Thanks to a year-round mild climate and seaside location, the outdoor activities San Diego has to offer top most lists of best things to do anyway. I do have my favorites, though, since I’m lucky to live here. My ideas on this list suit all ages, abilities, and budgets — some are even free.

Whether you’re a resident or on a San Diego vacation, plan some outside time to unplug and soak up our sunshine. Don’t forget our big attractions, but I have listed some more nuanced places you may not have considered. I’ll start with the most obvious.

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1. Go to the Beach

People sunbathe and surf at the beach on a sunny day in San Diego.
Surf, walk, sunbathe, swim, and more at our beaches.

No list of things to do outside in San Diego, CA, would be complete without mentioning our famous beaches, so let’s get it out of the way. We are so lucky to have multiple beaches spread across 70 miles of coastline, each with its own amenities and character.

Where you go to the beach depends on where you’re based, but my top picks include Coronado Central Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla Shores Beach, Del Mar Beach, Moonlight Beach, and South Carlsbad State Beach. You can learn more in my guide to San Diego beaches.

If you live here, I would encourage you to try something new at the beach. Organize a picnic, watch the sunset, maybe even learn how to surf, or choose a new-to-you beach that you’re a little less familiar with.

Beach campfires are great fun for all ages, but you must adhere to these rules by the Parks and Rec Department: ‘Beach fires can only be built in City provided fire rings or contained within a portable propane-fueled device’. You can use fire wood in the camp rings, which is perfect for roasting s’mores.

Or head down at sunset for a beach BBQ but don’t forget camping chairs, a beach blanket and paper plates etc. And be sure to leave the beach as you found it. Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, north county San Diego, is a great location with plenty of fire rings, a kids playground, and beach volleyball. You just need to get there extra early to secure your spot on weekends.


2. Hike Torrey Pines State Reserve

Trails at Torrey Pines Natural Reserve that over look the ocean.
This was an early morning hike in La Jolla, California

Home to the rare Torrey pine tree, this seaside state park is an excellent place for leisurely hikes (even for kids) and spectacular ocean views. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is located in northern La Jolla on the border of Del Mar.

As you explore the trails, keep an eye out for gray whales during the winter, in addition to the wildflowers and various land wildlife who call the park home. The beach below the reserve is also very popular with families who may want to cool off with a dip in the ocean after a hike.


3. Hike to Potato Chip Rock

A brave woman hiker stands on top of Potato Chip Rock in San Diego, California
This outdoor activity is for the advanced hiker.

The Mount Woodson hike leading to potato chip rock isn’t exactly for beginners. Part of the 8-mile trail is rocky and uphill, but the epic photo of you on top of Potato Chip Rock is one to frame. You’ll find this very popular San Diego hike in Poway. Bring lots of water and be ready for a workout.


4. Kayak to the La Jolla Sea Caves

A kayak tour stops in front of the La Jolla sea caves.
Readers love this.

Seven sea caves line the La Jolla Ecological Reserve, a protected and marine life-rich underwater park in between La Jolla Shores Beach and La Jolla Cove.

A variety of kayaking tours take you out to the caves (and inside depending on conditions). The guides tell stories about how they were used during prohibition to smuggle booze into town.

Along the way, you’ll no doubt see leopard sharks, orange Garibaldi (California’s state fish), and friendly sea lions. You get all of this while getting some exercise in our fabulous sunshine. I have taken Everyday California’s kayak tour and recommend it. They also offer other water sports experiences like surfing lessons and snorkeling tours.

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5. Hike Annie’s Canyon Trail

The unique rock formation at Annie’s Canyon will likely come as a complete surprise to you after you’ve hiked the trail up to it. Despite being very close to the freeway, this slot canyon is completely hidden which only makes it all the more exciting.

