San Diego Adventures – A 600 Mile Road Trip

If you’re a fan of road trips, this little US journey has a bit of everything.

On paper, or on Google Maps, it comes in at around 530 miles long, but we all know that when you include visits to National Parks and scenic coastal highways there is a tendency to take a few extra side trips! I always allow for at minimum 10% extra on my road trips, and often exceed that.

San Diego Roadtrip

San Diego Roadtrip time, hanging out in the desert in SoCal


In reality, I travelled more than 600 miles on this road trip, which started and ended in San Diego. If you’re thinking of going to Southern California, and San Diego, take a look at these highlights and consider doing some exploring outside the city.

Day 1 – San Diego

If you ask me, the first day of a road trip is the best day to cover the most ground. But, the exception is when you’re flying into a new city to start your road trip, as I was on this adventure. How come? Well, you need to stock up on supplies, enjoy a good meal and take some time to enjoy your new surroundings!

Day one on this journey included grabbing snacks and food from the grocery store, picking up the rental car and enjoying a greasy dinner from California’s favourite burger joint – In N Out burger. (Ok, so some road trip meals are about sampling the local fast food, instead of eating well!)

Cool Desert Scenery

Cool Desert Scenery in Southern California


Day 2 – The Desert Bekons

An early sunrise start to get on the road! First major stop? The colourful Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

One thing I’ve learned to appreciate from many road trips is that National Parks get all the glory, but State Parks often have the best surprises. After a couple of hours of highway driving, the desert journey began and I had to stop to enjoy some of the local flora. There are some funky, cool looking plants in this part of the Colorado desert!

The first roadside surprise of this trip occurred on the way into the village of Borrego Springs. It’s a located in a very scenic flat desert landscape, with mountains in the background (prone to flash floods though!)

Near Borrego Springs

Near Borrego Springs, California


Driving towards town, these curious rusted animals popped up in the middle of the desert. First there were a few Mammoths, then some horses…weird, fun – photo stop!

Moving on from Borrego Springs, the desert landscapes were dramatic, with big mountains complementing deep canyons and dry washes.

Turning north, a final stop in Palm Desert to top up on gas had Joshua Tree National Park as the next destination.

Arriving just after sunset, the park quickly became eveloped in a blanket of darkness. This area of California is a dream for astronomers and night sky watchers. With very little development around, the park is isolated from light pollution. Just a couple of hours after sunset, the sky was twinkling with starts and air planes.

Night photography in Joshua Tree National Park

Playing around with some night photography in Joshua Tree National Park


Instead of seeking a campsite, I pulled over and spent a couple of hours trying my skills at photographing the night sky. I had never tried photographing star trails or the night sky with my current camera, so it was a fun experiment, which garnered mixed results. I learned that my current DSLR is much more sensitive than my older DSLR, I played with taking long exposure images as well as high ISO images – up to 6400ISO! A bit noisy, but I had to see just how good/bad images looked at that ISO.

With tiredness setting in, it was then off to have some dinner and find a camp site at Jumbo Rocks camp ground.

Day 3 – Exploring Joshua Tree National Park

What a night! Forgetting how cold it can get in the desert at night, it was a bit of a chilly sleep, compounded by insane winds that howled all night long. Thankfully getting up early at sunrise was always the plan and catching a few golden hour photos of Joshua Trees and desert scenery was a worthy reward.

Moody Morning Clouds and a Joshua Tree

Moody Morning Clouds and a Joshua Tree


Where to go and what to do? So many trails to choose from in this big park! I decided there were three must-do experiences on my hiking and adventure list for the day.

First stop was hiking around Hidden Valley. It was early in the morning and except for a solo rock climber, I had the trail and area all to myself. Well, there were a few ground squirrels running around too!

Hidden Valley Trail

Hidden Valley Trail scenery in Joshua Tree National Park


Second hiking stop of the day? Checking out Barker Dam. Supposedly an area that attracts wildlife and migrant birds attracted to the water reservoir. They weren’t hanging around in abundance when I made it to the dam, but there were enough birds around and greenery on the ground to know that this was a unique place in this part of the Mojave desert.

The final park attraction of the day was Keys View. At 5185 feet / 1581 meters, this lookout was pretty cool, mostly for the fact that it overlooks the infamous San Andreas Fault. It was pretty cool looking across the desert valley to mountains on the otehr side of the fault. Every year the lookout and those mountains on the other side are pushed further apart, by more than an inch a year.

San Andreas Fault

The San Andreas Fault – everything on the other side will slip into the Ocean one day. Maybe.


With the main attractions done, it was time to enjoy the rest of the park at leisure. Originally the plan was to spend another night in the park, at Cottonwood Spring, but it was closed due to flooding so plans changed, something you have to be prepared for on any road trip.

A detour to the Oasis of Mara brought me to the north edge of the park and from there it was a late-afternoon drive across the desert – headed west towards the coast.

Oasis of Mara

A true desert Oasis – the Oasis of Mara at Joshua Tree National Park


Next stop? Carlsbad.

