Outdoor Family Fun Near San Diego

San Diego isn’t just about surfing and Legoland. There are plenty of other outdoor adventures sure to excite the entire family—and they’re all less than an hour from the city.


San Diego is surrounded by historic and outdoor attractions that are perfect for active families. From seals to stars, kids will experience nature and learn while having fun at these .

Julian, Calif.

Only 45 minutes from downtown San Diego, sits the quaint town of Julian. Nestled in the Cuyamaca Mountains, this popular family destination has been a favorite day trip with locals for decades.

The Eagle and High Peak Gold Mine

A former working mine, the Eagle and High Peak Gold Mine is one of Julian’s great tours for kids. Visitors are escorted 1,000 feet into the shaft—500 feet into one tunnel, then 500 feet into another tunnel—during a one-hour walking tour. My nephews, Diego, age 12 and Gabe, age 5, and I ventured into the damp tunnels during a recent visit. Diego thought the mine was “cool.” Gabe was a bit apprehensive.

The tour is better suited for older kids, who will enjoy the gregarious tour guides’ explanations of how gold was milled and processed years ago and their colorful stories of life during the gold-rush days. After exploring the mines, we all panned for gold hoping to find a big nugget.

Eagle and High Peak Gold Mine, located at the end of C Street; tel. 760-765-0036; hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., daily. Admission: 5 and under, $1; 6-13, $5, 14 and up, $10.

Horseback Riding

For those who like to stay above ground, Julian Stables offers trail rides for children ages 3 and up. Gabe thoroughly enjoyed the miniature horse cart ride, and smiled through the entire 20 minute jaunt. The experience was capped off with his learning how to brush the sweet horse. Children ages 5 to 8 can take a 30-minute, hand-led ride on a full-size pony.

Diego and I honed our equestrian skills on a one-hour scenic tour through the mountains, which is available for children ages 9 and up. The friendly horses were mellow and easy to handle.

Julian Stables, located 1.5 miles west of downtown; tel. 760-765-1598; open daily, rides 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Reservations required. Admission: ages 3-4, miniature horse cart ride, $25; ages 5-8, hand led rides, $35; ages 9 and up, trail rides $49;

Star Gazing

The skies over Julian also offer entertainment. Observer’s Inn hosts a star gazing event. For one hour, Diego, Gabe and I viewed planets, star clusters, nebula and more, through three research grade telescopes. Age was not a factor; both nephews loved discovering the galaxy. Our teacher, Mike Leigh, had 37 years of astronomy experience, and helpfully answered all our questions. Needless to say, the kids gobbled up the refreshments of cider, cocoa, and cookies that were provided. Groups are limited to 15 people, so reservations are suggested.

Observer’s Inn, 3535 Highway 79—1.5 miles southeast from downtown Julian; tel. 760-765-0088; Mon.-Wed., Fri.-Sat.; viewing begins between 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., depending on the time of year. Admission: $20 for all ages (recommend ages 8 and up);

The California Wolf Center

Julian is also home to the California Wolf Center, one of the most prolific North American gray wolf recovery programs in the state. During our visit, we learned why conservation is important to this species, as we got up close to the resident "Denali Pack"—a group of gray wolves. Diego understood the conservation concept, while Gabe just thought the wolves were pretty. 

The center is open on Saturdays to the public for a 1.5-hour educational program. A special children’s event—"Wolf Encounters"—is available weekdays by appointment. This two-hour event offers kids a hands-on experience with artifacts such as wolf skulls and fur pellets—though a group of 20 to 40 children is required, so it may be impractical for families.

California Wolf Center, located four miles south of Julian off Highway 79; tel. 619-234-WOLF; hours: public tours Sat. at 1:30 p.m.; reservations required. Admission: adults, $10; children 12 and under, $6;

Mission Trails Regional Park

Situated on 5,800 acres of hills, valleys and open land, Mission Trails Regional Park offers 40 miles of trails to explore. Its location, only eight miles from downtown San Diego, makes the park easily accessible. The highlight is Cowles Mountain—the highest peak in the city at 1,591 feet. On any given day, numerous hikers test their endurance on one of the four well-maintained paths that lead to the top of Cowles. Diego and I tackled the Golfcrest Drive trail. We were able to reach the summit in one hour and 45 minutes, with a couple of rest stops along the way. The 360-degree view was well worth the climb.

Mission Trails Park is also home to Lake Murray. Approximately one mile from Cowles Mountain, the lake is surrounded by a 3.2 mile pedestrian path good for biking, walking, and rollerblading. The lake also offers shore fishing and rental boats. Diego and I relaxed after our hike with a leisurely row on the water. Lakeside picnic tables invite families to enjoy an outdoor lunch and feed the ducks.

Free nature programs for children are available. Kids of all ages will learn how animals see, hear and move. Older kids can participate in a discovery hike or ecology scavenger hunt. Adults and children will enjoy the full moon hike, which teaches visitors night-time safety tips. Call the Visitor Center for details.

Mission Trails Regional Park, One Fr. Junipero Serra Trail; tel. 619-668-3281; hours: daily from sunrise to sunset (longer on days there is an evening event). Admission: free. The nature programs rely on grants; if funds are low, there may be a small fee;  

La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove is located in one of San Diego's most prestigious seaside communities. The small beach is the perfect place for kids to enjoy sand and clear water, and to search for shells and marine life.

I took Gabe to the nearby Children's Pool, a small cove that is home to many harbor seals. Daily, up to 200 of these lovable lugs slumber on the sand and soak up the sun. The seals' beach is off limits to people, but Gabe and I ventured out onto the seawall to get a closer view.

Not far from the sunbathing seals is Shell Beach where families can romp in the surf, play in the sand and hunt for unique shells.

North of Shell Beach is La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, a 6,000 acre aquatic reserve that hugs the coast. Gabe and I spent the afternoon at the reserve identifying fish and birds with the help of informative plaques. Afterwards, we had a picnic on the grassy lawns of Scripps Park, which is adjacent to La Jolla Cove. We watched the waves while dining on a delicious lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Public restrooms and showers are available nearby for clean up.

La Jolla Cove, 1100 Coast Boulevard; Children's Pool, 850 Coast Boulevard. Hours: daily, 24 hours a day. Admission: free;    

Destinations: Julian, San Diego, La Jolla

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Horseback Riding, Sightseeing

User Comments

Nice alternatives to amusement parks I'm glad to see great family alternatives to the amusement parks!

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