Whether you live in San Diego or you’re just visiting, it’s common to get the overwhelming feeling that you never want to leave. But San Diego is just one of many treasures Southern California has in its vast chest. If you’ve made plans to rent a car or RV and drive to America’s Finest City, it’s worthwhile to tack on a few days to your trip and check out some of the region’s other major draws, most located just a few hours away. Covering everything from mountain scenery and wide-open national parks to pretty beach towns and historic sites, these are the best road trips from San Diego.
Though it’s technically located within San Diego County, Julian is worlds away from its beaches, breweries, and taco stands. In this tiny mountain town, freshly made pies reign supreme, and weary city dwellers come here to get their fill while enjoying gorgeous mountain scenery. The best part of a road trip to Julian isn’t the adorable downtown area, the fresh air, or the star-filled skies — it’s the winding, tree-lined roads snaking through a landscape that defies the stereotype of Southern California.
Distance from San Diego: 60 miles (1 hour, 15 minutes)
Joshua Tree National Park
You’ve probably heard people gushing about Joshua Park and wondered what all the fuss was about. Frankly, it’s something you have to see to believe. Named for the Joshua tree, with its otherworldly, limb-like branches, this park spans both the cool Mojave Desert and the blistering Colorado Desert. As you drive through rugged, seemingly endless wilderness, the landscape will transform before your eyes. From odd rock formations to vast fields of cactus, this park will leave you gobsmacked.
Distance from San Diego: 160 miles (2 hours, 30 minutes)
If San Diego has the best beaches in Southern California — and it arguably does — why would you make the drive up to Long Beach? If there’s one clear reason to go, it’s this: The Queen Mary. Permanently moored in the city’s port, this former 1930s-era ocean liner brings back all the glamour and sophistication of transatlantic voyages. You don’t need to book a room at the hotel to go in and take a look around. A general admission ticket gains you access to floor after floor of vintage beauty, and you can even get tickets for historical and paranormal tours.
Distance from San Diego: 115 miles (1 hour, 40 minutes)
There’s something especially dreamy about Laguna Beach’s slice of coastline, with its string of gently curving beaches. But it’s the delightful downtown, overlooked by high-end homes in the hillsides, that truly steals the show. Hop between retailers, restaurants, and ice cream shops, and take the time to drive through the residential streets winding toward the sky. You’ll be thrilled by the view of the water and the town below.
Distance from San Diego: 80 miles (1 hour, 15 minutes)
San Juan Capistrano
Until the turn of the last century, this town, tucked into the SoCal coastline and oh-so-easy to miss, once harbored the crumbling remnants of the Mission San Juan Capistrano. But after decades-long revival efforts, the mission is now a major draw. Visitors to the town explore the site of the mission, including a chapel, gardens, and museum exhibits, and then stroll over to the breezy, low-key commercial district to grab a bite to eat. You’ll find bake shops, taverns, cafes, and local retailers. Stop at Capistrano Beach as the sun sets and you’ll have no doubt you’ve embarked on one of the best road trips from San Diego.
Distance from San Diego: 67 miles (1 hour)
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Known primarily as the location of the spring “super bloom” of wildflowers, this park encompasses more than 600,000 acres, making it California’s largest state park. When bright flowers aren’t adorning the hillsides, this park is awash with rugged desert scenery that goes on for as long as the eye can see. Vehicle access is limited, so plan for long hikes or rent a 4x4 to get deep into the most remote areas. Given the high temperatures in the summer, it’s probably best to save your visit until the winter or spring. No matter when you visit, don’t miss the collection of metal sculptures by artist Ricardo Breceda, located near the park entrance in Borrego Springs.
Distance from San Diego: 84 miles (1 hour, 45 minutes)