Annie’s Canyon Trail begins at the end of a residential road in Solana Beach, which suddenly dips into an ecological reserve in a wilderness setting. You’ll start the hike along easy trails adorned with cacti and wildflowers, and the lagoon and ocean views are stunning. Eventually, you’ll turn right and up along a winding path into Annie’s Canyon, and the fun begins. It’s quite a steep climb as you ascend the sandstone canyon and not for those who get claustrophobic. For those who don’t, it’s definitely worth the climb, and it’s not very far. You then descend the other side of the canyon back onto the trail.

The round-trip hike, including the canyon, is about 2 miles long and is definitely a San Diego experience you’ll remember.


6. Take to the Skies on a Hot Air Balloon Ride

For those with a head for heights and a sense of adventure, a hot air balloon over San Diego’s stunning coastline is hard to beat. You’ll soar above Del Mar all the way to downtown on Compass Balloons 3.5 hour sunset ride. Private or group rides are available and the balloons fit 10-12 people. Champagne, cheese, fruit, water and soda are included in the price.

Compass Balloons also offer hot air balloon rides further north, over the valleys and mountains of wine country in Temecula. Magical Adventure Balloon Rides are another option in Temecula.


7. Snorkel with Leopard Sharks (Summer)

Aerial view of two snorkelers looking at leopard sharks swimming around them.
Really, it’s completely safe.

July and August bring the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world to La Jolla Shores Beach. Most are pregnant, and they come to incubate in the warm waters while feasting on sea life provided by the underwater park.

They’re harmless, so it’s possible to chill with them in knee-deep water but hopping on a guided snorkeling tour is definitely recommended (use the above Everyday California discount).


8. Bike Around Mission Bay

Put the bikes in the car or rent one to cycle around the 12 miles of Mission Bay bike paths that go roughly in a loop. It’s a flat ride that is easy for small kids. In fact, there are a few playgrounds you’ll pass along the way, in addition to some of our Mission Bay resorts where you can stop in for a coffee or a bite to eat. There are also a couple of grassy areas that would be perfect for flying a kite.

You can take your bike on the ferry to Coronado Island. From the Coronado Ferry Landing, ride over to the Hotel del Coronado side. There’s a bike path along the Silver Strand between Coronado and Imperial Beach, where you’ll have San Diego Bay on one side and the gorgeous state beach on the other.


9. Eat Fish Tacos at George’s Ocean Terrace

Fish tacos on a plate at George's Ocean Terrace.
One of my favorite San Diego restaurants.

When we have out-of-town guests, we take them for lunch at George’s Ocean Terrace. I think it’s a quintessential San Diego experience because it highlights the best of what we’re known for.

The outdoor rooftop restaurant boasts panoramic ocean views over La Jolla Cove. The farm-to-table menu is fantastic. I consider the grilled fish tacos some of the best in town, and I pair them with their famous black bean soup.

Plus, what’s better than sipping a nice glass of wine in our sunshine with friends? They have shaded tables, and I recommend making reservations and asking for a table against the glass fence because it’s closest to the Cove.

If not George’s, find another al fresco dining spot near where you’re staying.


10. Have Lunch at Torrey Pines Gliderport (Then Glide?)

A glider with an orange parachute prepares to run off the cliff to take-off, one of the coolest outdoor activities San Diego has to offer.
One of the most adventurous outdoor activities in San Diego.

Bring your camera. Torrey Pines Gliderport offers one of the best Pacific Ocean views in San Diego from atop the cliffs overlooking Black’s Beach.

Colorful gliders float high above you in the sky. The scene is rather relaxing, and you can find yourself sitting here, decompressing for longer than expected. Linger at a picnic table with a good deli sandwich and soda from the cafe for as long as you like, or bring your own.

And guess what? If you’d like to be one of those people in the sky, ask if tandem flights are available. It’s also a flight school, after all. They don’t take reservations. It’s first-come, first-served. You can read my list of top San Diego adventures with ideas like this one for the more daring.


11. Explore Coronado Island on a Surrey Bike

There is so much outdoor fun to be had on Coronado Island that it’s hard to know where to start. A fun activity for all the family is a bike ride around designated pathways and roads on a Surrey bike. You can rent these four-wheel bikes with either one or two rows of seats, and both options have attachments with safety harnesses on the front that young children can fit in.

