San Diego’s National Parks
National Parks near San Diego. There’s so much more to the great state of California than surfing and the San Diego Zoo.
In this article, we’ll familiarize you with the incredible national parks that are within a day’s drive of San Diego.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as well as full-fledged national parks. To learn more about the difference between the various National Park Service designations check out our article that explains everything!
Now let’s go ahead with 6 reasons why you’ll want to hop in your car and make a day’s drive from San Diego to one of these truly amazing places.
Best National Parks Near San Diego
1. Cabrillo National Monument
Distance From San Diego: Twenty-four minutes (10 miles) via N Harbor Dr.
As a former history teacher, one of my favorite topics of study was the Age of Discovery.
In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped into history as the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States.
In addition to telling the story of 16th century exploration, Cabrillo National Monument is home to a wealth of cultural and natural resources. Join us and embark on your own Voyage of Exploration.
Visitors will enjoy exploring the Old Loma Lighthouse which was first put into service on November 15, 1855. In just under 36 years of operation, 11 principal keepers and 22 assistant keepers served at Point Loma Lighthouse.
Another popular point of interest is the rocky intertidal area, also known as the tidepools. It’s one of the best protected rocky intertidal areas in California.
The best time to visit the tidepools is during the fall and winter months, when we get our great low tides during park hours.
2. Channel Islands National Park
Distance From San Diego: It’s approximately three hours or 175 miles away.
You can embark on a journey to experience five incredible islands off of the coast of Southern California. They’re known as the Channel Islands.[Please note: While you can drive there in 3 hour’s time, the islands themselves are only accessible by park concessionaire boats (Island Packers) or private boats.]
Located in Ventura County, Channel Islands National Park offers it visitors five remarkable islands and their ocean environment. There you will experience a wealth of natural and cultural resources.
These islands unique geography over thousands of years has created animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth. The Channel Islands have helped to preserve a very special place where visitors can experience coastal California as it once was a very long time ago.
Camping is available year round on all five islands. There are many trails and roads which traverse these islands and provide you with spectacular hiking opportunities.
3. Death Valley National Park
Distance From San Diego: Five hours (283 miles) via US-395 N.
Death Valley is situated on California’s southeastern border with Nevada, Death Valley National Park spans over 5,000 square miles of otherworldly vistas. The largest national park in the continental United States, Death Valley is a park for superlatives.
It’s the hottest place on earth, the lowest place in North America, and the driest place in the United States. It is also the largest national park outside of Alaska.
While you’re there, check out the massive slanted valleys that go on forever and seem to lack only the crashed spaceship in the distance, snow-capped mountains, a year round waterfall (insane, right?), expansive forests abandoned mines, conifer groves, and some of the most stunning dune fields in North America comprise the park with the most morbid name.
RELATED: Death Valley National Park
If you’re visiting the park be sure to check out our full Death Valley National Park Guide!
The Death Valley Video
4. Mojave National Preserve
Distance From San Diego: Approximately four hours (238 miles) via I-15 N.
At this 1.6 million acre preserve, visitors will see canyons, mountains, and mesas. They will explore long-abandoned mines, homesteads and rock-walled military outposts. Mojave provides serenity and solitude from major metropolitan areas.
Camping is very popular with two developed campground, the Mid Hills Campground and Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, which offer year-round accommodations and are equipped with vault toilets, trash receptacles, fire rings and picnic tables.
There are also a series of established hiking trails which offer hikes ranging in difficulty from easy to moderate. It’s a great way to explore wilderness areas.
Wildlife is abundant there with over 300 different species of animals including desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes and desert tortoises roam the area. Many birds live in the area. Golden eagles and several types of hawks can be seen soaring on the desert thermals.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Distance From San Diego: Three hours (164 miles) via I-15 N.
Why go? Because Joshua Tree National Park is a world famous American destination known for it’s wacky namesake, the Joshua Tree.
It’s the iconic southwestern desert park that you’ve heard so much about and probably seen featured in countless movies, television shows, and yes, of course music videos.
Named for the one-of-a-kind trees that call the area home, Joshua Tree National Park is a true desert wonderland.
Watercolor sunsets and night skies teeming with stars, fairy tale trees and giant boulder piles, warm desert air and endless vistas, these are the hallmarks of this iconic southwestern destination.
If you’re visiting the park be sure to check out our full Joshua Tree National Park Guide.
The Joshua Tree Video
6. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Distance From San Diego: Two hours and 40 minutes (159 miles) via I-5 N & I-405 N.
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) is a United States National Recreation Area containing many individual parks and open space preserves, located primarily in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California.
The SMMNRA is located within the greater Los Angeles region, with two thirds of the parklands in northwest Los Angeles County, and the remaining third, including a Simi Hills extension, in southeastern Ventura County.
While you’re there, you can explore the famous beaches of Malibu or more than 500 miles of trails. One of the most popular attractions is the 67-mile-long Backbone Trail in the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains.
The park also includes historical and cultural sites, from old movie ranches to Native American centers. Outdoor activities include: camping, climbing, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and wildflower viewing.
Map Of The Sites Of San Diego’s National Parks
San Diego’s National Park Sites
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Channel Islands National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Mojave National Preserve
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
About the Folks Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century.
Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for the More Than Just Parks website. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.
Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then please sign up below!
And a bonus! Tips for Visiting a National Park
Permit Systems and Reservations
Check to see if the national park you’re visiting has a permit or reservation system in place before visiting. As parks become increasingly crowded more has to be done to safeguard them which means controlling the hundreds of millions of people who visit these places each year.
Popular national parks with reservation systems of some kind include Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Arches, Acadia, Denali, and more.
Want Less Crowds? Try a National Forest!
Try visiting a national forest while you’re on your trip to avoid the crowds. There are 155 national forests in America, many of which are equally as beautiful as the national parks they neighbor and only see a fraction of the visitors.
For example, try the Flathead National Forest next to Glacier National Park, the Bridger-Teton next to Grand Teton, and the Dixie which borders nearly all of the Utah National Parks.
Practice Safety, Seriously
National parks are amazing but wild places so it is essential to practice basic safety while visiting them. Every year people die while vacationing in national parks. This is easily avoided by:
- Sticking to trails
- Checking the weather before going out on a hike
- Maintaining a safe distance between wildlife which means at least 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators
- Avoid ledges with steep drop offs