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25 Fun & Free Things to Do in North County San Diego (2017 Guide)

fun free things to do in san diego

With a climate that permits year-round outdoor activities, there are quite a few free things to do in North County San Diego that won’t damage the wallet after arrival.

1. The Beach (Coastal North County)

Yes, this is probably the first thing that came to mind. Though obvious, we feel inclined to mention our glorious beaches anyway. From Dog Beach in Del Mar, where four-legged friends can play while the rest of the families builds sandcastles and enjoys the sun, to family-friendly Moonlight Beach with its snack-bar and fire pits, San Diego is home to the nation’s most pristine beaches. Get out there and enjoy them regardless of season.

2. California Surf Museum (Oceanside) 

California Surf Museum

On the first Tuesday of every month, admission to the California Surf Museum in Oceanside is free. This hidden gem is dedicated to preserving and sharing the art and heritage of surfing. Learn more about the history of surfboards and how they’ve evolved over the years as well as how surfing has influenced San Diego through locally-focused exhibits. See the movie Soul Surfer about courageous Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm to a shark bite in Kauai? Her board is in the museum, too, with a big bite taken out of it.

3. Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage & Meditation Gardens (Encinitas) 

 Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage & Meditation Gardens

Bring your stressed-out self to the serene Self Realization Fellowship Hermitage and Meditation Gardens. The ocean view and immaculate gardens are a photographer’s dream, a perfect place to get engaged (really, people do it all the time), or to just channel up some zen. Note that it is meant to be a place of self-reflection so screaming kids and cell phones…not great ideas.

4. Batiquitos Lagoon (Carlsbad) 

Batiquitos Lagoon (Carlsbad)

Explore one of the few remaining tidal wetlands in California. Most of the Batiquitos Lagoon trail is stroller and wheelchair friendly. Go it alone by downloading the trail guide online that also identifies points of interest. Or, take advantage of a themed docent-guided tour such as Feet and Feathers or Looking for Reptiles. Lead a Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop? Special children’s walks can be scheduled with two weeks of notice. Remember that since it is an ecological reserve, dogs must be leashed, horses and bicycles aren’t allowed, and disturbing plants and wildlife is prohibited.

5. Free Summer Jazz (Carlsbad) 

Concerts under the stars are a regular occurrence during summer months all over San Diego. The TGIF Jazz in the Parks series happens at Carlsbad’s Poinsettia Park and features local bands entertaining crowds with a mix of jazz, swing, blues and more during Friday evenings through mid-August. The concerts are sponsored by the city’s Cultural Arts Office and have been entertaining residents since 1986. Bring the kids, bring a date or just enjoy on your own. The second concert of each month features hands-on art projects for kids.

6. Carlsbad Trails (Carlsbad) 

carlsbad hiking trails

Skip the gym. Carlsbad, literally, has miles of trails (38 miles, to be precise, with plans for another 20 miles) for any level of outdoor enthusiast. Have a look online before you go as some are unpaved, hilly or rugged for a more intense calorie burn while others are perfect for leisure walks and kids. Try the diverse Aviara trail, 6 miles of golf course, lagoon and other scenic views, or the easy La Costa Glen trail complete with singing songbirds and lush vegetation. Volunteers help maintain the trails by pruning plants, laying gravel and more during the second Saturday of each month.

7. Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park (Carlsbad) 

Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park

Kids will love the plethora of peacocks roaming around. Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park was once owned by Leo Carrillo, the actor who played Pancho in The Cisco Kid. Adobe buildings, windmills and more adorn this gorgeous park, that’s free to enter and a great place to experience California history. To have a look inside the buildings, you’ll need to take a guided tour, but feel free to roam the grounds on your own. The terrain is rugged so make sure to wear appropriate shoes.

8. Seagrove Park (Del Mar) 

Though a public park, it’s also a popular place to get married (they allow one permitted event per day). It’s a giant stretch of grass near the beach (raised on a cliff) that residents and guests enjoy during good weather. Bring a picnic, people watch or let the kids run free. Community concerts also happen here during the summer and it’s an excellent place to watch the sunset. Pay a fee to park in the lot here or grab a spot (watch for restrictions) within walking distance on surface streets for free.

9. San Diego Botanic Gardens (Encinitas)  

san diego botanic garden encinitas

There is a lot to do here. First, if you’re on the hunt for landscaping inspiration, this is the place. Browse the 29 gardens on display at the San Diego Botanic Gardens to admire everything from bromelaids from South American to plants suitable for water-wise gardens in San Diego. Visit the website prior to visiting in order to check which plants are in bloom and download a list of birds to spot during a visit. Kids love playing on the structures at Hamilton Children’s Garden and running free through the grounds. Speaking of free, the San Diego Botanic Gardens offers free entry on the first Tuesday of the month and if there are four or more people in your car, they waive the parking charge as well.

10. Carmel Valley Recreation Center (Carmel Valley) 

Of course, you can register for classes and other paid activities, but enjoying the Carmel Valley Recreation Center is free. Tire out the kids by packing a picnic (the picnic areas have barbecues) and enjoying the tot lot and playground. Or, get some exercise by taking advantage of the indoor multipurpose courts, outdoor basketball courts, outdoor fitness stations, tennis courts and horseshoe pits.

