9 must see parks in San Diego

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With world-class family attractions like the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California, as well as beautiful sandy beaches that span nearly 70 miles, it's no wonder why so many people choose this city to be their vacation destination. It also has an incredible climate with nice weather and year round sunshine which makes people want to spend time outside. You'll find endless tourist attractions and activities to do within the city and the booming arts, culture and culinary scene makes it almost impossible to be bored in the southern California city of San Diego.

San Diego County is composed of a stunning natural landscape ranging from small hills to imposing mountains that have hiking trails, lookout points to view sea lions and calm places to enjoy the great outdoors. There are also plenty of parks in San Diego allowing you to benefit from fresh air without even leaving the city. Both locals and those who are visiting for a short time can take advantage of the public green spaces, and listed below are a few that we recommend you check out.

Looking for a place to keep your backpack after a hike? Or heading to La Jolla and want to leave some of your gear behind? Use a San Diego luggage storage locker anytime you need somewhere to stow your belongings.

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Balboa Park

Welcome to the largest urban cultural park in the nation which spans an incredible 1,200 acres. Balboa Park is home to more than 85 different recreational facilities so there is always something to do. Although the park itself is free to visit some of its attractions, like its museums, will cost money to enter. You can get a Balboa Park Explorer Pass from the Visitor's Center which will let you get into the different institutions, and it's also useful to get a map and a calendar of the events happening inside the grounds.

Here, you'll find a total of 16 museums, playgrounds, various cultural centers and beautiful gardens, like the Japanese Friendship Garden. The botanical building is a must see with nearly 2,000 unique species of plants housed within its walls. Kids will have a blast riding on the miniature railroad, going for a spin on the carousel, or seeing all of the adorable animals at the zoo located next door to the park.

There are several theaters on the grounds as well with regular performances happening throughout the year. Of course, there are also plenty of walking trails, nearly 60 miles to be exact, so you can explore for hours and still have more to see. You'll also find restaurants and souvenir shops selling refreshments and gifts. Fun fact; Balboa Park used to be called the City Park but was later on renamed in dedication to the Spanish explorer, Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

Waterfront Park

When the weather is particularly hot, Waterfront Park is where all of the locals go to cool off. Located in Downtown San Diego, this 12 acre community park was constructed in 2014 and replaced what used to be parking lots near the County Administrative Building. Today there is a large parking lot underground and the area is much better used as a green space with splash fountains that are loved by families from all over the city.

Feel free to walk through the fountains to recover from the heat or sit down on a blanket in one of the grassy picnic areas. Didn't pack any food? No need to worry, the green space is located close to Little Italy which has some fantastic restaurants and you can grab your food to go and eat it in the park. The reflecting pool is also a lovely spot to hang out and clear your head, and the park has some great play equipment for the kids as well.

While you're here make sure that you check out the native plant garden and the public art installations placed around the area, perfect for art lovers. Waterfront Park is a lovely spot to spend time in the summer when fun events like movie nights are put on, and the gorgeous ocean views can be enjoyed year round. Farmer's markets, festivals and private events like weddings are sometimes put on here as well.

Civita Park

Civita is one of San Diego's newer parks and is filled with modern attractions for you to discover. This place is full of imagination and is really unique, so check it out while you're in the city. Since it's still relatively new the park is sort of a hidden gem which means that you can easily find a quiet, shady spot to relax.

The large green space is ideal for taking a stroll or tossing a ball with friends, but there's lots more to do here as well. The community garden really brings people together and there's even a seasonal waterfall that ends up in the San Diego River which serves as a tranquil spot to relax with a book.

One of your favorite parts of the park will probably be the underground tunnel that has been painted with gorgeous murals. Inside the park, you'll also find sensory gardens and even a fun scavenger hunt activity.

Cabrillo National Monument

Make your way straight to the Point Loma peninsula to visit the Cabrillo National Monument which was erected in dedication of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the very first European explorer to reach San Diego Bay back in 1542. Other than being a historic park, this area offers spectacular views of the bay, the North Pacific Ocean and the city below.

Surrounding the monument is lush greenery and it's a wonderful spot to take a photo, have a picnic or relax while enjoying the picturesque views. During the wintertime, you might spot gray whales in the ocean as they migrate past the peninsula every year, and there are some nice tide pools that you can visit by the water, too.

By the park, you'll find a museum run by the National Park Service which features educational exhibits and films detailing Cabrillo's discovery of the city. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, also found inside the park, dates back to 1845 and is open for you to explore.

Mission Bay Park

Mission Bay Park is always a nice place to spend the afternoon. It covers over 4,600 acres of space and is home to about 19 miles of beaches. There's so much to do here that you probably won't have time to do it all in a day, offering outdoor activities on land as well as water sports.

Inside the park, you'll find marinas, designated picnic areas, a children's park and playgrounds, a horseshoe court, fire pits and beach volleyball courts. There are also plenty of trails for walking, jogging or biking, and the area is dog friendly so all of your furry friends are welcome to join you on your stroll.

Mission Bay is also home to important wildlife preserves. You'll probably spot some animals, and it's one of many people's favorite parks in San Diego for bird watching. If you want to get out onto the water you can rent kayaks, aqua cycles, stand up paddleboards and other related equipment from the Mission Bay Aquatic Center. You can also take lessons from the center if you wish, and the waters around the man-made bay are usually calm and safe, even for supervised young kids.

Kate Sessions Park

Kate Sessions Park was named after a famed horticulturist. Before she became the head botanist in the city, Kate was actually a school teacher and later on worked in a flower shop so she'd been around plants for most of her life.

This green space is home to a beautiful open space perfect for lounging, having a picnic or barbeque, letting your dog run around on a leash, or simply just sitting down and enjoying the lovely California sunshine. You'll also find hiking trails that will take you past landscapes that serve as a natural habitat for wildlife, including a calm creek bed.

Aside from being one of the nicest parks in San Diego, Kate Sessions Park is also where you can go to admire panoramic views spanning all the way from the city to the ocean. It's a fantastic spot to go with the family since it has washrooms and playgrounds with swings, monkey bars, slides and climbing areas.

Mission Trails Regional Park

This is one of the wildest stretches of outdoor space that you'll set foot in during your time in San Diego and encompasses nearly 7,200 acres of land. If you're looking for hiking trails to explore you'll find lots of them here within Mission Valley, with about 40 miles of paths where you can go trekking or mountain biking. Throughout the week they also offer guided hikes which are perfect for those who aren't experienced enough to go out into the wilderness on their own. The trails vary in difficulty and people of all abilities can participate.

During your hikes, you'll pass by a beautiful lake and there are also campgrounds here if you want to stay longer. It's called the Kumeyaay Lake Campground and you'll have to reserve in advance, so keep that in mind. The Visitor and Interpretive Center is the first place that you should visit and can teach you all about the cultural history and nature of the area.

Mission Trails Regional Park is home to a diverse variety of wildlife. Be respectful of your surroundings and watch your step as you explore the beautiful trails. Snakes, ground squirrels, quail, deer, lizards, roadrunners and hummingbirds are some of the animals you might spot.

San Dieguito County Park

You'll find one of San Diego's best parks in Del Mar, not too far away from the Pacific Ocean. Here, you'll find lots to do for all age groups as well as more than 5 miles of paths and trails to explore. A baseball field, basketball court, ten fitness stations, barbeque and picnic areas, two scavenger hunts, plus five playgrounds make it the ultimate destination for a family outing. You'll also see pavilions and a gazebo that is sometimes used for weddings.

The park is separated into two parts, the upper and lower section, with a place called Activity Hill connecting the two. You'll definitely want to check out the hill with its great viewpoints for taking in a panoramic view of the city and the ocean.

On Activity Hill you'll find informative audio panels to learn about the park's history and all of the animals that inhabit it. There are also some fun suspension bridges connecting all of the lookouts. Making your way down to the lower area you'll come across grassy fields, climbing trees and a peaceful butterfly garden.

Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain is much more than just a park but a significant landmark for anyone who has visited the city. It's impossible to miss since the mountain peak reaches a height of 486 meters, and it's one of the best places to go hiking in the whole city. The park is an important place for the local wildlife and is home to many different habitats.

Cowles Mountain is currently under the protection of the Mission Trails Regional Park so if you're already planning to go there you can check out the mountain as well. If you take the hike all the way to the summit you'll be at the highest point of the city.

Did you know? A businessman named George Cowles made such an impact on the city in the 1870s that they named the entire mountain after him.

Explore the great outdoors in San Diego

San Diego has some popular parks but also hidden gems that are less known by the general public. The best part about these parks in San Diego is that they can be enjoyed by everyone, from families with kids to couples looking for somewhere to go on a romantic walk, or those who just want to get away from it all and relax on their own.

If you just can't get enough of the city's parks then you might want to check out the best hikes in San Diego. California has some lovely spots by the water as well, so take some time to explore the picturesque beaches near San Diego, too.

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