Avoiding the Tourist Trap

A reader from Michigan recently contacted me asking for a blog post on the free and low cost outdoor things to do in San Diego instead of just the “tourist trap” attractions and museums.

I love the topic, but need to clarify that the attractions and museums we write about are not at all tourist traps.  When we buy annual passes, family memberships or take advantage of one of the numerous special promotions that occur each year, I feel we get MORE than our money’s worth of entertainment and education. Our museums and attractions are awesome and are a major reason why I think San Diego is the best place to raise kids.

However, I am happy to dedicate today’s post to the free and low cost outdoor things San Diego has to offer, especially for those moms like our Michigan reader who might not be aware of just how much America’s Finest City has to offer families.

First, I’ll state the obvious: BEACHES

Tide pooling, sea glass collecting, sand castle building.

Grunion runs, leopard shark swim, surf dog competitions.

Learn to sail, learn to paddle board, learn to swim, surf, snorkel or scuba dive.

Watch the whales, the dolphins or sea lions.  Watch our gorgeous sunsets and try to catch the elusive green flash.

We have found that the bay is best for little kids.  Mission Bay with its large park and fire pits is super popular for parties, especially when you’re craving s’mores.  Our favorite bay spot is Fanuel Park in Pacific Beach, which is more of a neighborhood hangout than tourist attraction.

We also love to spend a sunny afternoon enjoying a cocktail outside at the Catamaran or Hotel Del while the kids frolic in the sand, or an evening at the bay watching the Seaworld fireworks.


When visitors think San Diego, they may not be thinking lakes, but our lovely lakes are terrific for picnics, duck feeding, fishing and paddle boating.  Santee Lakes is our favorite with its playground, water sprayground, fishing and family-friendly events like the upcoming Spring Eggstravaganza.

A few years ago Santee Lakes built waterfront cabins, and we’ve thought many times about spending a weekend in one.  If cabin camping sounds like fun for your family, take a look now, because these cabins sell out months in advance!


San Diego’s nature reserves and lagoons offer family fun in the form of hiking, exploring and bird watching.  Many families enjoy volunteering for lagoon clean up and restoration days.  It’s a great way to enjoy San Diego’s natural beauty while giving back to our beautiful community.


While not always kid-friendly, San Diego offers numerous opportunities for hiking and biking including Balboa Park, Cowles Mountain (which I can see from my backyard!) and  Torrey Pines State Reserve, which is gorgeous.  Our kids are just at the right age to give Torrey Pines a try, so it’s on the list for spring time family outings.

The boardwalks through Pacific Beach and Coronado are fun for walking, strolling, scooters and bikes as are the paths at Lake Murray and Lake Hodges.  Mission Trails Regional Park is a really nice place to hike with kids, plus they offer guided tours, art classes, nature study classes and other special events throughout the year.  The annual Explore Mission Trails Day is coming up on May 18th.

Check out this month’s  article  in San Diego Magazine for more great outdoor ideas.


San Diego has parks on the beach, parks next to lakes, parks in neighborhoods, urban parks, toddler-specific parks…we have no shortage of parks for sure.  In addition to our lovely neighborhood parks, we love Fanuel Park in Pacific Beach, the park at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, Kellogg Park at La Jolla Shores.

SDplaygrounds.com  is far from a perfect website, but it’s the best I’ve found to help families find the perfect park.  The mom who created it doesn’t even live here anymore, but she and her toddler sons spent many months researching and recording all of the parks listed on the site.  A really cool feature is that visitors to the site can add their own updates and photos.

It was another beautiful day in San Diego.  Did you do something outdoors that was free and fun?  Share it here!


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