The Best Outdoors Places to Overnight in San Diego

San Diego is a hiker’s mecca. From the trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve on the Coast, to the city’s highest point at Cowles Mountain, and through the East County trails of Iron Mountain and El Cajon Mountain, there is literally a hike for every person, and for every skill level. In addition to all of these trails, and the thousands more I didn’t mention, San Diego is also a great location for overnight camping, from backpacking to car-camping and everything in between. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve been lucky enough to explore much of San Diego’s backcountry in a number of ways, and am thrilled to be working with on this article to recommend some of the best overnight wilderness hiking areas. While overnight wilderness activities have innumerable perks, the locations within the confines of San Diego allow visitors the added benefit of a little extra wilderness solitude to recover from the hustle and bustle of everyday Southern California life.  The locations listed below provide a great starting point for overnight wilderness activities in the County, and hopefully provide inspiration for many nights in some of the most pristine backcountry that can be found in Southern California.

The Laguna Mountains in San Diego offer great backpacking and camping opportunities.

1.      Backpack some – or all of Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexico Border to the San Diego County Border.  One of the little known facts about San Diego is that it is the start of the Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”). The PCT is one of the top trails to be found in North America, and it stretches from the United States-Mexico Border to the United States-Canada border, some 2,650 miles. While backpacking the entirety of the PCT is a daunting affair, the portion from Campo through the Laguna Mountains located in San Diego County is a pleasant alpine trek, with forests, meadows, and small lakes. The Laguna Mountains are part of the Cleveland National Forest, which is an area that allows backpackers to camp outside of set campgrounds, but does not allow fires.

As there is over forty-seven miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Laguna Mountains, backpackers of all levels can pick and choose which sections they wish to hike for two days and one night, or multiple days. Although all of the Laguna Mountains are stunning, the section of the PCT that intersects with the “Sunset Trail” is an area that provides a great variety of terrain, from forested slopes, open meadows, epic mountain views, and a reliable water source in the Water of the Woods. For advanced backpackers, additional days and distance can also be added on the Northern boundary of the Cleveland National Forest. Finally, with elevations from 4,500 up to 6,000 feet, the Laguna Mountains also provide excellent stargazing opportunities year-round.  

The San Diego coast is a great place to walk, hike, or jog from sunup to sundown.

2.      Camp Alongside the Pacific Ocean. Although backpacking provides an amazing amount of freedom, spending the night alongside the Pacific Ocean is a unique – and tranquil experience. While there are no backpacking treks along the Southern California and San Diego coastline, there are a number of campgrounds that are in close proximity to the ocean. Out of all of these sites, San Elijo State Beach provides the best experience in San Diego County. Located in the North County region of San Diego in the City of Cardiff, San Elijo State Beach campground is located right on the ocean. From the campground, it is a five minute walk through eroded sandstone bluffs to the ocean, where visitors can swim, surf, explore, and hike the beach through all hours of the day, before being lulled to sleep at night by the sound of waves. San Elijo also has stunning views of the ocean at low or high tide, and is a great spot to watch the sunset, and potentially see the green flash. While San Elijo does have 127 camping sites, it is one of the most popular beach camping destinations in San Diego, and visitors that cannot get a reservation should consider San Onofre State Beach, which also provides an excellent ocean-side camping experience.

The Anza-Borrego Desert offers many adventure opportunities, like the Goat Canyon Trestle hike, and many overnight opportunities as well.

3.      Off-Road into the mysteries of the Anza-Borrego Desert. The Anza-Borrego Desert, and Anza-Borrego State Park are located to the East of the Laguna Mountains, and are on the far eastern border of San Diego County. Like the Laguna Mountains, dispersed camping is allowed in Anza-Borrego State Park, although not by water sources. Unlike the Laguna Mountains, visitors to the Anza-Borrego Desert can off-road to some desert solitude. With mud-caves (the Arroyo Tapiado), desert badlands, hot springs, and the hardest hike in the County (the Goat Canyon Trestle), along with great night skies, the Anza-Borrego Desert offers a number of multi-day and night adventure opportunities. Just be sure to keep an eye out for the Borrego Sandman, San Diego County’s own Yeti-like creature, and be sure to have plenty of water.

As I mentioned above, these areas and places are just a start for overnight adventure planning, as the area truly does have day – and multi-day adventures for everyone, because the best recommendation one can provide for San Diego is that it is a place where one should get outside.

Want to see even more of the beauty San Diego has to offer? Check out this San Diego image gallery by