10 Best Parks in San Diego for Play, Relaxation and Views

Good weather equals plenty of park time in San Diego. Our best parks have views, trails, playgrounds and plenty of grass to enjoy in our year-round sunshine. Which you choose depends on the part of town you're in and what you'd like to do there. 

The new Waterfront Park is perfect for kids in the downtown area who love splash pads and state-of-the-art play areas. Its convenient location across the street from the Embarcadero means that is'a nice break in between a walk through Little Italy or perhaps a spin through the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Balboa Park is the nation's largest urban cultural park. Whether you have multiple days or a half-day to spend here, it is definitely worth of any San Diego sightseeing itinerary. In between the 16 museums lies multiple gardens, hiking trails, walking trails, playgrounds and pet-friendly amenities.

Lastly, we have Cabrillo National Monument located out on Point Loma. It's San Diego's only National Park Service park and has several interesting parts to it. Of course, it pays tribute to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Spanish explorer who first set foot in California. But, there are also historic structures, WWII bunkers, trails, tide pools and spectacular ocean views.

And, there are a myriad of other San Diego parks worthy of a visit.


Queen Calafia's Magic Circle is located inside Escondido's Kit Carson Park. It's the only American sculpture garden by artist Niki de Saint Phalle and particularly unique because you can actually play in it. The collection of nine fun, mosaic-tiled sculptures are meant to be touched and enjoyed. Highlights include a big circular wall, playful serpents and a five-legged eagle. You'll find the garden inside of the 12-acre Iris Sankey Arboretum. You don't have to be a kid to enjoy it, art lovers should make this a side trip. Entrance is free and this is considered one of San Diego's hidden gems.

Situated just above La Jolla Cove, this park is a nice place to stop and relax during a walk along La Jolla's boardwalk or a visit to the area's famous seals and sea lions. The wind blown trees here are thought to have inspired the truffula trees in "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss (who was a La Jolla resident). The large grassy area is popular for games, exercise and picnics. Little green huts line the park and serve as excellent spots for shade and sunsets. A lifeguard station is staffed year-round, and although on-street parking can be tough, a number of public garages are within walking distance.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and Beach

There are two sections here that are worth a visit. The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is home to bluffs overlooking the sea and eight miles of trails through unique landscape. The twisted Torrey pine tree is found in only two places on earth: in this park and on the Channel Islands almost 200 miles to the north. Due to conservation efforts the park is one of the wildest, most undeveloped spots in the state. Three hundred feet below at the base of the bluffs is a gorgeous sandy beach. The northern portion is popular for families and has lifeguards, bathrooms and limited parking.


Kate Sessions park boasts one of the most spectacular views of San Diego including downtown, Mission Bay, the ocean and beyond. The parking lot faces the view so often times you'll see people working or resting in their cars while soaking up the surrounding nature. It's a popular on-leash park for dog walking, though you'll see plenty of off-leash dogs, too. Rest on the grass and read a book, get some exercise, throw a frisbee and enjoy San Diego at Kate Sessions park. There is also a children's play area off to the side with swings, slides and climbing. Restrooms are available.

One of San Diego's largest and wildest parks, Mission Trails sprawls over 7200 acres. It includes more than 40 miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers of all abilities, a lake, campgrounds, and a fine Visitor and Interpretive Center where you can learn about the natural and cultural history of the area. Guided hikes are offered several times a week. The area is prime habitat for all sorts of wildlife, so keep your eyes peeled for snakes, lizards, roadrunners, hummingbirds, ground squirrels, deer and quail. The Kumeyaay Lake Campground is also available for camping on weekends by reservation only.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

Find out what life was like in Mexico and early America back in the 1800s. This spot is where the city of San Diego was born, and it contains historic treasures unearthed by archeologists over the years. The historic park includes several original adobes as well as a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, carriage collection and a museum filled with artifacts. Surrounding the park are some of San Diego's best Mexican restaurants, famous for homemade tortillas and fish bowl-sized margaritas. A perfect family day here would include exploring the park and its museums before a meal. Then digest by browsing the nearby shops.

This park encompasses 4600 acres with 27 miles of shoreline of which 19 miles are sandy beaches. Facilities include marinas, a horseshoe court, sand volleyball courts, fire rings, picnic areas, children's play areas, and paths for biking, rollerskating and jogging. The park includes several wildlife preserves, making it a favorite with birdwatchers. Dogs are allowed at Fiesta Island. Water sports are incredibly popular here and spots to rent stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, aqua cycles and more are located at some of the various hotels on the bay in addition to Mission Bay Aquatic Center (which also offers lessons and camps for tourists and residents).

Waterfront Park, with the historic county building at the center, is incredibly popular with kids (and adults) for its splash fountain that you can actually walk into an get wet. There is also a reflecting pool, native plant garden, public art and state-of-the-art play equipment. The big grassy area is perfect for picnics and games. In the summer, evening movies are shown here. The park has ocean views and is located across the street from the Embarcadero and just steps from Little Italy (where you could grab a delicious picnic to-go), making it a perfect sightseeing break. There are parking lots nearby.

Cabrillo National Monument
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

Don't leave San Diego without visiting the Cabrillo National Monument, perched high on the cliffs at the end of the Pt. Loma peninsula. You'll be awed by the spectacular view onto San Diego Bay, downtown San Diego, and the mountains looming beyond the skyline. Pose for a photo in front of the massive statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Portuguese explorer who sailed into port under the Spanish flag in 1542. A museum, run by the National Park Service, tells the story of San Diego's discovery through films and displays. Wander through the Old Pt. Loma Lighthouse, built in 1854, to see how life was then for the lighthouse keeper and his family.

Balboa Park

With over 85 cultural and recreational facilities, Balboa Park is a must-see. It's probably best to start at the Visitor's Center for a map and events calendar, and to purchase a Balboa Park Explorer Pass, which provides entrance to the park's museums (entrance to the park itself is free). The Zoo is a big attraction (and located next door), but there are also 16 museums, cultural centers, playgrounds, a carousel, and a miniature railroad ride. Wander through multiple gardens or the botanical building (with over 2000 plant species), take in an outdoor organ concert, or enjoy a presentation at one of several theaters. Getting around the massive complex is easy, thanks to the free tram and the fun electriquette rentals.


Meet Katie Dillon

Katie Dillon originally moved to the seaside community of La Jolla to attend UC San Diego. When the opportunity presented itself, she and her husband set off for a 7 year stint overseas as...  More About Katie