san diego port skyline
San Diego at twilight. (Photo: Ross Manges Photography/Shutters)

5 Ways to Play in San Diego

Can't wait for the weather to warm up? With balmy temperatures year-round, miles of world-class trails, and a laid-back, kid-friendly atmosphere, L.A.'s southern neighbor has you covered.

san diego port skyline

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While the rest of the country is busy cursing Punxsutawney Phil, San Diego has been enjoying spring for a while now. Like the rest of the year, April there is maddeningly perfect: temperatures are in the 70s, the weather is clear , and the ocean, while not tropical, is balmy enough for splashing and swimming.

Warmer and less crowded than L.A., but just as easy to get in and out of and and populated by down-to-earth athletes, San Diego is a sweet adventure hub for no-hassle long weekends. On my last trip, I flew in 9:30 on Friday morning on a nonstop from Albuquerque, hopped a Supershuttle curbside, and was lacing up my shoes for a trail run in Torrey Pines little more than an hour later.

Even with kids along for the ride, San Diego oozes ease, unlike it’s hipper, traffic-snarled sister two hours north. Four days will give you just enough time to sample the best of San Diego’s land, water, and air adventures. Don’t expect to check everything off your list though. I’m already scheming a winter escape with our family next year.

Kayaking and Surfing
Hike Torrey Pines
Visiting the Zoo
Where to Stay

San Diego Adventure: Kayaking and Surfing

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(Katie Arnold)

The community of La Jolla spans some seven miles of coastline, with rugged bluffs, caves, and horseshoe bays, so it’s no surprise it’s watersports central. Explore the seven sea caves at the base of the town’s cliffs on a two-hour paddling tour with La Jolla Kayak, or pair it with a snorkeling tour of the La Jolla Underwater Park. Kids six and up are permitted in tandem kayaks, while the minimum age for snorkeling is eight.

If you’d rather ride the waves than peek beneath them, Surf Diva offers private and group coed surfing lessons for adults as well as kids five and up at the beginner-friendly, sandy-bottom break off La Jolla Shores.

San Diego Adventure: Hike Torrey Pines

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(Katie Arnold)

Named for the rare, endemic pines that grow along the southern California coast, the 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve has nearly ten miles of hiking and running trails. Kids will love the narrow, sandy paths that wind like a maze through coastal chaparral.

The Broken Hill Trail descends past a stunning view of an eroded cut in the cliff to the beach in just over a mile. From there, you can climb back up via the Beach Trail or walk along the water to the visitor center, and loop back to the Guy Fleming trail, via the decommissioned coastal highway. Keep your eyes open for seals on the beach.If you’re flying kid-free for the day, it’s a great spot for solo runs: just hit the sand and keep going. It’s seven miles to the far end of Del Mar, and the beach keeps going from there. Entry is free without a car.

San Diego Adventure: Paragliding

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(Katie Arnold)

Set on a grassy bluff 300-feet above the ocean in Torrey Pines, the Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of only two operational gliderports in the country (the other is in Kitty Hawk). Charles Lindbergh flew here in the 1920s, and thanks to consistent ocean breezes, it’s still home base for aerialists of all stripes. These days paragliders rule the show. On a windy weekend afternoon, it’s not unusual to see a dozen colorful canopies floating above the cliffs. When the winds pick up around 11 AM, aspiring paragliders start flocking to the gliderport for tandem lessons, no experience or reservtions required.

Your instructor will strap you into your harness and helmet and give you a few pointers about take-off, and the next thing you know you’ll be soaring high in the air. There’s no age limit, either. “As long as they want to fly, we’ll take them,” explains Jeremy Bishop, the manager. “Our record is a one-year-old—the owner’s daughter.” Twenty-minute tandem lessons go for $150.

San Diego Adventure: Sailing the High Seas

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The schooner Curlew comes into port. (Port of San Diego/Flickr)

Built in Maine in 1926, the 82-foot schooner Curlew has been around the block. She did a stint in the Coast Guard during World War II and was later abandoned in a hurricane off Bermuda in the 1960s. Now in her golden years, she plies the turquoise waters off Dana Point, about an hour north of Torrey Pines, taking families sailing and dolphin-spotting. In a typical three-hour cruise, Captain Bob will let the kids hoist the sails and take the helm; Later, they’ll eat a picnic lunch while dangling their feet off the glossy teak bow and watching for dolphins and migrating gray whales. Climbing the rat lines to scout for brigadoons is off limits, but Captain Bob and his crew make up for it with their repertoire of pirate jokes. (“What kind of socks do pirates wear? Arrrggyle!”)

San Diego Adventure: Visiting the Zoo

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A baby panda warms hearts at the San Diego Zoo. (Courtesy of the San Diego Zoo)

No first-time visit to San Diego is complete without a trip to their famous zoo. In springtime, the exhibits are home to new babies galore—rhinos, pandas, condors, and clouded leopards. Afterward, ride the old-fashioned city trolley to Old Town and Mission Valley, where you can grab a bite to eat at one of the area’s many Mexican restaurants or visit San Diego’s first mission in Presidio Park. I’ve also heard kids lobbying hard for a visit to Lego Land, but you’re on your own with that.

San Diego Adventure: Where to Stay

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The Lodge at Torrey Pines. (Courtesy of Torrey Pines)

Fifteen miles north of the airport, the Lodge at Torrey Pines has a Frank Lloyd Wright-goes-Scottish vibe, with wood and shingled exterior, slat-back Craftsman furniture in the rooms, and bellmen wearing kilts. A little weird, but the mashup works because the main attraction is outside. The 85-degree pool and hot tub give way to a sprawling municipal golf course, which slopes down to ocean bluffs. Best of all, the trails of Torrey Pine State Reserve are an easy half mile from your front door. The kid-friendly Grill serves the best old-fashioned “Drugstore Style” cheeseburgers in San Diego. Doubles from $318.

Just a few miles north, the Del Mar Motel is a more low-key affair, right on the sand at the south end of the little surf town of Del Mar. Just out the front door, you can boogie-board, play beach volleyball, and surf the breaks that run nearly the whole length of town.  It’s supremely kid-friendly too: on one Friday afternoon, I watched half a dozen young surfers, none of whom could have been older than 12, charging on ten-foot waves. Nice. Doubles from $137.