California and the surrounding Western States are home to several incredible and diverse national parks which means there are lots of great national parks near San Diego. San Diego has long been a vacation destination unto itself, but it is also a great home base for exploring several national parks within a day’s drive.
There is one national park unit within the city limits, but there are 11 more national parks that can be easily be reached from San Diego, making them incredible weekend destinations or day trips. This guide gives you the driving distance from San Diego and lots of things to do in each of these national park units.
12 National Parks Near San Diego
Cabrillo National Monument
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 11 miles (25 minutes)
Just 11 miles from downtown San Diego on the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula is Cabrillo National Monument, a place to experience the natural beauty and history of San Diego.
This historic site commemorates the arrival of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States in 1542. Visitors can explore the museum exhibits and learn about the history of the region, including the Kumeyaay people who have lived in the area for thousands of years.
The monument is also home to Old Point Loma Lighthouse, one of the eight original lighthouses built on the West Coast. It served as a beacon for sailors entering San Diego Bay from 1855 to 1891.
Prime time to visit this area is December through March, when gray whales can often be spotted off Point Loma during the migration to and from their birthing grounds off the coast of Mexico.
Visitors can explore the tide pools during low tide and see a wide variety of sea life, including anemones, crabs, and starfish. There are several hiking trails that lead visitors through the park’s diverse landscape. The Bayside Trail is a great option if you are looking for sweeping views of the bay and downtown San Diego.
Joshua Tree National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 160 miles (Three hours)
With its towering boulders, diverse desert life, and iconic namesake trees, Joshua Tree National Park is a special place. The park is home to two different desert environments, the Mojave high desert and the Colorado low desert.
Joshua Tree is a great place to enjoy rock climbing and bouldering, and there are plenty of fun options for novices and experts alike.
One of the most popular things to do in Joshua Tree National Park is hiking. With over 800 miles of trails, visitors can choose from easy nature walks to more strenuous hikes up rocky terrain.
The trail to Barker Dam is a 1.1-mile loop trail with plenty of boulders to climb on, prehistoric rock art, and even the occassional appearance by desert bighorn sheep.
If you want more of a challenge, hike the 1.5-mile trail to the top of Ryan Mountain. It gains 1,000 feet in elevation in that short distance, but the 360-degree views of the park from the 5,461′ summit are worth the effort.
Additional highlights of this park include Skull Rock, the Keys Ranch tour, bouldering in Hidden Valley, and the sprawling vistas at Keys View.
The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is the spring when wildflowers are in bloom and the weather is mild. If you visit during the winter, snow is possible but most days are chilly and dry. I would avoid this park in the summer due to the soaring temperatures which make hiking dangerous.
Check out our epic Joshua Tree National Park day trip itinerary.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 155 miles (Three hours)
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area spans over 150,000 acres, making it one of the largest urban parks in the world. It encompasses a variety of destinations like Franklin Canyon, Paramount Ranch, Solstice Canyon, Circle X Ranch as well as several more canyons and parks. It also works in collaboration with many of the surrounding state parks and beaches.
One of the best ways to explore the park is by hiking its many trails, which offer stunning views of the surrounding landscape. The Backbone Trail is a 67-mile trail that traverses the entire park and offers breathtaking vistas of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Pick a segment of this trail and enjoy the scenery which is especially scenic in the spring when it is covered in greenery and wildflowers.
The hike to Split Rock (3.5 miles RT) at the Circle X Ranch and the Solstice Canyon Trail (2.1 mile RT) which leads to a waterfall and ruins of an old cabin are also popular (and dog friendly!) trails.
If hiking isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy in the park. The beaches along the coastline are perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. Point Mugu and Zuma Beach are two popular spots where you can catch some waves and soak up the California sunshine. Leo Carillo is a great place for tide pooling.
Carrizo Plain National Monument
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 270 miles (Six hours)
Carrizo Plain National Monument is a remote park in Central California that is located about ninety minutes from both Bakersfield and San Louis Obispo in between the rolling foothills that separate the Central Valley from the coast. It is the largest native grassland left in the state of California.
This park is known for its wildflower blooms in the spring, which produce a riot of color after a rainy winter. Color tends to peak in late March through April and include yellow daisies, owl’s clover, goldfields, coreopsis, poppies, and phacelia.
Another must-see attraction in the monument is Painted Rock, an ancient Native American site with pictographs and petroglyphs. Visitors can take a guided tour of the site to learn more about its history and cultural significance.
For those looking for a more active adventure, there are several hiking trails in the monument, including the Caliente Ridge Trail, which provides stunning views of the surrounding hills and valleys. You will also want to walk the boardwalk at Soda Lake, which reflects the wildflowers on its waters. If you want to walk on the famed San Andreas Fault, take the 1.3-mile Wallace Creek Trail.
Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of the few places in Califoria where you have a chance of spotting pronghorn antelope. They were once the most common big game animal in California’s Central Valley, but overhunting during the Gold Rush era and agricultural development drastically reduced their range and numbers. You can also spot tule elk inside the park.
Mojave National Preserve
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 240 miles (Four hours)
Mojave National Preserve protects over a million acres of the Mojave Desert. As you can imagine, it is very hot in this park in the summer, so winter and shoulder season visits are the most enjoyable.
