Who remembers going on a scenic Sunday ride as a kid? It could be somewhere local or to a destination just a few hours from home. The anticipation would build as to what would lie around the next bend in the road. And often the journey was just as important as the destination because of all the sights along the way.
In San Diego, we’re fortunately blessed with beautiful year-round weather in four distinctive climate zones and landscapes–the coast, inland, mountains, and desert. That makes for lots of choices for some fun and fascinating road trips. And the best part is you don’t even need to drive very far to experience the magnificent and picturesque San Diego scenic drives.
Whether it’s heading to one of our iconic Southern California beach towns, lush wine valleys, snow-capped mountain peaks, expansive forests, or untamed desert, you’ll love these scenic drives in San Diego County. Just don’t forget your camera as there are many “must-capture” shots you’ll encounter along the way.
59-Mile Scenic Drive
One road trip that guarantees spectacular views of everything San Diego has to offer is the very organized 59-mile drive. The entire journey can take several hours, though much of this depends on how many “honey, stop the car moments” you encounter. Or it can be broken up into smaller sections to allow for even more exploration time.
Stop by the San Diego Visitor Information Center on 996 North Harbor Drive operated by Old Town Trolley Tours. Pick up your map or other brochures, and you’re off to spend a perfect day taking in some of San Diego’s best sites. Road trippers will be treated to favorite places like Balboa Park, Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument, Ocean Beach, Mission Bay, and La Jolla just to name a few. On a clear day, you can even catch some splendid distant views of Mexico and its surrounding mountains. And of course, you’ll view the impressive San Diego skyline, and the sparkling azure waters of the Pacific along the way.
The looped route is clearly marked by blue and yellow signage reading “scenic drive” and the entire trip with 27 possible stops is all within San Diego city limits. It’s also an ideal way for visitors to get acquainted with the lay of the land and decide which sites they may want to spend more time exploring.
Sunrise Highway Scenic Byway
Spring, summer, and fall are the ideal times for a leisurely drive up to the Laguna Mountain Recreation area. The 24-mile trip passes through East San Diego and winds up through the Cleveland National Forest bordering the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.
Known for its wide panoramas and picturesque mountain meadows, the drive begins from the intersection of I-8 and County Road S-1 just east of Descanso. After meandering through the beautiful Laguna Mountain area, the drive ends at the junction of Highway 79.
Desert View sports some of the most astonishing vistas of the Cleveland National Forest and Anza-Borrego Desert Park (California’s largest state park). So be sure to stop here and admire the landscape and all that Mother Nature has to offer within this scenic region.
Best time of the year to come? Well, spring has its magnificent flowers and verdant meadows, autumn sports stunning color changes, and summer is ideal for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Take all three, or take your pick.
Pacific Coast Highway
So many times, when we have family and friends in town, they want to see the “cool beach towns” of San Diego County. We admit, we love them too.
The “iconic Highway 1,” also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or Route 101, runs from San Diego north to Mendocino County and up to the treasure troves of the Big Sur Coast and Northern California’s towering redwood forests. But the great part is that we don’t even have to leave San Diego to get some incredible views of our stunning Pacific coastline. As Carly Simon’s 1987 hit single says “it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”
70 miles of Historic Highway 101 in San Diego County feature some really cool SoCal beach towns along with stunning coastal scenery along the drive. If you really want to experience its Victorian homes, surf shops, eclectic boutiques, a 1950s gas station, local cafes and coffee houses, and miles of stunning beaches, plan a day trip (or two), slow it down, and just take it all in.
There is no more spectacular site in San Diego County than driving south along PCH 101 from Del Mar to Torrey Pines. The Pacific Ocean vista is literally jaw-dropping. If you’re heading north, you’ll pass the dramatic cliffs of La Jolla, delightful beaches of Del Mar, funky and hip Encinitas, and further north to the lagoons of Carlsbad and the iconic Oceanside pier. We are indeed blessed with an abundance of captivating coastline to enjoy.
