Article Summary: National Parks Near San Diego
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.
San Diego is renowned for its idyllic climate, 70 miles of pristine beaches and a dazzling array of world-class family attractions. Popular attractions include the world-famous San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California
But it also features some truly amazing national parks.
So, What Is A National Park?
We get asked that question a lot because there’s a difference between a “national park” and a “national park site.” To help you understand that difference you might want to check out our article titled: What Is A National Park Really?
If you’re planning a trip to the Golden State then one book I highly recommend is: California Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal: Explore 50 Natural Wonders You Must See & Log Your Experience!
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.
Table Of Contents: National Parks Near San Diego
National Parks Near San Diego
- National Parks Near San Diego
- Check Out Our Death Valley Film
- More National Parks Near San Diego
- National Parks Near San Diego FAQ
- Meet The Parks Brothers
- Map Of San Diego National Parks
- We Hope You’ll Follow Our Journey
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.
Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo to what is now the West Coast of the United States in 1542.
The site was established as a National Monument in 1913, and since then, it has been managed by the National Park Service.
The Monument features a statue of Cabrillo, historic military fortifications, a museum showcasing the history of Cabrillo’s voyage and the cultural and natural resources of the area, as well as hiking trails offering panoramic views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Cabrillo National Monument is a significant site for both American and Californian history, and it continues to be an important destination for visitors interested in learning about the state’s early colonial past.
CHECK OUT: 15 MUST-SEE Historic Sites In California
2. Channel Islands National Park
Distance From San Diego: It’s approximately three hours or 175 miles away.
Resources: Where to Stay
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.]
Channel Islands National Park is located off the coast of California, encompassing five of the eight Channel Islands.
The park was established in 1980 to protect the unique natural and cultural resources of the islands, which are home to a diverse range of plant and animal species, including many that are found nowhere else in the world.
Discover A Place With A Rich Cultural History
The Chumash people, who have lived on the Channel Islands for thousands of years, have a rich cultural history that is tied to the land and sea. They used the resources of the islands to sustain themselves and developed a complex society with unique traditions, arts, and beliefs.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Channel Islands were used for agriculture, ranching, and military purposes, and many of the native species and ecosystems were impacted by human activity. In the mid-20th century, concerns about the preservation of the islands led to the creation of a national park to protect their unique resources.
The Park Is Home To A Diverse Range Of Plant & Animal Species
The park is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. Visitors to the park can enjoy scenic views of rugged coastline, kelp forests, and sandy beaches, as well as explore the rich cultural and natural history of the islands.
Some of the popular activities in the park include hiking, camping, kayaking, wildlife watching, and snorkeling. Visitors can also take guided tours to learn about the island’s unique geology, archeology, and ecology.
The five islands in the park are Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Each island offers its own unique experience, and visitors can choose to visit one or several of the islands depending on their interests and schedule.
Overall, Channel Islands National Park is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in exploring the beauty and diversity of California’s natural and cultural heritage.
3. Death Valley National Park
Distance From San Diego: Five hours (283 miles) via US-395 N.
Death Valley National Park is located in the Mojave Desert in California and Nevada and was established as a national park in 1994.
The park is known for its extreme and diverse landscape, including the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin, which lies 282 feet below sea level), towering mountain ranges, and vast sand dunes.
The history of Death Valley is rich and varied. Archaeological evidence suggests that the area was inhabited by the Timbisha Shoshone people for thousands of years. The area was later explored by Spanish missionaries and soldiers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became a popular destination for miners and settlers who were seeking their fortunes during the California Gold Rush.
Death Valley Has A Fascinating History Of Human Settlement, Mining & Transportation
Death Valley also has a fascinating history of human settlement, mining, and transportation. In the late 19th century, the area was a hub of mining activity, and several boomtowns, including Furnace Creek and Rhyolite, emerged.
The area was also an important stop along the 20-Mule Team Borax route, which was used to transport borax from the mines in Death Valley to the railhead at Mojave.
Today, Death Valley National Park encompasses over 3 million acres of land and includes a diverse range of habitats, from lush oases and canyons to barren salt flats and sand dunes.
The park is home to a wide range of plant and animal species, including the iconic desert bighorn sheep, and provides visitors with opportunities to experience the rugged beauty of the Mojave Desert, including hiking, camping, and wildlife watching.
Things To See & Do
Death Valley National Park offers a wide range of activities for visitors to enjoy. Here are some of the most popular things to do at the park:
- Scenic drives: Drive along some of the park’s most iconic roads, such as the Badwater Road, Artists Drive, and the nineteen-mile-long Wildrose Road, for stunning desert views.
- Hiking: There are many excellent hiking trails in Death Valley, ranging from easy walks to strenuous backcountry treks. Some popular trails include the Golden Canyon, Mosaic Canyon, and the natural bridge in Natural Bridge Canyon.