It is home to Kelso Dunes, some of the largest sand dunes in the country. These enormous piles of sand rise 600 feet above the desert floor. There is a three-mile trail around the dunes but they are most fun to just climb and slide, snowboard, or even roll down.
These dunes are known to “sing”, making a deep sound that happens when a large amount of sand is pushed off the top of the dunes in hot weather.
Another popular attraction is the Mitchell Caverns, which offers guided tours of an underground cave system. Visitors can explore the unique rock formations and learn about the geological history of the area.
You will also want to check the park’s lava tube. It was created by molten lava 27,000 years ago. There is a beam of light that shines into the lava tube at certain times of day (usually early afternoon in the summer), begging to be photographed.
You also won’t want to miss the 1.5-mile Hole-in-the-Wall Rings Trail where you can use the rock-mounted ringbolts to climb into the rocky amphitheater at the bottom of Banshee Canyon.
Castle Mountains National Monument
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 310 miles (5 1/2 hours)
Castle Mountains National Monument, established in 2016, is located two hours east of Barstow. It protects 21,000 acres of desert northwest of the Colorado River in between Interstates 15 and 40. This desert is very much alive with Joshua trees, rare desert grasslands, seasonal desert wildflowers, and even pinyon-juniper forest at the highest elevations.
The Castle Mountains are protected habitat for a variety of wildife including for desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, bobcats, golden eagles, gila monsters, and desert tortoise.
One of the highlights of the monument is the Castle Mountains themselves, which offer stunning views of the surrounding desert landscape. The mountains are a popular destination for hikers and provide a challenging but rewarding hike to the summit.
There are several abandoned mines and ghost towns to explore. The Hart Mine and the Oro Belle Mine are both popular destinations as historic sites like the restored Hart Homestead, which provides a glimpse into life in the desert in the early 1900s.
This park is only accessible by dirt roads, so a four-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicle is recommended. There are no maintained trails; simply drive in and hike where you want. Here is a good article on visiting this remote national monument.
Channel Islands National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 190 miles (Three hours)
The Channel Islands National Park may be one of the closest national parks near San Diego, but it is also one of the least visited. This is because reaching these islands involves a boat trip, so only about 400,000 people make the journey each year.
Skipping this national park would be a shame, because these wild and untamed islands are filled with incredible scenery and help us catch a glimpse of what the California coast might have been like generations ago.
The first step to visiting is to book a trip with Island Packers. This boat ferry company has trips to several different islands, including options for campers. Keep your eyes open for whales and dolphins as you cross the channel. Day trips are popular ways to see the islands, and Anacapa and Santa Cruz are the most popular islands to visit.
Sea kayaking is one of the best things to do at Channel Islands National Park. Santa Cruz Island is the most popular place for sea kayaking because of its incredible sea caves. Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers great sea kayaking tours.
Snorkeling is another activity at Channel Islands. The water is cold, so wetsuits are highly encouraged. The kelp forests surrounding the islands are amazing and full of sea life.
Hikers will want to visit during wildflower season in the spring. The bright yellow brilliant yellow coreopsis flowers are showstoppers. Keep your eyes out for the tiny Channel Island fox which stands at just a foot tall and weighs only 4-5lbs.
Death Valley National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 283 miles (Five hours)
Death Valley National Park is 3,422,024 acres in size, making it the largest national park outside of Alaska. It is also a park of stark contrast. Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America at -282 feet, is impressively offset by Telescope Peak looming 11,331 feet above just 15 miles away.
Death Valley is well known for its fiery summer temperatures which can exceed 130 degrees during a heat wave, but it is a delightful place to visit during the winter, late fall, and early spring when the weather is mild.
There are lots of great places to hike inside of Death Valley National Park, and unlike most national parks, you don’t have to stay on trails while you explore. As a matter of fact, many places don’t have trails at all! We love to explore Golden Canyon, Sidewinder Canyon, and Mosaic Canyon.
One of the most beloved destinations inside the park is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. They are not the tallest in the park, but they are the most accessible and so much fun to play on.
Other park destinations you don’t want to miss are Zabriski Point, Artist’s Drive, and the Devil’s Golf Course. Here are 24 animals in Death Valley that you may encounter on your visit.
Saguaro National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 398 miles (Six hours)
Saguaro National Park is home to the mighty saguaro cactus, the largest cactus species in the United States. The park is divided into two districts by the city of Tucson, which sits in the middle. The Tucson Mountain District, aka Saguaro West, is closest to San Diego. The Rincon Mountain District, aka Saguaro East, is located on the eastern edge of Tucson.
Both sides of the park have visitors centers with exhibits and great information about current condidtions within the park. The also both have cactus gardens with labeled plants which are great for familiarizing yourself with the park’s flora.
The east side of the park is closer to neighborhoods and feels more suburban. There are often many locals out biking and walking the road, epsecially on weekends. The west side is much more rural and feels more remote.
One of the best things to do in Saguaro National Park during late fall, winter, and early spring is to go hiking. The park has more than 165 miles of hiking trails to explore- but be sure to bring plenty of water before heading out!
