Sun, Sand, and Seals: The Best of San Diego

A cold day in San Diego is any temperature below 65 degrees. This nearly perfect location on the southwest coast of the United States doesn’t always garner as much attention as California’s other metropolitan giants (LA and San Francisco), but it does offer an adventure for all types of vacationers. For art lovers, San Diego’s Balboa Park has a complex of modern and classic museums, while the pristine coastline beaches give the more relaxed traveler a perfect view. And for the urban hikers, San Diego’s diverse neighborhoods offers us a challenge of fitting as much as we can into one trip.

 

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Balboa Park is a must-see when visiting San Diego.

Balboa Park: When you fly into San Diego’s airport, try to catch a glimpse of the iconic California Tower, a Spanish-style spire that marks the entrance to one of San Diego’s main attractions. Travelers can easily spend a full day exploring Balboa Park, visiting museums including the Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art, or the Museum of Natural History. For the nature lovers, take a stroll through the Botanical Gardens, or pack a picnic lunch and find a shaded spot in the Japanese Friendship Garden.

 

San Diego Zoo: Just north of Balboa Park is the world-famous San Diego Zoo, which is home to over 3,500 animals. If you are traveling with kids, this is a must-see destination.

Coronado Island: Half military base, half vacation destination, this island is famous for its red-roofed luxury hotel. While prices may be steep, this is a great destination to visit for a drink or meal, followed by a sunset stroll along the beach.

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Be sure to stop at the marina to view a larger than life statue of the famed WW2 kiss.

Gaslamp District/ Downtown San Diego: If you are looking for evening plans, look no further than the Gaslamp District in San Diego’s downtown. Located across from the Marina and Convention Center, this strip has shops, restaurants, and bars, perfect for a casual dinner, a stop before catching a baseball game at Petco Park, or a rowdy night of bar hopping (you’ll see plenty of bachelor/bachelorette parties in the area). Start your walk at the marina, stopping in to the USS Midway Museum and wander through the Seaport Village. Here, you’ll get stunning views of Coronado Island and the Naval base, and then head on over to the Gaslamp District (looked for the arched entryway over the street).

Pacific Beach: If you’re looking for a 1970s surfing vibe, look no farther than Pacific Beach. While a little modernized, the boardwalk still gives you an authentic Californian coastline, with fishing piers, surf shops, and plenty of people watching. Take a stroll along the board walk, or venture onto the sand and put your feet in the Pacific Ocean.

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Are those rocks? Nope, just very lazy seal pups.

La Jolla: North of San Diego city is the posh neighborhood of La Jolla (for those of you like me who love to point out places you’ve visited when watching TV, this is where ‘Grace and Frankie’ takes place). Here, you’ll find yoga studios, swanky shops, glorious vacation homes, and seaside restaurants, but the best part is of course taking some time to visit the seals and sea lions. Start at La Jolla Cove, you’ll know you’re close to the action because you can smell the sea lions as soon as you exit your car. (A note—keep your distance from all animals. While you can walk onto the rocks, these creatures will bite if provoked, and can carry some nasty bacteria with them.) Head south along the pathway until you reach Children’s Pool. Once a swimming spot for San Diego’s children, this man-made cove was quickly overrun by seals (Amazingly, the seals and sea lions have their own designated areas, but rarely mix). The best time to visit is in the spring, as starting in March the seals and sea lions start to have babies, so you can spend your time watching the moms teach their pups how to swim! When you’ve had your fill of adorable animals, take a stroll up to the La Jolla Village for lunch.

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Gliderport daredevils.

Torrey Pines Gliderport: Feeling adventurous? Right by UCSD’s campus (and the architectural wonder that is the Salk Institute), you can take a leap off the cliffs and slowly glide down to safety. Or, if you’re like me, just grab a coffee and watch these daredevils soar to the Pacific. There are hiking trails along the cliffs that will bring you down to the beach (WARNING: Bring proper shoes as the path is steep, and be aware that the beach below is a legal nude beach), or you can walk into the university campus (be sure to visit the library!).

Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial: Touring San Diego, you come to realize one important thing very quickly—it’s big. So, to get your bearings and to see a great view of the entire city, take a drive up to the Mt. Soledad Veteran Memorial, high above the coastline. It’s worth the quick stop.

Day Trip: Joshua Tree National Park

By mid- to late- February those of us who live in the northern hemisphere tend to get a little antsy. Cold, frigid temperatures combined with regular and unpredictable snow and sleet tend to force us indoors for most of the season. While yes, there are winter adventures we can participate in, those tend to rely heavily on the weather for safety reasons. As such, us outdoorsy-types tend to go a little crazy this time of year.

Winter, however, can be an ideal time for day trips (and some overnights) if you head south. A favorite spot is Joshua Tree National Park, a desert haven for hikers, climbers, and bikers. While during usual tourist season this park can reach temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the winter months can be quite pleasant (we do always advise that before heading out to these parks, you check the weather and other important information on the NPS website).

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For views like this, be sure to make time for a longer hike (and note the ruins of a former house to the left).

For this particular guide, you can hit most of the major spots in the park in a day trip by car. It’s a three-hour drive to Joshua Tree from San Diego or LA, so plan for a long day if you are returning to one of those cities afterwards, pack food and lots of water, and be sure your gas tank is full. We start our tour at the West Entrance Station, heading southeast into the heart of the National Park.

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Reminds us of Breaking Bad…

1. Viewpoints. Before you read on, a warning: BE SURE YOU CAN SEE YOUR CAR AT ALL TIMES. As you drive through the park, you’ll notice that coming in from the west entrance the desert is filled with the towering trees that give the park its name. Many visitors will pull over at designated picnic spots and small parking lots, where you can access shorter trails, hike, and take a few photos. This is a great way to get acquainted with the park, but be sure to not wander too far. While yes, the terrain is fairly flat and open, it’s important to be safe when you explore.

2. Hidden Valley. One of my favorite parts about Joshua Tree is that as you travel along, there are moments when you look out to the horizon and focus on a steep rock formation, and upon a closer look realize that there is a person at the top. It’s no surprise that Joshua Tree has become a mecca of sorts for rock climbers, and winter is prime season for groups to camp out and spend a few days challenging their skills. Hidden Valley, which is a part campground, part hiking trail loop through former cattle rustler hideouts, is a great spot to stop and watch the climbers (or try it out yourself!). For those who aren’t into climbing, the one-mile loop hike is fairly easy, and lets you explore inside some of the rock formations without having to strap on a harness.

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Keep an eye out for climbers in high places.

3. Barker Dam. Continuing past Hidden Valley, this hike is friendly for all levels. It takes you on a one-mile loop past an old dam, which was once used for cattle and now acts as reservoir for wildlife within the park. You’ll also have a chance to see a few etchings in the rock from past inhabitants before this park became a park.

4. Ryan Mountain. With the summit at 5,458 ft overlooking the Lost Horse and Pleasant Valleys, this three-mile out-and-back hike is ideal for the hiker looking for more of a challenge. Be sure to bring lots of water for this trek, as even in the winter you’ll feel that desert dryness.

5. Skull Rock. Park Boulevard eventually splits to a north-south intersection. For our day trip, we turned north to head back to Route 62, which created a nice loop for our drive and had us back in San Diego by dinner time. On the way, you’ll notice sections where tourists have pulled over to crowd into certain spots for photos. One such location is Skull Rock, which at certain angles appears to be pulled right from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It’s worth checking out, even for just a few minutes before you head back into civilization.

6. Star Gazing. Ok, so a day trip wouldn’t include this part, but if you have the chance, book a campsite and spend the night in the park. Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its night sky views. Don’t believe us? A quick image search will convince you.

 

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Dead men tell no tale…