Staying in Carlsbad, California, in between San Diego and Los Angeles is a good choice for anyone who wants to explore beaches, national parks, history and nature. There’s so much to do within a few short hours that it will take you a year to attempt them all.
Here are some of the things I saw and did while I stayed in the area for one month.
Along the Pacific California coast, there is a different little beach town every 20 miles. Each is unique, but perhaps none more remarkable than La Jolla. In La Jolla (Hoy ya), there’s an underwater park made up of 6,000 acres and four different habitats. There’s a rocky reef, kelp bed, sand flats, and submarine canyon.
San Diego created the underwater park in 1970. Within it are the reef, kelp forest, sand flats and canyons. Part of the park is an Ecological Reserve and some are also a Marine Life Refuge. No fishing or scavenging is permitted within the reserve, making it a haven for all sorts of animals who might not otherwise hang around.
Two artificial reefs keep the waves minimal and attract wildlife while creating an environment for them to thrive. This makes it a hotbed of sea life activity you can’t see anyplace else.
The area is so popular for kayaks, snorkeling and scuba diving that many shops are lining the main street heading toward the beach. On Avenida de la Playa, you can rent any sort of water equipment, book a tour, grab lunch, or enjoy the street entertainment.
OLD TOWN SAN DIEGO
Old Town is an old area of San Diego next to a historic state park with 32 historic sites and buildings – so you have two areas: an old city and a historical park.
The neighborhood has dozens of Mexican-style restaurants, with patios on the streets making a festive environment as you stroll past. Many musicians are playing in the streets, tourists walking about and various street vendors selling handcrafted Mexican-style goods. Mixed in with the restaurants are dozens more little shops and a mix of Mexican food, souvenir shops, and live entertainment.
People walk around in traditional garb and musicians play Spanish and Mexican music in the streets and in the town squares. You can get a feel for what life was like back then through spaces and places, preserved and replica buildings, and museum exhibits.
The park has 17 museums, multiple performing arts venues, various themed gardens, shopping, restaurants, street vendors, and historical and cultural attractions. It is easily worth spending an entire day exploring all the park has to offer.
You hear all the time about the zoo and sadly, it overshadows the park, so many visitors don’t plan to spend the time they should or even know about it. The only reason I found the park was diligent searching for trails and places to walk. Otherwise, I would have thought it was just the entrance to the zoo and never visited.
Balboa Park is one of the oldest parks in the United States. It was reserved in 1835 and encompassed 1,200-acres of history and cultural spaces. It’s only about 40 minutes drive from the Carlsbad area and a wonderful place to spend the day walking around.
My interest in visiting the park was the gardens. I’d read that there were nearly 20 distinct types of gardens that you explore with excellent walking trails. It was true. Balboa Park has verdant, attractive, well-maintained gardens throughout the entire large space. It seemed like every 50 feet I stumbled upon another unique garden. There’s a lot to see and just about anyone can find something of interest in this park.
DAY TRIP TO JOSHUA TREE
The trip from the Carlsbad area to Joshua Tree is about three hours, but awesome desert views once you get out of the city. The national park borders the Mohave and Colorado desert systems, so each side of the park is distinct. It’s nearly 800,000 acres with an astonishing range of landforms.
In the park’s center, the Joshua Trees are so plentiful it’s a veritable forest of them. This forest, however, is different than others you’ve seen because even though there are thousands of trees, it’s still the desert and open space is everywhere.
It’s easy to reserve a campsite online and stay for a night. The neighboring town of Joshua tree is also a fun to visit on a weekend where there are plenty of artists selling their wares at various markets.
DAY TRIP TO DEATH VALLEY
This is a longer drive from the Carlsbad area, about five hours, but one well worth it.
The park is enormous, but the landscape is so captivating, it goes by in a quick shocking moment. There are many different types of strange geology to see – that’s why many movies, like Stars Wars, have been filmed in the park. There are massive dunes, deep craters, and salt flats that go for miles. It’s a perfect description of what other planets must look like.
I was stunned, too, by the dramatic changes in temperature. On the fall day that I was there, the desert air went from the mid-40s to 90-degrees. It fluctuated anywhere in between, depending on the time of day and my elevation.
It’s easy to reserve a campsite online and stay for a night. There isn’t much directly outside of the park except desert, but there are enough amenities in the park, including gas, to hold you over for a few days.
SAN DIEGO BOTANIC GARDEN
If you appreciate plants and flowers, the San Diego Botanic Garden is a beautiful place to visit. It’s filled with 37 acres of flora and fauna and there are four miles of trails you can walk, making it a great exercise too.
