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5 of the Best Nature Attractions in San Diego

5 of the Best Nature Attractions in San Diego

With its year-round sun, endless beaches, and scenic natural wonders, San Diego attracts nature lovers from far and wide. From La Jolla Underwater Park to Potato Chip Rock, we explore a collection of the finest scenic attractions San Diego has to offer.

1. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

This 1,750-acre nature reserve is dedicated to preserving the Torrey Pine tree, as well as other rare wildlife indigenous to the area. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a coastal wilderness located on the cliffs above the state beach, with well-kept trails meandering through pine forests and sandstone canyons.

There are trails to suit hikers of all abilities, making the reserve perfect for families. Popular trails include:

  • Razor Point Trail: a 1.4-mile round trip offering dramatic views across badlands and ravines.
  • Beach Trail: a 0.75-mile trail that leads to Torrey Pines State Beach, the perfect spot for a picnic.
  • Guy Fleming Trail: a 0.7-mile circuit that not only offers stunning views, but is the easiest trail in the park. Whale watchers frequent the area in the winter to observe gray whales migrating along the coastline.

2. La Jolla Underwater Park

Popular with swimmers, snorkelers and kayakers alike, La Jolla Underwater Park is a 6,000-acre marine park that showcases the area’s vibrant sea life.

La Jolla Underwater Park’s four habitats encompass a kelp bed, sand flat, rocky reef, and submarine canyon. Because of the area’s extensive reef complex, the power of the ocean diminishes rapidly, and waves break gently on La Jolla Shores beach. This makes the location perfect for stand-up paddle boarders and kayakers. In addition, visibility is usually exceptionally good, making La Jolla popular with underwater photographers.

The sand flat falls away in a 500-foot drop, giving way to La Jolla’s submarine canyon. The area is rich in marine life, drawing whales close to land as they pass through these waters in migration season.

Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular in the vicinity, with occasional sightings of leopard sharks and orange garibaldi. Other common marine life found in La Jolla Underwater Park include sea lions, seals, squid, shovelnose guitarfish rays, and sea bass, with the occasional hammerhead shark sighting.

3. Annie’s Canyon

This small, sandstone canyon located in Solana Beach features a 1.5-mile circuit rising to an elevation of 100 feet. The trail covers numerous scenic overlooks and beaches.

The canyon itself is narrow in places. Visitors need a degree of physical dexterity to climb over rocks and squeeze through tight passageways. A metal ladder leads hikers out of the canyon, where they enjoy impressive views across San Elijo Lagoon, all the way out to the ocean.

Geologists attribute the formation of Annie’s Canyon to thousands of years of rain erosion eating away at the sandstone cliffs. This resulted in some impressive geology popular with local photographers and nature lovers alike.

Wildlife endemic to the area includes ladies’-fingers, a rare, endangered plant native to California, and desert cottontails, a species of rabbit known for its sensitive hearing and ability to climb trees and swim.

4. Potato Chip Rock

This flake of granite juts out from the summit of Mount Woodson, a labyrinth of rocks and boulders that hikers reach taking Mount Woodson Trail. Starting from Lake Poway, the challenging 6.5-mile-long route draws hikers from far and wide to sit atop one of the most photographed landmarks in San Diego.

potato chip rock
temporarySPASTIC | Flickr

Experts rate the hike as difficult, as it takes between three and four hours to complete and reaches an elevation of more than 1,800 feet. The trail affords stunning views across Lake Poway, with rest spots and benches on the way up to the summit. Visitors can bring dogs, but they must stay on the leash at all times, and be kept a minimum of 100 feet from the shoreline.

Admission costs $10 for non-locals on weekends and during the holidays. The trail is open from 6 a.m. to sunset.

5. Cedar Creek Falls

Cedar Creek Falls is one of San Diego’s most attractive waterfalls, with an 80-foot drop plunging down into bare rocks, creating an oasis-like grotto. The mountain scenery of the San Diego River basin forms an impressive backdrop to this natural wonder.

The hike to Cedar Creek Falls is quite challenging and requires a permit. There are two routes to the waterfall, both of which cover just under 6 miles for the round trip.

Cedar Creek Falls lies within Cleveland National Forest, an area rich in rare, native flora and fauna. Cottonwood, black oak, and cedar make Cleveland National Forest a haven for local wildlife, drawing birdwatchers from across the county and beyond.

The waterfall can dry out in the summer, though trails remain somewhat congested. The National Forest Service recommends that novice hikers attempt this hike during the fall, winter, or spring, when temperatures are lower and the risk of heat-related illness is lower.