Day 4 – Carlsbad and Coastline

Being a beer geek, the night in Carlsbad was spent sampling some decent local craft beers from breweries like Stone, Alesmith and Lost Abbey. There is such an abundance of great beer in SoCal that I would call it the second most attractive beer destination in the US, just behind the Portland, Oregon area.

Headed south, this was a leisurely day for just seeing what the road had to offer. Del Mar was the first surprise, with it’s plethora of shops and perfect seaside location next to Torrey Pines State Reserve. After a bit of a walk around, the journey south continued all the way to Point Loma in San Diego, where I was staying for the next few days.

Ocean Beach sunset

Ocean Beach sunset in San Diego, California


After seeing how beautiful the Torrey Pines area was on the drive down, I knew I’d be spending the entire next day hiking and enjoying the coast. Once settled into my hostel, it was time to head to Ocean Beach, or OB, to catch the sunset, then grab some grub at Pizza Port, which happens to be a great beer joint.

Day 5 – Pine Trees and Sea Lions

On a sunny San Diego day in January, the temperatures were set to reach 20C, so it was off to Torrey Pines for some hiking. What a great place! The Torrey Pine Tree is actually an endangered species that is found only in this reserve and on some nearby islands. They provided some great contrast to the dry desert ground, especially with the crashing waves of the Pacific in the distance.

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Looking to the Pacific Ocean from Torrey Pines State Reserve


Wanting to get to the beach at Torrey Pines, I took a hike down to the shore and returned via the Beach route circuit. Winding through some hilly, shrub lands, scattered with the occasional pine tree, it was a popular hike that seemed mostly frequented by locals out for a jog or bit of exercise. Despite numerous rattlesnake sign warnings…no wildlife was spotted.

At the beach, it’s a big staircase down to the welcoming ocean waters. I headed south towards a spot called flat rock. Most people who head to the beach stop at the seaside cliffs beside flat rock, but if you do a bit of climbing and venture around the wall, a entire beach can be all yours! I spent an hour on this other side, enjoying my own personal beach. I also had to show that I was Canadian by getting wet in the water.

Nobody was swimming in the Pacific Ocean at Torrey Pines, but a few people were getting their feet wet. To me, the water wasn’t that cold, so I waded in almost waist deep to get some photos and walk along the shoreline.

After the beach journey and hiking back uphill to the road, the next stop of the day was La Jolla Cove.

Sleepy Seals at La Jolla

Sleepy Seals at La Jolla Cove in SoCal


If you haven’t heard of La Jolla Cove, it is the best spot to go and watch sea lions on the beach. There are probably somewhere around 100 of them here, mostly lounging around on the beach. Some are perched precariously on rocks and others are zipping around quickly in the water. They’re a bit stinky, but they’re super fun to watch.

The biggest highlight here was watching one odd baby sea lion. It’s mother was slightly lighter skinned than the rest of the sea lions. She was kind of a lighter gray colour instead of dark gray / black like most other sea lions. But the baby, it was nearly pure white in colour! Very odd, at first you’d almost think it was an albino, except it did have some bits of colour on it’s fur.

After the day of adventure along the coast of SoCal, it was back to San Diego to enjoy a few more great beers. I first headed over to Coronado, for a nice sunset view of the San Diego skyline and a bit of BBQ at Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q.

The Coronado - San Diego Ferry

Catching the Ferry to San Diego from Coronado


Then the night destination was Toronado pub. It was a bit out of the way, not downtown or along the oceanfront, but well worth the journey by taxi. Quite possibly the best lineup of beer I found anywhere in San Diego, both in bottles and on tap.

Day 6 – San Diego Zoo

Not much road trip driving today, but plenty of walking! Would the world-famous San Diego Zoo live up to it’s hype? Indeed it did.

While I skipped over many animals like elephants and giraffes, which I’ve seen in the wild in Africa, I was impressed with the spaciousness of the enclosures for the animals and getting to see some cool animals I’ve never had the pleasure of encountering in the wild (yet), such as spectacled bears and panda bears and a bunch of odd creatures I can’t remember the names of, ha!

Animal at San Diego Zoo

One of the cool, funny-looking animals at San Diego Zoo


Even though I got there early, at opening time, and had planned to possibly see more of the city, I ended up staying for a full day, the Zoo is that big and that much fun.

After the Zoo day it was time for me to leave San Diego. I covered a lot of ground in 6 days and had planned to see even more. A novice road tripper may find this trip a bit too much to do in 6 days, so give yourself an extra day in the desert.

San Diego Road Trip Recap:

Distance on paper: 530 miles

Actual distance: 610+ miles

Start/End Points: San Diego Airport

Main cities: San Diego, Carlsbad, La Jolla, Escondido, Palm Desert

Main attractions: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Torrey Pines State Reserve, La Jolla Cove, Ocean Beach, Coronado, San Diego Zoo

About Red Hunt

A former journalist and business analyst that now works in the world of travel marketing. Based in Toronto, Red Hunt has travelled to more than 40 countries over the past 10 years. You can follow Red on Twitter @redhunttravel.