5 State and National Parks Near San Diego for Beautiful Views, Wildlife Sightings, and Epic Stargazing

From the mountains to the desert, there's much more to explore within a few hours of San Diego.

Spring desert wildflowers in Anza Borrego Desert State Park
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You've basked in the sun on San Diego's beaches, surfed in the ocean waves, and paddled on Mission Bay. The museums of Balboa Park and downtown's rooftop lounges and restaurants are now familiar places, too. It could be time for a road trip to explore the mountains, desert, and ocean at one of the state and national parks near San Diego.

At 3.5 hours away or less, these state and national parks near San Diego offer amazing wildlife sightings, beautiful natural scenery, and exciting outdoor adventures such as hiking and kayaking.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park at sunset

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Joshua Tree National Park is approximately 160 miles northeast of San Diego, about a three-hour drive away. The desert landscape, marvelous rock formations, wildlife, cacti, and Joshua trees create a stunning environment. The park is large, and driving along its roads, climbing rocks for great photo ops, and looking for wildflowers and cacti will take at least a day.

Several campgrounds are available, and an overnight stay is the best way to enjoy one of the park's most amazing features: the night sky. Joshua Tree is an International Dark Sky Park, with some of the darkest nights in Southern California. Stars, planets, and even the Milky Way fill the sky, and if you're lucky, you'll see a shooting star or two.

Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point on East Anacapa at Channel Islands National Park
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Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands off Southern California's coast near Ventura, nearly 200 miles north of San Diego. A 3.5-hour scenic drive up the coast through Orange County and Los Angeles gets you to the beach town of Ventura, home to one of the park's visitor centers. There, the park's boat concessionnaire, Island Packers Cruises, takes visitors to the islands for a day trip, overnight camping, or cruise around the area.

On Anacapa, swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling are popular activities, along with wildlife viewing. Santa Cruz Island, meanwhile, is said to have the best weather and most recreational opportunities. The park's website advises planning and making advance reservations to enjoy the islands.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Sunset at Rancho Cuyamaca State Park
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Less than an hour northeast of San Diego, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, in the mountains of Julian, boasts more than 100 miles of hiking trails, creeks, meadows, and a lake. Camping is available, and dogs are permitted on the campgrounds, picnic areas, and paved roads. There are also picnic tables and a day use area with shallow pools for wading.

If time allows, explore the historic town of Julian, which dates back to the days of California's gold rush. Apple and pear orchards abound in the area, and visitors can pick their own fresh fruit during the harvest season and enjoy cider or Julian's famous apple pie.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Beautiful multicolor natural bouquet of desert wildflowers at Anza Borrego Desert State Park
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Set within the Colorado Desert, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California's largest state park, offers spectacular scenery and terrain ranging from canyons to mountains to floodplains. Campsites are available, and leashed dogs are permitted on roads and on campgrounds. Known for its beautiful wildflower blooms in spring, Anza-Borrego is also home to abundant wildlife such as the desert bighorn sheep.

During your visit, be sure to check out Borrego Springs, the only California town completely surrounded by a state park. Borrego Springs is an official International Dark Sky Community, too, with stargazing events throughout the year. The town is also home to an impressive art scene that includes massive sculptures of prehistoric creatures at a variety of locations in the area.

Mount San Jacinto State Park

Forest in San Jacinto State Park
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About 2.5 hours from San Diego, Mount San Jacinto's peak rises more than 10,800 feet above sea level. Forests, meadows, and wilderness areas feature hiking trails, wildlife, and stunning views of the mountains and valley below. Visitors can reach the park through Idyllwild or from Palm Springs, where they can take the Aerial Tramway for a thrilling ride. Picnic areas, a restaurant, and a self-guided nature trail are perfect for day trips, and campsites are available as well.

Along with your visit to the state park, you can choose to spend some time in the quaint mountain town of Idyllwild, Or head into Palm Springs for restaurants, shopping, hotels, and nightlife.

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