Whether you're looking for an active trip filled with hiking and water sports or a relaxing vacation spent lazing around a pool or on the beach, San Diego is just a short drive from several destinations that make for perfect weekend getaways.

By Patricia Doherty
July 31, 2020
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Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure. Some of these attractions may be currently closed, so be sure check when planning your travel dates.

Even those who live in San Diego, one of the country’s most enviable places with near-perfect weather, may want a change of scenery from time to time. A few days away from the routine is healthy, and there are many great places to see within a short distance from the city. A few hours’ drive can take you to mountains, deserts, national parks, casinos, or vineyards. You can spend the day hiking, shopping, indulging in spa treatments, visiting a museum, or simply enjoying being somewhere different. You can even opt for a relaxing staycation minutes from home, but miles away in your imagination.

When the time feels right for a quick vacation, consider one of our suggestions. A couple of days — or a three-day weekend, if you can swing it — will offer a refreshing change and the chance to experience a new locale or return to a favorite destination.

Borrego Springs

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About 90 miles northeast of San Diego, Borrego Springs lies in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — the only California town completely surrounded by a state park. It has been designated an International Dark Sky Community by the International Dark-Sky Association, attracting stargazers to various events throughout the year.

Borrego Springs combines a small-town atmosphere of shops, restaurants, and galleries with big-city events like the annual Film Festival held each January. The Borrego Art Institute includes a gallery, pottery studio, workshop, and children’s programs, and provides classes, shows, and community events. Explore the area to find Borrego’s Sky Art Sculptures, 130 ancient animals, serpents, and mystical creatures. The town is also known for its spring wildflowers that draw thousands of visitors each year.

Campsites are available in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (check current restrictions), and RV parks, motels, and resorts offer a variety of lodging options. Stay in a vintage trailer at Desert Sands RV Park or choose a deluxe guest room or casita at La Casa del Zorro, where one-, two-, and three-bedroom casitas with private pools are available.

Death Valley

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About a five-hour drive north of San Diego, Death Valley National Park is truly an escape from the beach and city. Even before entering the park, you’ll see stunning rock formations along the road. Arriving from San Diego, you’ll enter on Panamint Valley Road and soon encounter the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to purchase your pass, view the exhibits, and chat with a park ranger for any information you need.

Among the memorable views in Death Valley and one of the most popular spots is Zabriskie Point — a must-see, especially during sunrise and sunset. Artists Drive, with multicolored hills and unusual rock formations, is a great place to stop for photos. Hike one of the many trails throughout the valley, or enjoy the views as you drive through the park.

Be sure to check the weather conditions, as summer temperatures in Death Valley often reach as high as 120 degrees. That doesn’t discourage some visitors who enjoy the extreme heat, but outdoor activities must be approached carefully. Stay in one of the many campgrounds, at the family-friendly Ranch at Death Valley, or the historic Inn at Death Valley. And don’t forget to check availability and the seasonal schedule before making any plans.

Los Angeles

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For a change of scenery, opt for a city vacation in downtown Los Angeles, a drive of less than three hours from San Diego. Get to know DTLA on a walking tour, where you can visit historical sites, filming locations, or notable buildings. If you’d prefer to tour on a bike, Handlebar Bike Tours covers DTLA on wheels. You’ll want to see the unique Bradbury Building with its ornate iron work, marble, and open-cage elevators. Take a short ride on the Angels Flight funicular, dating back to 1901, and end at the Grand Central Market, where you’ll find more than 50 food stalls.

For a panoramic view of Los Angeles from above, visit Skyspace L.A., California’s tallest open-air observation deck, and if you’re feeling brave, check out Skyslide, a 1,000-foot thrill ride fully enclosed in glass.  Don’t miss LA Live, where you can dine, catch a concert or movie, shop, or spend a few hours at the Grammy Museum. For a unique experience, book at tour at the Lost Spirits Distillery, more than just a place to sip rum.

Hotel options abound in this neighborhood, with the Hotel Figueroa boasting restaurants, a pool, art-filled historic spaces, and renovated guest rooms. The InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown features breathtaking views, several dining spots, and an open-air rooftop bar, Spire 73.

Dana Point

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If you just can’t resist being near a beach, visit this coastal city about 70 miles north of San Diego. An easy drive up the coast on Interstate 5 takes you to some of California’s finest beaches for swimming, surfing, and tide pooling. Doheny State Beach is popular with surfers, plus it provides picnic areas as well as camping and RV sites. Meanwhile, concession stands, volleyball, basketball, and beach activities attract visitors to Capistrano Beach.

At Dana Point Harbor, you’ll find shopping, waterfront dining, fishing and whale-watching excursions, kayaking, and boat rentals. The Ocean Institute offers environmental education through cruises that explore the ocean ecosystem and local marine life aboard their 65-foot research vessel. On land, the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area features four conservation parks in a 60-acre area with habitats for more than 150 species of coastal plants and animals.

From campsites near the shore to motels, hotels, and resorts, you’ll find the ideal place to stay for your getaway. For a luxurious weekend, consider the Monarch Beach Resort, home to a spa, golf course, private beach club, rooms overlooking the Pacific, and dining options that include an oceanfront restaurant and Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak.

Palm Springs

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In less than three hours on the road, you can be in California’s desert city of Palm Springs. Depending on the season, you have the option of lazing away the day around a pool, playing golf, shopping, hiking, or visiting a spa. Come evening, enjoy some live music and alfresco dining.