It’s the perfect way to explore the island, especially as Surrey bikes have a large canopy shade on top for hot sunny days.

Wheel Fun Rentals is the most popular option, but they also rent electric bikes, tandem bikes, a kids’ trailer, and good old-fashioned cruiser bikes.


12. Explore Tide Pools (Winter)

A crane hunts for fish in La Jolla tide pools during November.
Family-friendly outdoor adventures include tide pooling.

San Diego tide pools reveal themselves when low tides happen during daylight hours in the winter season. You’ll need to check the tide charts to find a minus tide. When you see one, especially if it’s around -1 or lower, head out to the beaches known for tide pooling (like the La Jolla tide pools).

Tide pool creatures include the likes of sea anemones, hermit crabs, starfish, and sea cucumbers.


13. Spend a Day at the San Diego Zoo

San Diego has one of the biggest zoos in the world, and there’s plenty to be impressed about when you visit this ultra family-friendly attraction. It’s worth planning ahead with my San Diego Zoo tips as there is so much to pack into a one day visit.

You can download the Zoo’s app or print out a PDF of the map in advance, and make sure to plan the wildlife presentations you’re keen on as they are all at specific times.

Walking around the park is great exercise while you visit your favorite animals like polar bears, elephants, koalas, giraffes, and more. Remember, it’s also a botanical garden and you can take some of their tours on a private buyout basis. There’s also a 4D theater with rotating shows, and don’t miss the spectacular views from the Skyfari Aerial Tram.

This definitely isn’t just an activity in San Diego for kids — all ages love it.

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14. Or, Visit San Diego Zoo Safari Park

While the San Diego Zoo is in the city, you’ll need to head north to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, but it’s well worth the drive. You can enjoy the wallabies, meerkats, lions, giraffes, tigers, and other animals at this famous facility.

The Africa tram provides a unique and relaxing opportunity to view animals like giraffes, buffalo, zebras, and rhinos in their natural savanna habitats. You’ll get close to some but its also mesmerizing to watch them from further away for an authentic experience. The park has great day Safari options but book prior to your visit if possible. And for the ultimate experience, check out their Roar & Snore overnight camping experience.

Bring the whole family through and maximize your day with tips from my San Diego Zoo Safari Park Guide.

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15. Take Photos at Scripps Pier

My daughter walks our dog under Scripps Pier with the ocean in the background.
A popular shot.

Scripps Pier is one of the most popular places in San Diego on Instagram. People are drawn to its linear aesthetic and ocean backdrop that is perfect for family and holiday card photos, especially during the golden hour.

During the summer season, you can also participate in a pier walk with Birch Aquarium, where scientists set up fun learning stations and share their research. The pier is otherwise closed to the public.

You’ll find it on La Jolla Shores Beach, so this San Diego outdoor activity isn’t just about the pier. Walking to it and enjoying the beach is part of the fun, too. This is my favorite beach to walk the dog and for exercise in general. And, per #3 above, some of the best La Jolla tide pools are located just north of the pier at Dike Rock.


16. Catch a Sunset

One of the things to do outside in San Diego that even residents frequently overlook is the simple joy of watching a sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Views are part of the reason why our nickname is America’s Finest City. Take a blanket and a picnic to your favorite beach. Or, book a happy hour or dinner at your favorite seaside restaurant.

Sunset Cliffs near Ocean Beach is one of the best places for a sunset (hence its name). It is on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, between Adair Street and Ladera Street. You can find free street parking and walk into the park.


17. Go Boating on the San Diego Bay

A couple drives a Speed Boat Adventure speedboat in the water.
Photo courtesy of Speed Boat Adventures

Head out into the San Diego bay on a harbor cruise, sightseeing tour, or ferry for a fun day out. Narrated tours share interesting facts about our military history, the downtown skyline, Coronado Bridge, Coronado Island, Shelter Island, Cabrillo National Monument, USS Midway Museum, Star of India at San Diego Maritime Museum, and other sights you may pass.

