In just a few days of vacationing in San Diego, it quickly became one of our favorite places to travel in the United States. Beaches, brisk morning walks, great hiking, and museums. There’s so much to love about the city. During our May 2018 stay, we also hit up as many of the national parks near San Diego as we could. Today we’re sharing the list we used to research the NPS units we could cross off our #parkchasing bucket list while we were in California.
So, how many national parks are near San Diego? Good question. There are seven national park units within a 5-hour drive of San Diego. That includes three national parks, two national monuments, a national recreation area, and a national preserve.
Below you’ll find a Google Map for all the units. First, let’s look at how many of the national parks near San Diego are within a one hour drive.
National Parks Within 1 hour of San Diego
There’s one National Park Service unit that can be found within the city limits. Just outside of downtown San Diego, you’ll find what we think is San Diego’s best-kept secret.
Cabrillo National Monument
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/cabr/index.htm
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive
San Diego, CA 92106
This national monument outside of downtown San Diego commemorates the spot where the first European landed on the West Coast of the United States. The monument features a lighthouse, a museum, and some of the most easily accessible tidepools in all of southern California.
After a short Lyft ride from our hotel on the beach, we spent our afternoon in Cabrillo hiking the trails and viewing the gorgeous San Diego skyline.
National Parks Within 3 hours of San Diego
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/samo/index.htm
26876 Mulholland Highway
Calabasas, CA 91302
Located about 150 miles north of San Diego, the Santa Monica Mountains are nestled just west of Los Angeles. With more than 500 acres of federally protected parklands, it’s a hiker’s paradise. Take time for a multi-day visit including the Backbone trail, 67 miles of continuous hiking through the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Joshua Tree National Park
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm
74485 National Park Drive
Twentynine Palms, CA 92277-3597
After our day in Cabrillo National Monument, we spent a few days exploring Joshua Tree, one of Southern California’s most popular national parks. Located 160 miles northwest from San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge, creating an arid but diverse environment where the famous Joshua tree thrives.
If you have the time and gear, plan to spend the night in one of Joshua Tree’s campgrounds. The night skies here are famously dark for California standards and perfect for stargazing.
Channel Islands National Park
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm
The Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center
1901 Spinnaker Drive
Ventura, CA 93001
Located 190 miles north along the California coastline, Channel Islands is another perfect excursion from San Diego. From the Visitor Center in Ventura, you can hop a ferry to one of the five islands that make up the park. While much of this park preserves unique marine ecosystems, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, camping, and kayaking.
National Parks Within 5 hours of San Diego
Mojave National Preserve
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/moja/index.htm
Kelso Depot Visitor Center
90942 Kelso Cima Rd
Kelso, CA 92309
If you’re traveling between San Diego and Las Vegas, Mojave National Preserve is a 1.6 million-acre desert paradise you won’t want to miss. Nearly 700,000 acres of this wide stretch of Mojave Desert is designated wilderness. No trails, no roads, and plenty of solitude.
If you visit during the months of March, April, or May (and there’s been enough rain), Mojave can have some of the best desert wildflower-viewing in the southwest.
Castle Mountains National Monument
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/camo/index.htm
Castle Mountains National Monument
2701 Barstow Road
Barstow, CA 92311
Castle Mountains National Monument was the 410th unit added to the National Park Service. Designated by President Obama in 2016, it’s just a few miles from the Nevada border and close to Mojave National Preserve. The park is about 5 hours drive from San Diego.
Castle Mountains National Monument is another place to see the magic of desert wildflowers and Joshua Tree forests. There aren’t many amenities here yet, so an opportunity to enjoy some untouched California wilderness.
Death Valley National Park
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Furnace Creek, CA 92328
Although the main park visitor’s center is just a touch over 5 hours from downtown San Diego, if you’re open to a longer road trip, Death Valley National Park should be on your list. Unlike no other place in the National Park Service, Death Valley is a land of extremes. Below sea-level and extreme heat attract more than 1.2 million visitors here each year.
The NPS has a good list of attractions for Death Valley, but be sure to visit the sand dunes, the view at Dante’s View, and some of the spots where the Star Wars series were filmed.
Looking for directions to each of these sites? Check out our Google Map for all the national parks near San Diego: