Written by Danielle Directo-Meston
San Diego has no shortage of fun things to do with your kids, from Balboa Park and its surrounding museums to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. For families that are looking to get out of town for a day without breaking the bank, there are plenty of other nearby tourist attractions and destinations that are worth a short day trip.
From exploring the wilderness to discovering one town’s Old West history, here are five budget-friendly, one-gas-tank trips near San Diego.
Julian Chamber of Commerce
2129 Main St.
Julian, CA 92036
Kids who can’t get enough of stories about the Wild West will love a visit to the laid-back mountainside town of Julian, located about an hour east from San Diego in the Laguna Mountains. Though many visitors flock to this small community for its delicious apple pies, the town also boasts a rich history as a bustling mining center during the Gold Rush. This California historic landmark has plenty of things for families to do: pick apples, pears and pumpkins at a variety of local orchards and farms; watch kid-friendly gunfight re-enactments; discover Julian’s old gold mines; learn about life in the 1800s and much more.
Arrive in Julian early in the day to take advantage of ample street parking; otherwise, late afternoon visitors can park in a lot near Main Street for a fee. Fall visitors will want to bring a light jacket, as temperatures drop in the mountains. And while there are plenty of local eateries in the town’s historic district, families on a budget can also bring their own lunch and picnic at the Julian Memorial Park on 4th Street at Highway 78, right in front of theJulian Pioneer Museum.
In addition, many attractions don’t accept credit cards, so stop by an ATM and get cash before you leave home.
For fruit picking, stop by O’Dell’s Organic Orchard (1095 Julian Orchards Drive) from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, and don’t forget to say hello to their chickens, goats and horses. If your kids (or you!) aren’t squeamish in small, dark spaces check out the Eagle and High Peak Mine tours ($10 for adults, $5 for children) and go deep underground while learning what life was like for Julian’s first citizens. To catch the town’s vivacious Doves & Desperados re-enactment group, visit on a Sunday and catch their free shows every hour from 1 to 4 p.m.
If your schedule and wallet permit, head to the Smith Ranch ($12 for kids ages 3 to 12, $15 for adults) or the Julian Mining Co., both family-run attractions that offer plenty of hands-on activities for kids.
In addition, be sure to stop in at the Julian Pie Co. (2225 Main St.), a family-run business known for savory apple pies and cider doughnuts.
The Fine Print
Hours vary at many of Julian’s businesses but they are generally open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; contact each to verify hours of operation.
Palomar Mountain State Park
19952 State Park Drive
Palomar Mountain, CA 92060
For families that love the outdoors and want to escape city life for a day, Palomar Mountain State Park offers a great place to breathe fresh air, explore the many trails and nature hikes and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy beneath the forest’s tall pines.
Park at the Silver Crest Picnic Area, an ideal place to enjoy lunch with your family before exploring the several nearby hiking trails.
Keep in mind, there are no gas stations on the mountain, so be sure to fill up before you head up. The closest gas station is located 13 miles from the park at La Jolla Indian Reservation Trading Post (open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday to Thursday).
If you have older kids who are relatively active and love to hike, discover the park and take Scott’s Cabin Trail, a 3.5-mile loop that’ll take you past what’s left of an old cabin built in the 1880s and up to Boucher Hill. There, you’ll find a historic fire tower and breathtaking views of the Pauma Valley and surrounding areas below. Note that there is a steep portion of the trail, so be extra cautious when hiking downhill.
Young astronomers will also love visiting the free Palomar Observatory, operated by the California Institute of Technology and used by university professors, students and researchers to conduct studies of the skies at night.
The Fine Print
The park is open every day, all year. Park hours are from 8 a.m. to sunset for general use and from 6 a.m. to sunset for fishing. The daily use fee for a vehicle is $8.
The Palomar Observatory is open every day, except Dec. 24 and 25, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during Standard Time and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during Daylight Savings Time.
1900 Associated Road
Fullerton, CA 92831
Inspire your family members to develop their green thumbs and take an imaginary trip around the world at this free, 26-acre, kid-friendly arboretum on the campus of California State University, Fullerton in Orange County. “We consider ourselves a little bit of a gateway to the wilderness,” says Fullerton Arboretum Education Manager Evelyn Brown. She notes that future globetrotters can discover the many biomes that are represented at the gardens, from the rainforests of Madagascar to California’s own Mojave Desert. In addition, the arboretum offers an array of fun children’s activities and educational programs, all geared toward encouraging kids to learn more about their environment.
Most of the trails are easily accessible for strollers, but it’s recommended that they have all-terrain wheels for the more rugged pathways. And while it’s tempting to enjoy a picnic lunch at the beautiful gardens, families are asked to use the designated (and shaded) picnic tables located outside the arboretum to keep rodents and other animals from damaging or eating the plants. Brown also suggests keeping your family cool and sunburn-free by bringing a hat and plenty of sunscreen. If you enjoyed your outdoor adventure, remember to make a small donation to support the arboretum.
The arboretum boasts an exciting children’s garden, where kids can touch and smell a variety of cool plants, explore the sustainable “dirt bag house,” discover art installations and more. Brown also suggests paying a visit to the arboretum’s massive ombu tree, a popular spot where kids can run around and play on the tree’s giant roots. Animal lovers will love visiting the pond and lake to catch a glimpse of turtles, ducks and fish. And for family members who appreciate architecture, the arboretum’s Heritage House—a restored Victorian-era home—is another must-visit.
The Fine Print
Hours are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, and the gardens are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission is free, but a $3 donation is suggested. To register for kid’s classes, tours and other programs, visit the arboretum’s events page here.
Newport Beach, CA
Newport Beach Visitor Concierge Desk: (855) 5-NEWPORT
Locals view charming, quaint Balboa Island as Newport Beach’s hidden gem, a small community established in the early 1900s. Whether admiring the beautiful beachfront homes, window-shopping at the many mom-and-pop boutiques or strolling through the Balboa Fun Zone amusement park at Balboa Peninsula, you’ll find plenty to see and do with your kids in this historic Orange County beach town. Got animal lovers in your family? If so, they’ll especially enjoy meeting the island’s furriest residents: its cats. “We don’t have many rats,” jokes longtime resident Carolyn Carr, who maintains the community’s unofficialwebsite for visitors and locals. The friendly felines love being showered with attention and are known to greet Boardwalk visitors, Carr adds.
The Balboa Island Ferry carries pedestrians, bicyclists and cars from the Balboa Peninsula across the Newport Harbor to the island. But it’s not the only way to get there, notes Carr. Tourists can also drive right onto the island via Jamboree Road, she says. Otherwise, they can park on Balboa Peninsula and take a short walk to the ferry’s boarding dock.
If you plan to take your car onto the ferry, note that it can only accommodate three cars per ride. To avoid waiting in long lines to board your vehicle, try to arrive before 1 p.m.
One bonus to visiting Balboa Island in the fall is that you’ll also skip the crowds of summer tourists and the limited parking. Wherever you decide to leave your automobile, be sure to review all parking signs thoroughly, says Carr, as some residential areas have parking spots designated for golf carts only.
Planning to bring your own lunch? Head to Balboa Peninsula Park to picnic on the grass, take in the ocean breeze and enjoy some beachside people-watching.
After lunch, treat the kids to a chocolate-covered frozen banana, the town’s famed sweet treat. Many locals recommend paying a visit to Dad’s Donuts & Bakery Shop (318 Marine Ave.) or Sugar ‘N’ Spice (310 Marine Ave.), two of the island’s most popular destinations for the delicious dessert. Remember to bring cash, as many of Balboa Island’s small businesses don’t accept credit cards.
Local expert Carr recommends taking kids to the fun and eclectic toyshop, Our Gang’s General Store (217 Marine Ave). If you visit during October, your family will love seeing the community’s festive and exciting Halloween décor, says Carr. And if you plan on bringing kids to trick-or-treat, “walk along the Bay Front because there are some awesome decorations—and [kids] will getgreat candy!”
The Fine Print
The Balboa Island Ferry is located at 410 S. Bay Front and leaves every five minutes. The ferry’s operating hours are from 6:30 a.m. to midnight, Sunday to Thursday, and from 6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday. Rates are $1 per car, $1 per adult and 50 cents for kids ages 5 to 11. Kids under 5 ride free.
Discovering the New
San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
2710 Manchester Ave.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007
If you’ve got wildlife lovers, biology buffs, or outdoor adventurers in your clan, the San Elijo Lagoon is the perfect place for kids and adults to discover something new. A popular spot for runners and bird watchers, these scenic 1,000-acre wetlands boast hundreds of species of plants and animals (herons, hawks and jumping fish are just a few of the creatures that are spotted regularly), plenty of kid-friendly hiking trails and beautiful views of the lagoon.
Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the great outdoors while you eat (just be sure to pick up any trash when your meal’s over). Plenty of water, a hat and sunscreen are also essentials to bring along. Dogs are welcome to join your family’s adventures, but furry friends must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet. (Remember to bring along those doggy doo-doo bags!)
Frequent visitors point out that it’s a good idea to wear close-toed shoes, especially if you’ll be exploring the La Orilla trail, an equestrian-permitted area where horses often leave “leftovers.” All trails west of the I-5, however, are a no-horse zone.
Take advantage of the free, expert-led Lagoon Walks, which take place every Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. You’ll learn about the lagoon’s ecological history and get a closer look at the birds and marine life as you walk along the Nature Center Loop Trail.
Want to do your part in keeping this habitat beautiful and give your kids a fun, hands-on experience that doesn’t involve cleaning their room? Bring the entire family to the reserve on the third Saturday of the month, when the biologist-led Lagoon Platoon helps with cleanup and restoration efforts.
The Fine Print
The Nature Center’s hours are daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., excluding Christmas. Admission and parking at the reserve are free.