32 Unique Parks in San Diego
San Diego boasts hundreds, if not thousands, of parks throughout the county. As lovely as I'm sure they all are, there are some that far outshine the rest. Over the years I have taken it upon myself to seek out the most unique parks in San Diego. We have found so many enchanting pockets all over the county. These parks range from tiny but magical to beautiful State Parks and everything in between.
If you're interested in getting an extra special experience next time you head out to a park, definitely check out our list of the most Unique Parks in San Diego:
1. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is one of the city’s most cherished treasures. It is actually one of the oldest parks in the United States dedicated to public recreational use, being reserved in 1835. The park gained notoriety during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition, both of which left architectural landmarks.
This place is BRIMMING with hidden gems all over the place. Every little nook has potential for a secret surprise and I really recommend keeping your eyes peeled. Here are our favorite spots (some secret and some just plain old amazing) that we recommend exploring while at Balboa!
2. Boulder Park
Across the parking lot from the Desert View Tower is a jumbled mass of boulders just aching to be scrambled. Random faces and animals are waiting to greet you at every turn. Certainly not easy for the claustrophobic. Boulder Park has been a fixture in the desert since the early 1930s.
Boulder Park is on the same property and literally right next to the Desert Tower. All of Jacumba is filled with rock caves, but this area just makes it easier to explore some of them. You will discover a lot of interesting things during your journey here. Keep your eyes peeled for the guinea hens too!
3. Breicrest Park
Briercrest Park is a small yet lovely park located near the Grossmont Healthcare Center in La Mesa. I was originally drawn towards this park when I learned that James Hubbell and the Hubbell & Hubbell architecture studio had designed multiple features in the park including a mosaic butterfly along one of the pathways, a labyrinth as well as some mosaic pieces on the bathroom walls.
This place ended up exceeding my expectations pretty quickly when I stumbled across five giant wind instruments for the public to tinker with. The thing about these instruments though is that they play so beautifully!
4. Buena Vista Park
Buena Vista park has a variety of hiking trails but also starts off with a pond that makes for a great picnicking spot. Many of the hikes are shaded (huge bonus), making this a hike you can do all year long and stay much cooler than you would otherwise! The trail will snake you along the Agua Hedionda Creek and oak groves. We found two secret swings hanging over the creek. See if you can find them! I will definitely return here one day and hike further. So much to uncover!
5. Dos Picos Park
Dos Picos Park, translated to "Two Peaks" got its name from two distinct peaks nearby. The park, located in Ramona, is home to a beautiful oak grove, some of the trees being over 300 years old! There is a campground here as well as two cabins so you can extend your daytrip overnight!
6. Double Peak Park
Double Peak Park is quite possibly the best panoramic view in San Diego. It is breath-taking! I can imagine you can capture killer sunsets here. I began doing one of the hikes but quickly realized it was not worth it because it was almost sunset and that is when the park closes. So if you want to hike AND experience the sunset, make it a day! Would be a lovely picnic spot.
7. Felicita Park
Felicita Park is the site of one of the largest and oldest Indigenous villages in the county. To this day, grinding holes and other artifacts reveal evidence of the centuries-old community of the Northern Kumeyaay.
Felicita Park has always been one of my favorite parks. Perhaps because it is not your traditional park (in my opinion). There are is much grounds to wander around and just get lost in. It’s always had a bit of a magical feel to it.
8. Friendship Park
Friendship Park / El Parque de la Amistad is an historic meeting place on the US/Mexico border next to the Pacific Ocean. The park is also located inside California’s Border Field State Park. El Parque de la Amistad sits beneath the famous lighthouse (“El Faro”) in Playas de Tijuana.
For many generations this park has served as a meeting ground for people to visit family and loved ones, gathering on each side of the fence. Many people travel from hours away for brief interactions.
9. Golden Hill Park
Golden Hill Park is actually an extension of Balboa Park and contains oldest remaining feature in the entire park. An old, stone fountain is listed by the National Register as the oldest feature, designed by architect Henry Lord Gay. Other attractions in the area included a children's park, walking trails, and a redwood bird aviary. Make sure to check out the Victorian homes around the corner too!
10. Grape Day Park
Since the early 1930s, Grape Day Park, Escondido’s oldest park, has been the center for community events and activities. Every year from 1908 to 1950, people from as far away as Los Angeles came to celebrate the annual Grape Day Harvest, a major industry in the Escondido valley.
The park continues its tradition as the center for community gatherings. It is a registered landmark and home to a turn-of-the-century working barn, Santa Fe Railroad depot, blacksmith shop, and other historic buildings, museums, and monuments.
11. Guajome Lake Park
Guajome Lake is a 12-acre lake within the San Luis Rey Watershed and is part of Guajome Regional Park. The lake is surrounded by marsh and a variety of plant species. Over 180 bird species have been spotted here including the endangered California Least Tern and the Light Footed Clapper Rail.
