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This California City Is Home to Some of the Best Parks in the Country

Want to stretch your legs in picturesque San Diego? Look no further than our guide to the city's best parks.

By Amanda Nelson on April 21, 2023

The Botanical Building in Balboa Park in San Diego, California, USA. Domed building from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and a garden with more than 2,000 plants. Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre urban cultural park in San Diego, California, United States.

San Diego County is known for sunny days, 70 miles of coastline, major theme parks, arts and cultural institutions and more. It is a world-class destination for vacations, weddings and conventions. Locals and visitors alike enjoy the many faces of San Diego County’s outdoor marvels, from beachfront to mountain to desert. At the heart of the outdoor experience lies the many public parks available to visit. 

The fifth most populous county in America is peppered with many different types of parks. Parks filled with hiking trails in the Laguna Mountains to the east, urban parks with playgrounds in the city center, open-area grassy parks for sunset picnics and parks to run out the energy of your furry friend. 

These are the best parks in San Diego County to appreciate the region’s wide range of flora and fauna. Use this list to plan a whole vacation around exploring San Diego’s parks in the mountains, desert and beach. 

Urban Parks

Are you looking for a spot to picnic, explore, or even ride a roller coaster?

Balboa Park 

Coming to life in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition and named after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, a Spanish explorer is the crown jewel of San Diego. Balboa Park is over 1,000 acres of parkland, nestled within the city center of San Diego

Today, Balboa Park is home to 15 museums, international arts and cultural institutions, hiking trails, playgrounds, and multiple gardens, including a Butterfly Garden. It is also home to the San Diego Zoo. Arrive in San Diego by plane, and as you descend into the airport, you’ll pass the southern edge of the park and see the iconic California Tower standing tall. 

Waterfront Park  

Opened in 2014 and located next to the San Diego County Administration Building, Waterfront Park is a gorgeous park with a splash zone, picnic areas, garden rooms, and a children’s play zone, all within view of the beautiful San Diego Bay. In addition, Waterfront Park is often the location for festivals, markets and bayside weddings. It is a one-stop shop for all of your outdoor needs. 

Belmont Park 

Belmont Park dates all the way back to 1925. This beachfront (amusement) park is a one-of-a-kind experience. Accessible all year with rides, arcades, dining, and of course, the beachfront boardwalk. You can spend hours, or days, getting lost in the park and enjoying all there is to do!

Hiking Trails  

If you want to hit the trails, these are the perfect parks to spend an afternoon in. 

Mission Trails Regional Park 

Mission Trails Regional Park is an outdoor wonderland with more than 8,000 acres that showcase the regional flora and fauna. The park opened in the 70s and has been a mainstay for decades. Mission Trails Regional Park is located 20 minutes northeast of downtown, and it is an urban escape to rugged hills and valleys with seasonal embellishments. 

Free nature walks are available with Trail Guides at one of three trails: The Oak Grove Trail, the Riverside Grinding Site Trail or the Visitor Center Loop Trail. Each trail gives a different view, from coastal live oaks and rare Engelmann oaks to archaeological sites to coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and riparian woodland habitats, respectively. 

William Heise County Park

Located in the Laguna Mountains at 4,200 feet above sea level, surrounded by a forest of oaks and pines, is William Heise County Park. Opened to the public in 1970 and named after an inventor of ambulance equipment, this park is 929 mountainous acres. It is an ideal location for year-round visits with wildflowers in the spring, cooling temps in the summer, and one of the few spots that receive snowfall. 

Visitors will have opportunities to spot wild turkeys, mule deer and the rare sighting of a bobcat or mountain lion while enjoying the trails. Half-mile trails like the Self-Guided Nature Trail offer views of the Salton Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and the Fern Trail runs partially along Cedar Creek. Longer trails like Canyon Oak Trail and Kelly Ditch Trails are available to more avid hikers. 

Best Views 

If you’re doing it for the ‘gram, here’s where you need to stop. 

Kate Sessions Park 

Kate Sessions Park is located near Pacific Beach atop Mount Soledad at 832 feet above sea level. Opened in 1957 and named after the “mother of Balboa Park,” this park is a favorite among locals for sunset picnics, stargazing and special events. The park consists of 79 acres of open grass that is leash-friendly for furry friends. It has sweeping views of downtown, Point Loma, the Pacific Ocean and, occasionally, Sea World fireworks. Unfortunately, there isn’t a playground, but bring a pack of cards and play while enjoying the breathtaking views. 

Presidio Park 

Atop a hill overlooking Old Town San Diego, the oldest neighborhood in San Diego filled with historic sites and tacos, is Presidio Park. This park has 40 acres of green open space with memorial sites featuring marvelous views of the San Diego River Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Presidio Park was donated to the City of San Diego in 1929 by a local department store owner and civic leader, George Marston. Today, the park is also home to the Junípero Serra Museum, which features displays and archaeological finds of the city’s founding.

Golden Hill Park 

Located in Golden Hill, a neighborhood overlooking downtown San Diego is Golden Hill Park. A hidden gem, this park was included in the 1915 creation of Balboa Park. Today, the park has large open grassy areas, a half-mile walking loop, a historic stone fountain and is surrounded by a few Victorian-era homes. Golden Hill Park has a beautiful scenic view of the downtown skyline. 

Dog Parks for Your Four-Legged Friends 

San Diego is a dog-friendly city, and a list of the best parks wouldn’t be complete without including some of the region’s dog parks. 

Grape Street Dog Park 

Grape Street Dog Park spans 5 acres and is surrounded by mature eucalyptus trees, water fountains and restrooms. This park is primarily on-leash with designated off-leash hours. 

Morley Field Dog Park 

Once you come, you may never want to leave. Morley Field Dog Park is open 24 hours, has free parking, litter-bag dispensation stations and a main off-leash area. Also, the park has access to the Florida Canyon Nature Trails; dogs must be on-leash for the trail. 

Nate’s Point Off-Leash Dog Park 

Looking for something different? Nate’s Point Off-Leash Dog Park is a fully off-leash park that is accessible 24 hours a day, making it one of the most popular in the area. The park is 2.3 acres, fenced completely, with picnic tables and drinking fountains. 

Ocean Beach Dog Park

Located on the north end of Ocean Beach, Ocean Beach Dog Park is the perfect park for you and your pup to enjoy the Pacific Ocean. The park is open and accessible 24 hours for your dog, and a dog run is on site for off-leash fun. 

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