The Uptown Design District has grown into a major attraction for shoppers scouting clever home decor and art items, clothing, and gifts. Art lovers will be dazzled by the collection and special exhibits at the Palm Springs Art Museum. And for nature fans, hiking trails for all levels are available, including the Indian Canyons, with waterfalls, streams, rock art, and native plants. About an hour east, Joshua Tree National Park offers spectacular rock formations, starry skies, and campgrounds.

Stay in a luxe golf resort, boutique hotel, restored motel-style inn, or modern downtown hotel, depending on your plans for the weekend. The Kimpton Rowan offers a rooftop pool and stunning restaurant, and the restored Villa Royale has a retro vibe. Dive, an 11-room boutique hotel, features an intimate 1960s French Riviera feel, perfect for a buyout. There’s also a guide for LGBTQ visitors and residents, which makes finding entertainment and lodging easy.

Temecula

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An hour north of San Diego, Temecula is a convenient destination with a variety of things to do or, if you prefer, great places to do very little. If you’re looking for outdoor activities, you’ll find more than 100 miles of bike trails, including some that wind through picturesque vineyards. Pick fresh produce, depending on the time of year, or tour a local farm to get ideas for your own home garden. Horseback riding, hot-air ballooning, golf, fishing, or hiking are also available.

Temecula Valley’s wine region has grown to include more than 40 wineries over the past 50 years, and many visitors plan their time around tasting and learning about vino. Joining a tour or arranging transportation makes wine tasting safer and more fun. Eating out is also a pleasure in Temecula, with many restaurants offering spectacular views and alfresco dining. In Old Town Temecula, browse boutiques and antique shops while strolling along wooden boardwalks with rustic storefronts.

You can also enjoy some wine, relax at a spa, and ride in a horse-drawn carriage through a vineyard at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa. At Pechanga Resort Casino, there’s entertainment, gaming, shopping, a pool, spa, fitness center, and a variety of dining spots. Meanwhile, the Temecula Creek Inn offers guest rooms, suites, a pool, fitness center, and 27 holes of golf.

Lake Arrowhead

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Less than 150 miles north of San Diego, and set in the San Bernardino Mountains and surrounded by San Bernardino National Forest, Lake Arrowhead is known as “The Alps of Southern California.” At an elevation of 5,100 feet, the area sees snow in the winter, chilly temperatures come autumn, and warm summer weather ideal for outdoor activities. It also offers boutiques, restaurants, galleries, cafes, and outlet stores.

During the summer, swimming, waterskiing, boating, fishing, hiking, and biking are ways to enjoy the lake and surrounding forests. Take a one-hour cruise aboard the Lake Arrowhead Queen paddleboat to see the lake and waterfront homes lining its shore. In the winter, there’s skiing at nearby Snow Valley, Snow Summit, and Mountain High.

Stay in a local campground, several of which include running water, RV hookups, showers, and restrooms. Or, choose the Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa and enjoy its wellness center, pool, spa, private beach, and lakeview dining. The historic Saddleback Inn’s restored guest rooms and cottages (some pet-friendly) are set among tree-lined cobblestone paths and conveniently located near the Village and lake.

Las Vegas

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A five-hour drive or a short flight will bring you to the glitter of Las Vegas (picture poolside relaxing, shopping, gambling, shows, dancing, and thrill rides).

Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip and downtown offer a wide range of restaurants, from casual to upscale, and shows in lounges, showrooms, and concert halls.

For excitement away from the gaming tables, take a 30-minute ride on the High Roller and soar 550 feet above the Strip in the world’s largest observation wheel. In downtown Las Vegas, you can fly above Fremont Street on a zip line or take the longer, higher Zoomline ride and glide Superman-style at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. While you’re downtown, don’t miss the free light and music show at Fremont Street Experience, the largest video screen in the world.

With so many hotels to choose from, you can pretend you’re in Italy at The Venetian or in Egypt at the Luxor Hotel. Shop at hotel boutiques or malls, and dine at the latest restaurants of celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Lorena Garcia, or David Chang, who recently opened Majordomo Meat & Fish at The Venetian.

San Diego

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Yes, a staycation can be the perfect weekend getaway. Select a hotel or resort in another part of town, save time and money on transportation, and spend a few days in a new place. You can stay in one spot and enjoy all the amenities of a full-service resort, or explore a part of the city that you’ve never gotten to know.

A few miles north, the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa is set on 45 acres of gardens, nature trails, and olive groves, and features a spa, two heated pools, tennis courts, complimentary bikes, and the chance to test drive a Bentley or experience a private wine or tequila tasting. The Rancho Bernardo Inn is another nearby luxurious option, with a spa, golf course, pool with cabanas, and several restaurants. In Mission Valley, the Town and Country, an area landmark for more than 60 years, offers nostalgia, mid-century modern style, a pool, waterslide, private cabanas, fire pits, and a three-acre park along the San Diego River.

At the Hotel del Coronado, you have a choice of guest rooms in the historic Victorian building, an oceanfront cottage in Beach Village, or a stay in one of the Cabanas surrounding the new pool. Explore the 28-acre resort, browse the shops, and enjoy the beach and restaurants. Or, opt for an urban-style staycation downtown with a room at the Pendry in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter.