The Five Best State Parks near San Diego

San Diego is so nice you'll never want to leave. But if you do, leave to one of these state parks.

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

The city of San Diego is nestled on one of the great confluences of American nature. To the east the vast swathes of arid desert land extend out into the Colorado and Mojave, while to west the azure swells of the Pacific Ocean crash and tumble against the rugged, limestone coastline. It’s a combination that makes for a truly enticing offering of outdoors destinations, and there’s a real array of different state parks and natural reserves within easy reach of the San Diego city area (with some even nestled neatly within metropolitan limits!)

Here are five of the best state parks near the city. Some are strewn out across California’s iconic southern coastline, others can be found deep in the rocky dunes of the state’s inland country, but all offer a unique and wondrous glimpse of Southern Cali’s unique natural world.

5. Rare birds and beautiful backcountry at the Border Field State Park

The Border Field State Park is a haven for wildlife lovers that’s perched on the very southern fringes of California. Here, the unique combination of riverside dunes and marshlands are hailed as one of the few remaining natural habitats for a number of endangered species, from the small and elegant snowy plover bird, to the state’s indigenous least tern. What’s more, the on-site visitor’s centre offers introductory sessions to the park’s unique biosphere, while there are a number of picnic spots and horse riding routes that wind their way through the grounds.

4. Silver Strand State Beach: surf in private

Named for the glistening collections of silver sea shells that gather on the shores here, the Silver Strand State Beach is one of the veritable gems of the San Diego coastline. It encompasses long sections of sand on both the Pacific and city side of the Silver Strand, a narrow spit that casts its way northwards towards the heart of the city. This has made it one of the favorite off-the-beaten-track haunts for travellers looking to surf the swells or soak up the sun away from the crowds of the much-visited Mission Beach in the north.

3. Witness one of America's rarest trees at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Though relatively compact and small, the Torrey Pines Reserve is one of the few State Parks in San Diego to fall entirely within city limits. This makes it a popular destination among locals, who come to walk their dogs along the miles of untouched beaches and the open trails that wend their way through the red rock coastal valleys. For international visitors, there’s a great on-site information centre, where it’s possible to learn about the unique biodiversity of the reserve and its famous namesake species of tree, the Torrey Pine – one of the rarest in all of North America.

2. Stand on the edge of the Colorado Desert at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Sprawled over more than 600,000 acres of the western cusps of the great Mojave and Colorado deserts, it’s the sheer size and scope of the Anza Borrego State Park that hits most visitors first. As the largest state park in California, and only the second largest in all of the United States, it’s perhaps not surprising that so many hikers, bird-watchers and history-buffs flock here each year; some coming to conquer the myriad of rugged desert walking trails, others, to witness the ancient cave decorations in the Little Blair Valley.

1. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park: a hiker's paradise

Set on the rugged slopes of the Laguna Mountains under one hour’s drive east of San Diego city, this wild patchwork of fir forests, grassy trails and wide peninsula peaks is the perfect out-of-town retreat for those looking to experience the raw isolation of Southern California. Not only does Cuyamaca Park boast over 100 miles of maintained hiking track, but it’s also got two well-equipped campsites (at Green Valley and Paso Picacho), with a combined capacity for over 160 tents. From these, it’s also possible to make the longer trek up to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak itself.

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