- Wildlife watching: The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and kit foxes. Keep your eyes peeled for these and other desert species while exploring the park.
- Star gazing: With minimal light pollution, Death Valley is an excellent place to stargaze. Visitors can attend ranger-led star walks, or simply find a dark spot and enjoy the night sky on their own.
- Photography: Death Valley offers a wealth of photo opportunities, from sweeping desert vistas to abstract patterns in the rocks. Whether you’re a professional photographer or just enjoy taking photos, you’ll find plenty to capture here.
- Historic sites: The park is home to several historic sites, including the Harmony Borax Works, the Furnace Creek Ranch, and the remnants of several old mining towns. Visitors can learn about the area’s rich history and see what life was like for miners and settlers in the desert.
- Geologic wonders: Death Valley is home to a variety of unique geologic formations, including sand dunes, canyons, and colorful rock formations. Some of the most famous sites include the Devil’s Golf Course, the Racetrack, and Ubehebe Crater.
Check Out Our Death Valley Film
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.
4. Mojave National Preserve
Distance From San Diego: Approximately four hours (238 miles) via I-15 N.
Mojave National Preserve covers over 1.6 million acres of diverse desert landscapes, including mountains, sand dunes, canyons, and Joshua tree forests.
The preserve is home to a rich variety of plant and animal life, including the iconic Joshua tree, as well as desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, and many species of birds. The area also has a rich cultural history, with evidence of Native American habitation dating back thousands of years, as well as a history of mining, ranching, and transportation.
Visitors to Mojave National Preserve can enjoy a wide range of recreational activities, including hiking, camping, wildlife watching, and scenic drives. Some of the most popular destinations in the preserve include the Kelso Dunes, the Cima Dome, and the Hole-in-the-Wall area.
In addition to its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Mojave National Preserve is also home to several unique geological features, including lava flows, volcanic cinder cones, and mineral deposits.
Overall, Mojave National Preserve is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in exploring the beauty and diversity of the Mojave Desert.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Distance From San Diego: Three hours (164 miles) via I-15 N.
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California and was established as a national monument in 1936 and as a national park in 1994.
The park is named after the iconic Joshua trees, which are found in the park’s unique and diverse landscape.
The history of Joshua Tree National Park goes back thousands of years, when the Pinto Culture, Serrano, and Cahuilla people lived in the area and used the resources of the land to sustain themselves.
The park’s unique landscape, including its towering rock formations, was formed by millions of years of geological activity and erosion.
Visitors Can Enjoy A Variety Of Recreational Activities
Visitors to Joshua Tree National Park can enjoy a variety of recreational activities, including hiking, camping, rock climbing, wildlife watching, and scenic drives. Some of the most popular destinations in the park include Hidden Valley, Keys View, and the Cholla Cactus Garden.
The park is also known for its stunning night skies, which are some of the darkest in the country, making it an excellent place for stargazing. Whether you’re a nature lover, a hiker, or simply someone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect destination.
Overall, Joshua Tree National Park is a unique and breathtaking desert landscape that should not be missed. Its combination of natural beauty, rich cultural history, and diverse recreational opportunities make it one of the most popular parks in the country and a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to southern California.
If you’re visiting the park be sure to check out our full Joshua Tree National Park Guide.
Check Out Our Joshua Tree Video
MTJP | Joshua Tree is the culmination of nearly a month spent exploring Joshua Tree National Park. We chose Joshua Tree because of its unique landscape.
Its immense boulder piles, colorful cactus fields, endless desert expanses, and one-of-a-kind Joshua trees make for a spectacular setting.
This film was shot entirely in 4K. We decided to capture this film during the winter months to spare ourselves from the extreme temperatures of Summer.
Joshua Tree is home to some of the darkest skies in the United States and as such we chose to feature the stars heavily. Filming locations include: Skull Rock, Arch Rock, Keys View, Wall Street Mill, Cholla Cactus Garden, Jumbo Rocks, Cottonwood Springs, & more.
More National Parks Near San Diego
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.
National Parks Near San Diego FAQ
6 National Parks Near San Diego
Cabrillo National Monument
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Joshua Tree National Park
Channel Islands National Park
Mojave National Preserve
Death Valley National Park
If you want to visit more than one national park site on your trip, the following are within 400 miles of Joshua Tree: Mojave National Preserve, California—90 mi (145 km) Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California—165 mi (265 km) Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California—165 mi (265 km).
This national park is famed for its incredible rock formations. One of the most famous is Arch Rock, which can be found at the end of a short 800-metre trail, located in the White Tank Campground.
Why Trust Us About National Parks Near San Diego?
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.
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, USDA, 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
Map Of San Diego National Parks
List of 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
We Hope You’ll Follow Our Journey
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
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