But, the thing that drew me to the gardens were their two corpse flowers. Yes, two, which is very rare. The corpse flowers are rare plants because they’re the largest flowering structure in the world. They also stink like the dead. When blooming, the flower stinks like rotting flesh. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they take about ten years to start blooming and then only bloom about once every four to six after that. Making it rarer to see is that the bloom only lasts two days.
The San Diego Botanic Garden has two of them, both that just finished blooming in fall 2021. I arrived just a few days too early to see and smell the full bloom but was able to see the giant plant.
Even without the stinking flowers, the gardens are spectacular and worth a few hours of walking and exploring.
Find the botanic garden at 300 Quail Gardens Dr, Encinitas, CA 92024.
Missions are always an excellent place to learn about the region’s history and the people who live there. They encompassed a multi-cultural history made up of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and European people and functioned as self-sustaining communities – they weren’t all the same. Still, many taught and or enforced the learning of agriculture, industry, education and religion in exchange for work and a safe place.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, is now a historic landmark and museum where for about $18, you can pursue the grounds and learn about the ruins and history from over 200 years ago. There is still a chapel and other interesting architecture.
Find it at 26801 Ortega Highway San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá was the first Franciscan mission in “The Californias,” when it was still a province of “New Spain,” as were the other missions. It’s in great condition and you can see it for free unless you’re a large group.
Find it at 10818 San Diego Mission Road San Diego, CA 92108.
TORREY PINES RESERVE
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a beautiful place to spend a day hiking or enjoy the beach. The reserve has 1,500 acres of undeveloped land, including the maritime chaparral shrubland, the rare Torrey pine, beaches, and a lagoon.
Because it’s a reserve, there aren’t any animals allowed and not even food outside the beach. While you might miss the presence of dogs, it was nice having clean trails.
The highlight of the park, of course, are the Torrey Pines. The critically endangered trees only grow in reserve and a few nearby areas. The trees grow from 26 to 56 feet tall and have long needles up to about 10-inches long. They look less like a traditional pine tree because of their open, rounded shape. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 of them left in existence.
There’s a $20 state park fee to enter the reserve. Find it at 12500 North Torrey Pines Road, San Diego, CA 92037.
Coronado is an island in the San Diego Bay known for its long, wind sandy beach, small-town vibes and the Victorian Hotel del Coronado. Part of the fun of visiting this island is going over the massive San Diego–Coronado Bridge and seeing a view of the entire bay, with all the sailboats and yachts docked in the marinas with downtown San Diego in the background.
I visited the island a few times and strolled the beach at sunset, wandered around the hotel and marveled at its wood panel, stained glass and wide-open atriums clearly from another time – 1888 to be exact. It’s a fun day to spend at the hotel, the beach or grabbing a bit to eat at the picturesque little downtown area.
The Self-Realization Fellowship and meditation gardens were closed during my time in the area, but I strolled their parameter several times. If you go when the gates are open, I’ve heard that the tranquil gardens at the meditation center feature koi ponds, meditation areas, and ocean views among a variety of plant life. I walked past the garden several times, hoping the gates would be open; alas, they were not. The meditation gardens are connected to the temple and near the hermitage. All were closed in the fall of 2021 when I visited.
Find it at 939 Second Street, Encinitas, California.
DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO
Sea Port Village is a cute little area on the bay along the water featuring public parks that host many events and over 70 small shops, restaurants and outdoor features and attractions. Find it at 849 West Harbor Drive, at the intersection of Harbor Drive and Kettner.
Gaslamp Quarter is a picturesque area with historic architecture that has been revitalized and filled with trendy shops and restaurants where a younger, bar-ready crowd hangs out. They often close the streets for public events and markets on the weekends. Find it near Broadway, 4th and 6th Streets.
Little Italy is a walkable few-block neighborhood with bars, shops and dozens of Italian restaurants and markets. Outdoor patios line the streets where many of the buildings date to the late 1880s.
BEACHES, BEACHES, BEACHES
If you drive along the 101 Highway from L.A. to San Diego, you’ll see nothing but white sandy beaches, palm trees, and the Pacific Ocean for miles. It’s a road where just driving is a pleasure and it’s better to be a passenger so you can enjoy the views. It’s great entertainment to watch the surfers, join them, or stroll one of the many piers and boardwalks.
The list of great beaches could go for a mile itself, so I won’t belabor it only to say, stop at the ones that look interesting. Some, like Laguna Beach, are busier, those closer to San Diego are rockier but also have more surfers and those in the middle, well, maybe they’re just right.
The fun thing about being in the Carlsbad area is exploring each of the beaches for yourself and deciding which ones you like best. But I will say, the Carlsbad Beachfront along the coast in downtown Carlsbad is an excellent choice for the best of everything.