Options include a leisurely San Diego harbor cruise, drive-your-own speed boat, catamarans, or a seal tour in one of those crazy bus-boat vehicles that starts on land and ends in the water. We even have the Patriot Jet Boat thrill ride that I suggest to people visiting San Diego with teens. Refer to my list of favorite San Diego bay cruises for more ideas.


18. Learn How to Surf

San Diego Surfing School sets up for camp on Pacific Beach in San Diego.
My daughter’s surf camp in Pacific Beach, California.

Our awesome waves and surf schools make learning how to surf in San Diego a breeze. Why not give it a go? The foam boards forgive a little wobbliness, and kids as young as five can try, too. Though I’d say, this is popular for teenagers visiting San Diego.

Two popular spots to learn include La Jolla Shores and Pacific Beach at Law Street. You can also choose Mission Beach, Del Mar, Coronado Beach, or Carlsbad beaches.

(Those who are already experts at shredding waves can head over to spots like Windansea Beach and Black’s Beach.)


19. SUP During the Day or Night

It’s possible to stand-up paddleboard (and even do yoga on a SUP) all across San Diego County from Mission Bay to Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda lagoon. Rentals are also easy to come by, as are lessons.

However, several companies offer night tours LED-lit stand-up paddle boards that attract marine life to the surface. How cool is that? Mission Bay Sports Center is one of them.

Other popular water sports include kayaking, aqua cycling, boat rentals, sailing, jet skiing, and more.


20. Explore Balboa Park

My daughter walks along the big pond in front of Balboa Park's Botanical Building.

San Diego is home to the largest urban cultural park in the United States with 17 major museums, renowned performing arts venues, playgrounds, beautiful gardens, hiking trails, and the San Diego Zoo.

Exploring Balboa Park grounds is a free and lovely thing to do outside in San Diego, especially if you can catch a special event like a free performance at Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Remember to visit the beautiful Japanese Friendship Garden.

If you have time to dine al fresco, Panama 66 and the Tea Pavilion are my favorite places to eat in the park and both have only outside seating.


21. Go Apple Picking (or Sledding) in Julian

The charming country town of Julian is beautiful all year round, and well worth the 60-mile drive from downtown San Diego. But two extra fun times to visit are apple picking season in September, and during the winter snowfall.

Apple picking season pretty much always falls in September but can stretch into October. You simply buy a bag at the orchard, set off down the endless aisles of trees, and pick as many apples (or pears in some orchards) as your bag will hold. There are plenty of wineries, cideries, and lunch spots to fill out the day, as well as trails to explore outside of the main town.

When snow falls in Julian (usually in January or February), it’s best to head there as soon as possible because it usually only settles for a few days. But beware, many other people will have the same plan! The road to Julian via the quaint small town of Santa Ysabel is only a two-lane one, and traffic builds up quickly at the first report of snowfall. We sometimes park up and head into the fields along the road to throw snowballs to break up the drive.

William Heise National Park is a great place to take a sled as there are small hills dotted around the park that you can take off from. The day parking fee is $3. And don’t forget to stop for warm apple pie and coffee at Moms Pie House on your way out of town.


22. See the La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions

A sea lion sunbathes on the shore of Boomer Beach in La Jolla.
I never get tired of visiting our sea lions and seals.

La Jolla’s seals and sea lions are used to people and you can get quite close to them, however, a respectful distance is encouraged. You can start at La Jolla Cove where the sea lions hang out and take a leisurely walk south to the Children’s Pool, our unique urban rookery for harbor seals.

It’s easy to fill up a camera flashcard with photos of them lazing along the coastline, often snuggled up against one another. Adults love this San Diego outdoor activity just as much as kids do. See my guide for how best to see the La Jolla seals and sea lions including a helpful map.


