San Diego’s location in the very southwestern corner of the contiguous United States, near the Mexican border and on the Pacific Coast, may seem to offer limited opportunities to visit a national park or two. You can, after all, only go north along the coast or east into the arid California interior.
Yet, there are still half a dozen National Park Service sites within a half day’s drive from San Diego.
6 National Parks Near San Diego
- 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
- Map of National Parks Around San Diego
- Other Major Cities Near National Parks
Three of them are actual national parks. Joshua Tree, Channel Islands and Death Valley are all easily accessible from San Diego.
Additionally, there’s also a National Park Service unit within San Diego itself. Two other parks, a national recreation area and a national preserve, are just a road trip away and can conveniently be combined with one of the other national parks near San Diego.
Cabrillo National Monument
10 miles from downtown San Diego (25 minutes west)
Set at the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, just west of the city center, Cabrillo National Monument is the only National Park Service site in San Diego.
This monument commemorates the spot in San Diego Bay where, in late-September 1542, Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo stepped onto the West Coast of what would later become the United States. He was the first European to do so.
Established in 1913, Cabrillo National Monument is home to a statue of Cabrillo, which overlooks the bay where he anchored his ship. You can learn all about the Spanish explorer and conquistador’s life and the times he lived in at the Visitor Center.
This fascinating Hispanic heritage national park in San Diego also offers great views of the harbor and skyline of San Diego, while on clear days, you can see as far as Tijuana and the Coronado Islands in Mexico.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, a major San Diego landmark, is another attraction in the national monument. Built atop a bluff over 400 feet above sea level, this was the highest lighthouse in the USA when it was still operation.
Its elevation, however, meant that the light was often obscured by fog and low clouds, sometimes forcing the lighthouse keepers to use guns to warn ships. Nowadays, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is a history museum.
Additionally, Cabrillo National Monument offers lots of fun outdoor activities as well. Thanks to average year-round temperatures over 70°F (21°C) and more than 20 sunny days a month, San Diego is an outdoor lover’s paradise.
From tidepooling and whale watching to hiking, cycling and bird watching, Cabrillo National Monument is a great place to enjoy San Diego’s perfect climate.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
157 miles from downtown San Diego (3 hours north)
Situated in the greater Los Angeles region, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a fantastic place to escape the urban sprawl of L.A. One of the most popular Southern California parks, it’s a great place for a hiking trip from San Diego.
The Santa Monica Mountains offer numerous activities, including some great wildlife viewing, and are home to many historic sites. It’s one of the largest urban parks in the USA—even in the world.
This huge national recreation area consists of several individual parks and protected natural areas, including half a dozen California state parks.
You’ll also find a handful of California state beaches, such as the world-famous beaches of Malibu, adjacent to this large National Park Service site close to San Diego.
More than 500 miles of hiking trails offer visitors the chance to explore these beautiful landscapes in greater detail.
Additionally, even they lie on L.A.’s doorstep, the Santa Monica Mountains are also home to one of America’s densest mountain lion populations!
Joshua Tree National Park
165 miles from downtown San Diego (3 hours northeast)
One of my all-time favorite U.S. national parks is also one of the greatest national parks close to San Diego. Joshua Tree National Park is only about 3 hours to the northeast of the city, a scenic drive across the Southern California desert.
At Joshua Tree, you’ll find huge forests of Joshua trees, as well as expansive boulder fields, rugged hills, mountains and palm oases. This is California at its most iconic, also featuring abandoned homesteads and even gold mines.
Several campgrounds pepper Joshua Tree National Park. Many of them are located in the popular northern part of the park—the Mojave Desert—which is also where the Joshua trees grow.
The park’s southern half—the Colorado Desert—on the other hand, is hotter and home to an entirely different set of flora and landscapes.
I recommend visiting both parts of the park, connected by a scenic paved road. The contrast between these two areas is remarkable and the scenery can be enjoyed on numerous Joshua Tree hiking trails.