Camping is available here as well as day use such as hiking, fishing, picnicking or enjoying the playgrounds and basketball court. The hiking trails are beautiful and shaded. We explored in the springtime when it was probably at its peak of lush beauty. We had a great time!
TIP: After you read this article, make sure to check out our list of Hidden Gems in Los Angeles!
12. Hoyt Park
I cannot gather much information about Hoyt Park and it’s history unfortunately. I was told that the town set this open space aside for the public after much development was done in the area. We explored in early February after some nice rainfall. This is a pretty, little forest and if you go in winter-late spring, there should be nice greenery. This is a nice hike for families and dog walks. Nothing crazy about it, just a leisurely walk.
13. Secret Pyramids of Scripps Ranch
Until recently, these pyramids were a complete mystery as to who built them and why. As the legend goes, 7 pyramids were constructed at least 60 years ago and placed in various parts of the woods in Scripps Ranch. Although some have since been destroyed, at least 3 still stand today.
14. Inaja Memorial Park
Inaja Memorial Park is a beautiful lookout point and picnic area in Santa Ysabel. We love stopping by here on our way back down the hill from Julian, oftentimes to appreciate the sunset. There is a nice loop trail you can take giving you beautiful scenic views.
This site memorializes 11 firefighters who lost their lives in the 1956 Inaja Fire which consumed 60,000 acres. The 3440 elevation offers an excellent variety of scenery with clear views down to the San Diego River canyon and scenic vistas of the Palomar and Volcan Mountains.
15. Alta Vista Botanical Garden
The Alta Vista Botanical Garden is an interactive botanical garden located within Brengal Terrace Park that uses up-to-date technology in an interactive atmosphere. This a place that all ages can appreciate.
There are different zones such as sub-tropical, an herbal labyrinth, the Children's Musical garden. ponds, prehistoric gardens and more. It truly is a treat here, especially for the price! Rather than taking the conventional approach of creating another living plant museum, this garden has become a gathering place for the community.
16. Jack's Pond Nature Center
Jack's Pond is a nice family spot or place to walk your dog. Enjoy 23 acres of woodsy hiking trails and a pond which, at the time we visited, was looking quite sad. We need rain! The pond is home to bluegill, catfish, large-mouth bass and crappie fish.
17. Kate Sessions Park
Kate Sessions Park boasts some of the most beautiful views of Mission Bay, the ocean and the city below. This is a wonderful location to have a picnic, play with your dog, bbq, or just enjoy the serenity. There are several hiking trails on site featuring natural habitat and a small creek below during winter.
Kate Sessions Park is named after the highly influential horticulturist, Kate Sessions. Kate Sessions was an ex-school teacher who previously worked at a flower shop before becoming San Diego's head botanist.
18. La Jolla Natural Park
La Jolla Natural Park is without a doubt a hidden gem. This is a special preserve that not only offers some of the best coastal views around, but also boasts 42 acres of hiking trails!
If you're ok with tight street parking along the curvy roads, then parking shouldn't be too much of a problem. If you park at the top, once you make it to the trailhead, within seconds you will be greeted with stunning views of the coastline.
19. Leo Carrillo Ranch
If you grew up in the 1950s, chances are you watched a western television show called “The Cisco Kid,” which featured a character actor named Leo Carrillo as Cisco’s sidekick Pancho. Carrillo was born in Los Angeles in 1881 who traced his American roots back several generations.
Leo, his wife and his daughter are long gone but his ranch remains and has been open to the public since 2003. It is maintained by the City of Carlsbad and connects to the citywide trails system via the 4-mile long Rancho Carrillo trail.
20. Live Oak County Park
Live Oak County Park is a very special place. As you stand among the shaded oak groves, keep an eye out for the mortars (grinding holes) in the bedrock. This is not just another park, this is an ancient Native American village. For thousands of years, the Luiseños would call this very park home.
In 1920 the park was officially dedicated as a county park. There are bronze plaques that can be found throughout the park marking historical events that happened in the area. There is even a native plant garden which can be appreciated here with signs to help educate on what you’re looking at.
21. Luiseño Park
Luiseño Park is one of the most unique parks in San Diego, created as a replica of an ancient Luiseño village. We walked around the entire perimeter of Luiseño Park and almost like a scavenger hunt, kept finding more and more plaques with mind-blowing Native American replicas based off of actual artifacts which have been found in this area.
The artifacts of the park include both replicated petroglyphs and pictographs, bedrock mortars, a shaman rock shelter, roasting oven and more! You can also enjoy the regular amenities which include softball fields, tennis courts and a playground.