23. Drink Craft Beer Al Fresco

A number of San Diego’s best craft breweries have stunning outdoor gardens and patios. Those who do tend to be welcoming to families. There’s no better way to experience what our famous beer culture is all about than by sipping under the sunshine.

The original Stone Brewing Company in Escondido is the most picturesque, but Station Tavern’s family and dog-friendly patio in South Park is also very fun for all ages.


24. Golf Torrey Pines Like Tiger

Golf is booming right now in San Diego so there’s no time like the present to learn or take advantage of the spectacular courses on offer around town.

Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course is home to San Diego’s prestigious annual PGA golf tournament, the Farmer’s Insurance Open. Grab a tee time here (as far in advance as possible), as some holes border the ocean, too.

TEE TIMES THROUGH THE LODGE

The golf services desk at The Lodge at Torrey Pines can help guests secure tee times here and at other private clubs in North County if you’re in need of a vacation or staycation.

25. Tour Cabrillo National Monument

View over the Cabrillo statue to the bay and Coronado Bridge.
Enjoy San Diego outdoors at our only National Park.

San Diego’s National Park commemorates the discovery of California by a Spanish explorer named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

Its location on a peninsula at the tip of Point Loma means the San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean views at Cabrillo National Monument are spectacular. There are also hiking trails, tide pools, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and a great Visitor Center that tells the story of 16th-century exploration. Kids can earn Junior Ranger badges, too, at this family favorite.


26. Soar on a Tandem Sky Dive

A unique way to get a (literal) bird’s-eye view of San Diego is to buckle up, jump on a plane, soar above the ocean and city, and jump out of said plane. But don’t worry, on a tandem skydive, you will be harnessed to a certified diving instructor who will guide you off the plane and through the air – after you first free fall at 120mph, that is.

Once your guide activates your parachute, you’ll enjoy a peaceful canopy ride through the air and over spectacular scenery to the landing area. For an extra fee, you can book videos and/or photos of your adventure.

Pacific Coast Skydiving is San Diego’s only skydiving center. No experience is needed, but you must be 18 or older to dive.


27. Go Grunion Running

Late at night, grunion “run” onto the beach to lay eggs in the sand before swimming back out into the ocean. This natural occurrence is unique to Southern California and one of the fun outdoor activities in San Diego for night owls. Expected times are posted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

I recommend that you bring a camping headlamp to see them. Avoid using your phone as a flashlight because I’ve seen people drop them into the water.


28. Take an Electric Bike Tour

A group heads out on an electric bike tour in San Diego.
Photo courtesy of San Diego Fly Rides

Don’t worry about pedaling hard if you don’t want to. Electric bikes can chug up steep hills with no problem or you can set them to pedal with as much effort as desired.

Bike tours in the Gaslamp Quarter, La Jolla, and beyond are a fantastic way to learn about the area and enjoy the outdoors at the same time. Try San Diego Fly Rides’ California Dreamin’ or SoCal Riviera tours.

Not up for a bike ride? We have Segway tours, too.


29. Catch an Outdoor Movie (Summer)

During the summer months, many parks and attractions like the USS Midway Museum (and even some craft breweries) host family-friendly outdoor movies. BYO blanket, chairs, and perhaps a few glow bracelets for the kids for a temperate evening under the stars.


30. Run Through the Flower Fields (Spring)

A green tractor drives through the colorful flower fields.
Photo courtesy of The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch

The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch light up a Carlsbad hillside with brightly colored ranunculus flowers every spring. They also host fun outdoor activities for the public to enjoy, including tractor rides and other special events. It’s pretty spectacular and a trendy place to take photos for your Instagram feed (you can use my list of travel hashtags to promote).


31. See Gray and Blue Whales

A whale tail sticking out of the ocean with a boat of onlookers in the distance
You can go whale watching almost year-round

A number of tour companies offer whale watching tours during seasonal migrations of the gray and blue whales.