Like so many other Southern California desert parks, Joshua Tree National Park offers phenomenal stargazing. And that’s exactly why I recommend spending a couple of nights there.
If you can visit only one of these national parks near San Diego, Joshua Tree is by far your best option. It’s San Diego’s closest national park and, in my opinion, one of the greatest national parks in America.
Channel Islands National Park
190 miles from downtown San Diego + boat ride (3 + 2 hours northwest)
The “Galapagos of North America”, California’s Channel Islands are a biodiversity hotspot unlike any other in the world.
At this rocky archipelago off the coast of Southern California, just west of Los Angeles, cold Arctic and warm equatorial water currents meet, creating a bustling soup of life.
From the smallest plankton to the largest whales, the variety and abundance of animals around the Channel Islands is mindboggling.
On a boat ride from the mainland, you’re almost certain to see seals, dolphins and a whale or two. People who spend some more time camping on the islands might spot sharks, more whales and sea lions.
Channel Islands National Park also has some unique land animals, most notably the endemic island fox. Popular things to do here range from visiting historic exhibits and camping to hiking, swimming, scuba diving and sea kayaking.
You can get to the Channel Islands by boat from Ventura, just north of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, a 3-hour drive from San Diego.
If you’re looking for a fun coastal destination, instead of the desert national parks around San Diego, this is it!
Mojave National Preserve
240 miles from downtown San Diego (4 hours northeast)
Worthy of its own national park designation, Mojave National Preserve has basically everything nearby Joshua Tree and Death Valley also have. If you’re looking for quiet San Diego national parks, you won’t find anything better than Mojave National Preserve.
Located along Route 66 in Southern California, between Interstates 15 and 40, this sprawling park is home to Joshua tree forests, abundant spring wildflowers, sand dunes and even cinder cone volcanoes.
Canyons, mesas and mountains make up a landscape that’s as “Wild West” as they come, especially when considering that abandoned mines, homesteads and old military outposts dot the area, too.
This underrated park is one of the greatest national parks near San Diego, California, a desert destination that’s peaceful and quiet, stunning and unique.
The night sky is nothing short of epic, while attractions like the Lava Tube and Kelso Dunes are super-fun to explore with kids.
Death Valley National Park
285 miles from downtown San Diego (5 hours north)
Although it’s quite a long drive to get to Death Valley from San Diego, it’s absolutely worth making the effort.
This is the furthest San Diego national park that’s still reachable within a half day’s drive. Once there, a kaleidoscope of landscapes, hikes and attractions waits to be explored.
Death Valley National Park may have a less-than-attractive-sounding name, but it’s actually filled with life. Home to the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, this park is also one of the driest and hottest places on the continent.
Yet, a huge variety of fauna and flora thrives here, from coyotes and rattlesnakes to myriad bird species and even fish—the hardy and endemic pupfish.
Human history is also present all over this park. You can explore the area’s mining history at the Harmony Borax Works, while desert villages like Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells have all kinds of tourist facilities.
Other highlights in Death Valley National Park include the amazing Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the spectacular Death Valley views from Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View, and scenic Artists Drive. Death Valley is a hiker’s paradise.
Many of these not-to-miss locations are along California Highway 190, which cuts across Death Valley. This epic desert highway is one of my favorite national park roads and is also popular among adventurous cyclists.
Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park, so you can expect breathtaking views of the Milky Way here. Spend a night or two at one of the many campgrounds and look up at the primeval night sky.
This wide variety of activities and attractions is why Death Valley National Park is one of the greatest national parks in Southern California.
Like I said above, it may not be the closest national park near San Diego, but it’s well worth the drive!
Map of National Parks Around San Diego
Have You Been on a Road Trip to the National Parks near San Diego? Share Your National Parks Experience in the Comments Below!
Other Major Cities Near National Parks
- San Francisco National Parks
- Los Angeles National Parks
- Las Vegas State and National Parks
- Seattle National Parks
- Miami National Parks
- Denver National Parks
- Chicago National Parks
- Salt Lake City National Parks
- Portland, Oregon National Parks
- Phoenix National Parks