On the west side, down the road from the visitor center is the Desert Discovery Nature Trail. It’s only about half mile in length and is paved, so it is stroller and wheelchair friendly.
The Valley View Overlook Trail and the Signal Hill Trail are two easy and popular trails in Saguaro West as well. The Valley View Overlook trail is known for its lovely views, especially during the spring wildflower bloom while Signal Hill is known for both views and impressive petroglyphs.
In Saguaro East, the Mica View Loop Trail (3.7 miles) is an easy trail that is great for viewing wildflowers in the early spring. If you want to see a waterfall in the desert, head out on the Bridal Wreath Falls Trail which gains about 1,000 feet in elevation along the way.
If you are looking for scenic drives, check out the Bajada Loop Drive in the Tuscon Mountain District. It is dirt but graded and suitable for passenger vehicles. A portion of this route is one way.
In the Rincon Mountain District, Cactus Forest Drive is a one-way, paved loop road that leads visitors into the heart of the Saguaro forest and offers great views of the surrounding mountains. It is a total of eight miles in length.
Sequoia National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 325 miles (5 1/2 hours)
Sequoia National Park is known for its namesake trees which are sure to make you feel like as small as an ant when you stand beside them.
One of the main attractions in Sequoia National Park is the General Sherman Tree, the largest known living single-stem tree on earth. Visitors can hike through the Giant Forest, which has more than 8,000 sequoia trees. The further you hike away from General Sherman, the fewer people you will encounter.
Beyond the impressive trees, this park is filled with great hiking and tremendous Sierra Nevada scenery. Don’t miss the trail to Tokopah Falls which follows the refreshingly cold Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. Black bears are commonly spotted in the area.
Another popular attraction is Moro Rock, a granite dome that offers sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. It is quite an adventure to climb the step carved into this granite monolith, and take in views of the treeless mountaintops along the Great Western Divide.
Sequoia National Park is also home to Crystal Cave, which is open for cave tours seasonally. The tours are popular, and it is recommended that you purchase tickets two months in advance of your visit. It is a 1/2-mile walk down the hill to the Crystal Cave entrance. Be sure to bring a sweatshirt because it is a constant 50 degrees inside the cave.
Kings Canyon National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 340 miles (Six hours)
King Canyon is a national park that in many ways, feels like two distinct parks. It is home to Grant Grove, an impressive Sequoia Grove that is home to the General Grant tree, the second largest sequoia in the world and the Fallen Monarch, a fallen sequoia that is cool to walk through and explore.
The other portion of the park is accessed via a winding mountain road which ends in valley that gives Yosemite Valley a run for its money. It is certainly less crowded than Yosemite and has beautiful granite peaks and sprawling meadows to enjoy.
We especially love hiking the Zumwalt Meadow loop, stopping to see Sheep’s Creek Cascade, and playing in the Kings River on warm summer days.
Horseback riding is a fun way to enjoy Kings Canyon as well. Trail rides along the Kings River are offered at the Cedar Grove Pack Station.
Be sure to make a stop at Boyden Cave on your way to or from the valley. This marble cave is located deep in Kings Canyon and is open for tours.
Yosemite National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 400 miles (Seven hours)
Yosemite National Park is the most popular park in California thanks to the magical Yosemite Valley which is home to towering waterfalls, remarkable granite features like Half Dome and El Capitan, abundant wildlife, and pristine meadows.
Read about all the animals in Yosemite you might encounter.
Beyond Yosemite Valley there is still so much more of this special park to discover. Yosemite is home to three Sequoia groves and plenty of high Sierra backcountry to explore. You will definitely want to make time to explore Tioga Pass and the enjoy the panoramic views at Glacier Point.
Given the size and scope of Yosemite, I suggest that you plan on spend at least two to three full days exploring the park. But, I also know that sometimes schedules won’t allow for that which is why I put together this Yosemite in One Day itinerary if you are short on time.
There are so many great day hikes in Yosemite National Park that you won’t want to miss. They include trails to gushing waterfalls, verdant green meadows, and crystal clear waterways. Here are the 16 best easy hikes in Yosemite National Park.
Pinnacles National Park
Distance from Downtown San Diego: 405 miles (Seven hours)
Pinnacles National Park is the newest national park in California, known for its famous for its caves, hikes, rock climbing, camping, and condors.
There are two sides of the park, the west and east entrance, and there is no road that goes through the park connecting the two. If you want to explore both sides you will have to go back to Hwy 101 and go around.
On the east side of the park, the Bear Gulch area is home to large talus caves that are formed by massive boulders. It is so much fun to scramble through on your way these caves (bring a flashlight or head lamp) up to Bear Gulch Reservoir. The caves are closed seasonally when bats are roosting, so check the park website before heading out.
If you are on the west side of the park, the 2.4-mile Balconies Cave loop is another cool talus cave to explore. As with the Bear Gulch Cave, flashlights or headlamps are necessary.
As you hike the hills of Pinnacles National Park, keep your eyes out for the rare California condor. There are only about 300 living in the wild so spotting one of these giant birds is quite a treat. Some climbing and hiking routes can be closed during nesting season.