in Camping / by
When most people think of San Diego, they think of palm trees and beaches; of petting giraffes at the San Diego Zoo and shopping in La Jolla. But the San Diego area is also home to an incredibly dynamic landscape that offers an escape for every type of outdoor enthusiast.
Fly fishing, kayaking, standup paddle boarding and of course surfing can be found within an hours’ drive of this bustling city. And from hiking the 5-peak challenge to tearing up the trails on your mountain bike at Mission Trails Regional Park, adventure addicts are in good hands in southern California.
But we can’t forget our most prized way to spend time outdoors — sleeping under the stars with our favorite people. And with year-round temperate weather, nature lovers would be remiss not to take advantage of the incredible camp spots around San Diego County.
With a population of almost 1.5 million, the last way you want to kick off your camp trip is with a bumper-to-bumper slog down the highway. That’s why we’ve put together a list of our favorite local tent camping spots that are less than two hours away from the heart of San Diego.
San Elijo State Beach Campground
Drive time: 45 minutes
It’s probably no surprise that the first killer camp spot on our list is a beautiful beachside campground. Less than an hour outside of San Diego, San Elijo State Beach Campground is something straight out of a Cali surfer’s dream, where you can park your car or van, hop out, and hit the waves.
But if you think this campsite’s only for serious surfers, think again. San Elijo is a great family beach too, with its mellow breaks and shallow water near the shore.
There’s also boogie board and stand up paddle board rentals, showers on site, and family activities so not everyone in your family has to be subject to the beach bum life (unless they’re like us and that’s just their style).
This is a popular spot, but if you’re lucky and reserve early, some campsites offer incredible views of the sunset over the coastline. Regardless, all sites come with a picnic table and fire pit, so you can top off an amazing day at the beach with a round of s’mores and campfire stories.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Drive time: 1 hour
Imagine camping and hiking in a lush oak woodland forest, peppered with fresh pines and laced with meandering creeks. You can help yourself to this haven when you camp at either Green Valley Falls or Paso Picacho Campgrounds in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Once you arrive and breathe in the fresh high-elevation air (Paso Picacho sits at an elevation of 5,000 feet), you won’t believe you’re just an hour away from the sand, sun, and saltwater of San Diego. And bikers, hikers, and horse riders will rejoice when they see there are over 100 miles worth of trails to enjoy throughout the park.
Although these sites have limited amenities, you’ll still enjoy restrooms with flush toilets and pay showers. And once you’re ready to hang up your hiking boots, you can head 20 minutes down the road to the town of Julian to indulge in a trademark apple pie.
Palomar Mountain State Park
Drive time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Image courtesy of instagram.com/palomarmountainsp
This spot is closer to 2 hours from San Diego, but we’re confident the natural beauty will make it well worth the extra 40 minutes.
With the park’s higher altitudes and towering pine, fir, and cedar trees, campers headed to Palomar Mountain can look forward to indulging in a slice of Sierra Nevada-like atmosphere for the weekend.
Park regulations mean you’ll have to leave your two favorite trailblazing companions at home: your dog and your mountain bike. But once you and your runner-ups hike to the top of one of the park’s many vista points, you’ll be handsomely rewarded by sweeping panoramic views of the ocean to the west and sandy desert terrain to the east.
Make sure you don’t forget your fishing rod so you can try your hand at snagging a trout from Doane Pond. And when you’re ready for some out-of-this-world star gazing, visit the Palomar Observatory on the east side of the mountain.
William Heise County Park
Drive time: 1.5 hours
Remember that apple pie near Cuyamaca Rancho State Park we mentioned earlier? If you took a pit stop there at the Julian Pie Company and are itching to burn off the sugar, head over to William Heise County Park, just a 5-minute drive from downtown Julian (and less than 2 hours from San Diego).
Here you’ll find 10 miles of beautiful trails that you can tear up with your mountain bike or explore in your hiking boots. And if time gets away from you after all that fun out on the trail, there are 42 tent sites where you can get some R&R before heading out the next morning.
Campland on the Bay
Drive time: 20 minutes
Image courtesy of instagram.com/camplandusa
This is our favorite pick for families in the San Diego area. In the amount of time it takes your kid to get to the punchline of a joke, you could be arriving at Campland on the Bay for a weekend of jam-packed family fun.
Once you pitch your tent along the shores of Mission Bay (or park your car and pop open your Roofnest), prepare for the non-stop excitement to begin. From two on-site swimming pools to horseshoe pits and a skate park to an incredible kids activity calendar, camping at Campland on the Bay means obliterating the possibility of boredom for you and your family.
Prepare to play in the water by renting paddle boards, kayaks, wave runners, and more at the marina. And make sure no one in the fam forgets their favorite rocker tee, because once the evening rolls around, you can jam out to live music with the likes of killer tribute bands Matchbox 22 and Cheap Tricked.
Roofnesting in Southern California
Wherever your wanderlust takes you, there’s nothing like pulling up to your camp spot and popping open your roof top tent in a few seconds. Less setup time means more time for surfing and hiking; for telling stories and making friends in the great outdoors. And to us, that extra time in nature is a priceless reward.
But don’t just take our word for it. A member of our Roofnest Flock, Penny Sprague, can tell you all about her adventures across Southern California with her roof top tent. Discover how Penny saved on hotel rooms and escaped the hustle of LA with her Roofnest Sparrow »
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