We used to only see gray whales in San Diego during fall and winter, but blue whales are now migrating closer to shore during summer and fall. It’s a lovely opportunity to get out of the city and on the water, and you’ll usually see dolphins, birds, and other sea life, too.


32. Play at Belmont Park

Belmont Park San Diego is our seaside amusement park in Mission Beach with rides and carnival games. You can walk around to enjoy some of their outdoor activities, like the Midway Games, Tiki Golf, Rock Wall, and The Plunge Pool.

Soak up sunshine over sushi at Cannonball, the rooftop restaurant, or sip cocktails in the sand at Beach House.


33. Cruise the Mission Beach Boardwalk

The 3-mile boardwalk that runs between Pacific Beach and Mission Beach is called Ocean Front Walk. It’s lined with vacation rentals, hotels, motels, restaurants, and beach bars. I like to walk on it but many others choose to bicycle, roller skate, or skateboard. You’ll see some colorful characters and occasional buskers. The vibe is upbeat, especially in good weather, but eclectic.

In fact, if you want to rent a skateboard or bicycle to use on the boardwalk, you can pick them up at Belmont Park.


34. Explore Old Town San Diego

This historic and picturesque neighborhood spans 230 acres and is located just ten minutes away from downtown San Diego. Old Town is packed with interesting streets to explore, fun attractions, coffee shops, restaurants, and fascinating mini-museums in the Old Town State Historic Park. You can even visit the El Campo Santo cemetery.

You can easily spend a few hours walking around the birthplace of California and cap it off with some delicious Mexican food or a giant margarita. For more inspiration, read my Old Town San Diego guide.


35. Get Inspired at San Diego Botanic Garden

Alphabet Garden at San Diego Botanic Gardens

For gardening inspiration—whether your tastes are water-wise or tropical—or a peaceful oasis to stroll amongst stunning nature, head to the San Diego Botanic Garden. Located in Encinitas in north county San Diego, the gardens are 37 acres and have 4 miles of trails for you to explore.

You can also bring the whole family. Kids love the many outdoor activities, such as grass mazes, in Hamilton Children’s Garden.

Bonus: Shopping

Most of our shopping malls, like Westfield UTC mall and some of our outlet malls are outdoor adventures. Sure, you would need to go inside of the stores but the bigger outdoor malls are set up like lifestyle spaces with plenty of outdoor lounging areas, outside dining, and more.

You can walk around the shops in La Jolla, Little Italy, North Park, or Seaport Village all while enjoying the fresh air and our fabulous West Coast weather.


My Favorite Outdoor Activities in San Diego

If you’re having trouble narrowing down this list, these are my favorite things to do outside in San Diego.

1. Visiting the La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions

I never get tired of visiting the seals at the Children’s Pool and the sea lions at La Jolla Cove. They’re always doing something a little bit different than the last time I saw them. Not to mention, it’s a lovely walk between these two areas.

2. Kayaking the La Jolla Sea Caves

When people come to me looking for ideas they haven’t considered for their trip to San Diego, I always mention a kayak tour out to the La Jolla sea caves. Many tell me that it was a vacation highlight. It’s fun and a great exercise to paddle along the coast while catching a glimpse of sea life.

3. Outdoor Dining

When the weather is good, and it usually is, enjoying a meal at one of our many spectacular outdoor oceanfront restaurants is high on my list. I choose George’s Ocean Terrace because it’s one of San Diego’s best restaurants and also quite near my house.

4. San Diego Zoo

The vast majority of San Diego Zoo exhibits are outside. So, you can spend an entire day there in today’s environment and not feel like you’re missing out on a thing. I’ve been a San Diego Zoo member for a long time because I love animals and also what they do conservation-wise for the entire globe.

5. Going to the Beach

Going to the beach doesn’t necessarily mean sunbathing. For us, it’s a place to exercise, take the dog on walks, meet friends, picnic, surf, SUP, swim, and generally just get outside of the house. The beach is one of the main reasons why we are lucky to live here.

What are your favorite outdoor activities in San Diego?

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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