22. Montgomery-Waller Park
Montgomery Waller Park is a nice place to have a picnic or relax and watch the sunset. If you are a fan of planes and history I would say this is definitely a spot you should put on your list to visit
There is a silver Wing monument located here that was dedicated on May 21, 1950 to the pioneering aviation achievement of John J. Montgomery and his early glider flights in the 1880s at Otay, California.
23. Mt. Helix Park
Mount Helix Park is definitely one of the most scenic parks in all of San Diego. Just like Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial Park in La Jolla, one of the most notable feature besides the views is the huge cross at the top. The park also contains a huge amphitheater which still holds performances to this day.
24. Old Poway Park
Old Poway Park is not just a cute park to have a family picnic at. It actually is packed with a lot of history! In 1948, a retired army colonel named John S. Porter moved to Poway & put in great efforts to revive it back to the "old west" days. Historic buildings from around Poway were brought to the site and restored. Included are Poway’s first assembly hall, the International Order of Good Templars Hall and the Nelson House.
25. Old Town State Park
Old Town State Park is a lively and bustling tourist destination packed with unique boutiques, restaurants and more more than two dozen buildings depicting life from the early Mexican-American period of 1821-1872. Five original adobe structures mix with reconstructed sites and newer buildings done in the same style.
It is BRIMMING with hidden gems to be discovered.
26. Palomar Mountain State Park
Over the years Palomar Mountain has become one of my favorite places to visit. It really feels as if you’re in Central CA with the large trees and super-fresh air. This is a great place to escape for the day. Large pine, fir and cedar trees make the park one of the few areas in southern California with a Sierra Nevada-like atmosphere.
With such lush and dense forests all over this mountain, you just know it's brimming with hidden gems. We have visited many, many times and have come across some amazing trails and other spots we'd love to share with you.
27. Pioneer Park
Over the years, Pioneer Park has become a popular spot for family picnics, summer concerts and various community events. It is not uncommon to see children from the school next door playing in the grass and families having outings. Take a stroll along the outskirts of the park though you will be in for an awful surprise.
A once prominent pioneer cemetery has now been reduced to a lone row of headstones which are displayed as a memorial for those buried at this park—yes, the bodies are still buried here. You can even find a plaque with the names of the 1800+ bodies whom are interred within, although it is rumored that there may be up to 4,000 bodies buried here.
28. Presidio Park
There are a lot of grounds to cover around here so bring your hiking shoes! Explore the mission, canyon, hiking trails, ruins, statues and more! This is a very interesting area with a lot of San Diego history. Soak it up! The prettiest time to come is in the spring when everything is green and in bloom!
Please be mindful of the hiking trails though and do safety in numbers as the homeless population can sometimes get out of control. There are definitely scary accounts that have happened out here.
29. Queen Califias Magical Circle Garden
This magical, mosaic land is located within Kit Carson Park. I like to be a bit vague with directions because part of the adventure is finding the spot! Queen Califia’s Magical Circle Garden was created by the late, internationally famous Niki de Saint Phalle.
It is one of the four large-scale sculptural environments designed and built by the artist and her studio collaborators, and the only one located in the United States. The garden is a joint effort by Saint Phalle, who financed the sculpture project, and the city of Escondido, which acquired the land and is responsible for landscaping, maintenance and operation.
30. San Dieguito County Park
San Dieguito County Park is a beautiful park located in Del Mar, just a stone’s throw from the ocean. The park offers a ton of recreational activities which include over 5 miles of unique hiking trails, 5 playgrounds, a wedding gazebo, butterfly park, 2 duck ponds picnic area, suspension bridges a basketball court and more!
Discover picturesque views from Activity Hill – complete with 10 fitness stations, three hillside ladders and lookout platforms, two suspension bridges, and two track trails for kids with nature-themed scavenger hunts to win prizes online.
31. Santee Lakes
This 190‐acre park located in Santee has 7 beautiful recycled water lakes that are stocked with sport fish year-round. The Park provides amenities including camping, cabin rentals, fishing, boating, special events, playgrounds, walking trails, and approximately 230 bird species.
Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve is owned and operated by Padre Dam Municipal Water District. It is self‐sustaining, receiving no funds from water/sewer ratepayers or taxpayer subsidies. The Park operates from user fees, grants and awards and collaborations with community groups and organization partnerships
32. Tijuana River Regional Park Bird & Butterfly Garden
The Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, located in Imperial Beach, is a wonderland in itself with over 1800 acres and 22.5 miles of hiking trails. This specific page is for their butterfly and bird garden which has multiple trailheads attached to it. The garden itself is only a few acres but still quite beautiful.
This area is AMAZING for bird watching. Over 340 native and travelling bird species have been spotted here. I have visited here a couple times and two of the rarer birds I was able to identify were a Black-throated Magpie-Jay and a Cardinal. It was a very special experience to get to see these birds in the wild.