport of soaring, offering thrilling sailplane and glider rides, and the aptly-named natural wonder called Eagle Rock.



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:

  • A great starting point, La Mesa Village is a treasure trove for antiques shoppers. There are also cozy cafes and a variety of restaurants like Bo-Beau Kitchen to fuel up for the journey ahead. 
  • 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. 
  • Motorists can try their luck at two popular casinos offer exciting gaming action just off the highway: Viejas Casino & Resort, also featuring outlet shopping, bowling and outdoor concerts, and Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center.
  • 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.

Located on the easternmost portion of the highway, the 70-foot high Desert View Tower, built in 1922 as a tribute to early pioneers, offers breathtaking views of the desert floor below and features a quirky Americana museum and boulder garden filled with whimsical painted animal rock carvings.



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, encompass 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.
  • The Point Loma area features Harbor Island; Shelter Island, San Diego’s original tiki isle; Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego’s only national park, and spectacular Sunset Cliffs.
  • Known for its funky bohemian beach vibe, Ocean Beach, features inviting dive bars and shopping along Newport Ave.
  • A recreational playground and the largest man-made aquatic park in the world, Mission Bay is home to SeaWorld San Diego, the first SeaWorld theme park in the U.S., celebrating its 55th anniversary this year.
  • Lovely La Jolla features postcard-perfect La Jolla Shores; panoramic views atop Mt. Soledad; the renowned Salk Institute, the “Acropolis of Modernism” which offers architecture tours, and the vibrant Murals of La Jolla, showcasing internationally renowned artists.
  • Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, two of San Diego’s most popular beach areas, feature a classic boardwalk, surf shops and Belmont Park beachfront amusement park with its historic Giant Dipper wooden rollercoaster.
  • 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.
  • Uptown’s LGBTQ+-friendly Hillcrest neighborhood is known for its trendy shops, breweries, restaurants, bars and nightlife scene.
  • 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.
  • San Diego’s premier entertainment district, the vibrant downtown Gaslamp Quarter boasts 16 ½ blocks of restaurants, nightclubs and retail shops, as well as the historic Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House.


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




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