Should you choose to take Scenic Highway 1 further, there are stops in Orange County and Los Angeles County you won’t want to miss. There’s the magnificent art colony of Laguna Beach, Santa Monica’s famous beach and pier, and yes, Malibu’s 21 miles of scenic beaches to explore and enjoy. But it all begins in San Diego!
Palomar Mountain Loop
Palomar Observatory is an astronomical research facility in the Palomar Mountain Range, owned and operated by Caltech and renowned for its Hale telescope. Not only is the observatory one of our nation’s best known for planet watching and stargazing, but the drive there is definitely part of the adventure.
The trip begins on Highway 76 in Lake Henshaw, and guaranteed you’ll be making stops to take in the incredible scenery and awe-inspiring vistas. These include lush forested areas and breathtaking landscapes. Thankfully, there are several scenic overlook pullovers. A pit stop at Palomar Mountain State Park allows for hiking opportunities, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and even rainbow trout fishing at Doane Pond near Valley Center.
Not accounting for the stops, the entire drive takes about an hour and a half. With crazy curves and hairpin turns, this isn’t a drive for the faint of heart, but it’s fun and it’s fantastic!
Historic Julian – San Diego Scenic Drives
It’s one of our favorite off-the-beaten path San Diego County destinations and getting there is a blast. For those who live closer to I-8, the most scenic route with lots of vista points is taking the 8 for about 40 miles to Sunrise Highway, heading north through the Laguna Mountain Recreation area where it intersects with Highway 79 north, then 6 more miles on to Julian. The drive from San Diego to Julian takes about an hour and 10 minutes.
If you live closer to North County, you can drive CA-67 through Poway with its impressively massive rock formations, though small town Ramona, and continue onto a very winding but bucolic CA-78 to Julian, and arrive in about 52 minutes.
So, what’s so special about Julian?
It’s a pristine mountain town nestled in the beautiful Cayamaca Mountains. The discovery of gold put Julian on the map, but today, its sinfully delectable apple pies keep people returning time and again to this quaint and quirky village.
Wine-tasting, cider-tasting, beer-tasting, shopping, and hiking are just some of the fun things to do here, besides eating apple pie, visiting a gold mine, or panning for riches.
If you’re truly needing a four-season feel, you’ll get it in Julian. Spring brings the daffodils and tulips, autumn the true sense of fall with its colorful changing leaves and apple picking and apple festival, and winter, well…if you’re really missing it, you can certainly find it here with one of the few spots where you can enjoy snow in San Diego!
Highland Valley Wine Country
There are over 100 wineries in San Diego County, and a majority of these are family-owned and operated. The rural areas of the county are dotted with these rustic and bucolic vineyards. But some of our absolute favorites are located in the impressively picturesque rolling hills of the Highland Valley.
In just 30 to 40 minutes from downtown, you’ll find yourself in the heart of this picturesque San Diego wine country. The more remote verdant, agricultural region of North County is so stunning with its zig-zagging roads and hillside vineyards, it feels as if you’ve entered a completely different world (and you have). To us, because we lived in Italy, it reminds us a lot of Tuscany.
Take I-15 north to exit 26, Pomerado Road. Go east on Pomerado, and then a left onto Highland Valley Road. From here, you’ll find some of the area’s top recommended wineries. We adore Altipiano, Domaine Artefact, Speckle Rock, and Cordiano. Not just because they make great wine, but the views are absolutely spectacular and a big part of the whole experience! And sunsets here are truly stunning.
Make sure to check websites, as some wineries may require reservations, and you’ll also want to know the dates and times they are open for wine tasting.
Author John Steinbeck once said “People don’t take trips. Trips take people.”
Let us know where the trip takes you the next time you hop in that car for one of these San Diego scenic drives!
San Diego Scenic Drives was written by Noreen Kompanik for San Diego Explorer.
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Last Updated on June 11, 2023 by Maria Haase