11. Farmers Markets (Various North County) 

Farmers Markets North County San Diego

Though the odds of arriving home without a purchase are slim, it’s always free to roam the county’s Farmers Markets and admire everything from locally-grown produce to handicrafts. If you’re not able to visit one during the day, you’re in luck! Oceanside has Sunset Market every Thursday. Find the complete list of markets by day of the week on the San Diego Farm Bureau website. You might be surprised by how many there actually are!

12. Ride The Ramps & Bowls At A Skatepark

North County is home to quite a few famous skaters. You might catch some of them riding the bowls at these local public skateparks:

  • Alex Road Skatepark: Alex Rd & Foussat Road, Oceanside, CA 92058
  • Carlsbad Skatepark: 2560 Orion Way, Carlsbad, CA 92010
  • Alga Norte Community Park: 6565 Alicante Rd, Carlsbad, CA 92009
  • Escondido Sports Center Skatepark: 3315 Bear Valley Pkwy, Escondido, CA 92025
  • Carmel Valley Skatepark: 12600 El Camino Real, San Diego, CA 92130

13. Hike Potato Chip Rock (Poway)

Potato Chip Rock

Resting near the 2894 ft. summit of Mt. Woodson, Potato Chip Rock is quite possibly the most documented hiking trail in this county, if not the world. The hike is a bit of a challenge, but it’s a great workout. Hikers are rewarded with amazing vistas and, of course, an Instagram-worthy moment that is sure to get a few comments and eye rolls from the haters. Do it anyway.

14. Visit The Tide Pools

When the tide goes negative, the tide pools reveal themselves. These tide pools are filled with sea anemones, starfish, hermit crabs, and other sea life. There are two places to check out. The larger area of the two is in Cardiff. You can get there on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Lomas Santa Fe Drive. The other is at Terra Mar in Carlsbad. To get to the beach, take the steps just north of Cerezo. Go to the right at the bottom. You’ll see the tide pools just as the bluffs jut out.

15. Visit Palomar Observatory

Palomar Observatory

Palomar Observatory, owned at operated by the California Institute of Technology, is a popular San Diego destination, even for people who didn’t do so well in science. They see tens of thousands of visitors a year from all over the world. Most come to see the famous 200-inch (5.1-meter) Hale Telescope. The Observatory offers guided tours of the facility and also has a museum that highlights discoveries in astronomy.

16. Ride The Coastal Rail Trail

Someday, in some not too distant future, we hope, the Coastal Rail Trail will be 100% connected. While there are long stretches of completed pathway, the entire trail is not 100% connected. There are four disconnected stretches in Oceanside, Carlsbad and Solana Beach where you can bike, walk, skate, or run. Paths run along, yep, you guessed it, the train railway. The trail end points are Tyson St. in Oceanside and Via de la Valle in Solana Beach.

17. Cruise The Coast

Cruise The Coast North County San Diego

If the cruise along The Strand isn’t long enough, keep going! Coast Highway takes you along some of the most beautiful stretches of the coast here in North County. From the Harbor at the north end through Leucadia, past the racetrack at Del Mar, and on through to the trails of Torrey Pines. Check out our Road Trip Itinerary!

18. Cruise The Strand

You don’t need a convertible to enjoy a cruise on The Strand. Take whatever wheels you’ve got, even the two-wheeled kind, and take a slow cruise along the coast in Oceanside. If you’d rather watch the cars and cruisers go by, there are plenty of grassy areas to sit down at and take in the show. You might get lucky and catch a classic Woodie meetup.

19. Bird Watching or Hiking at Torrey Pines (La Jolla/Del Mar) 

Hiking at Torrey Pines

Usually, there’s free street parking on Hwy 101 near Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, otherwise, park in their lot for a $10 fee per vehicle. The 8 miles of trails provide enough variety depending on fitness level and goals. With panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, it’s possible to spot dolphins year-round and even whales during their seasonal migration. Plus, it’s a birdwatcher’s paradise.

20. Cars & Coffee

And if you’d rather check out the cars than drive the coast, you’re in luck! North County is home to a few regular meetups in Carlsbad, Fallbrook, and La Jolla. If you don’t have a show worthy car, that’s okay! Car enthusiasts are always welcome to ask questions, take pictures, and reminisce. Follow North County Cars and Coffee on Facebook to find out about the next meetup.

21. Hike A Volcano

Hike A Volcano in San Diego

No need to go all the way to Hawaii. We’ve got a volcano right in our own backyard! Check it out!

22. Enjoy A Bonfire At The Beach

You don’t need a special occasion to enjoy a bonfire. Just grab some wood, a few friends, and the makings for some S’mores and get yourself down to the beach! Although some local beaches prohibit fires on the beach, there are still two places where you know it’s okay: Moonlight and Oceanside. There are limited rings at Moonlight, so if you’re planning something there, arrive early. Oceanside has quite a few more rings available at the pier and also at the Harbor. Your chance of finding an open ring at the last minute are better there.

23. Seal Watching At The Children’s Pool (La Jolla)

Seal Watching At The Children's Pool

The Children’s Pool isn’t really a pool at all. In 1932, a seawall was built to protect the shore from oncoming waves, making it the ideal spot for children to swim without danger. The conditions proved to be a tempting haven for seals, so today, visitors will see many seals and sea lions soaking in the sun.

Quick note: While we think it’s great to observe nature in our world, we want to remind our readers not to interfere with the seals or their pups. Too many tourists are getting way too close just for a selfie. Don’t be that guy.

24. Visit Mission San Luis Rey

Mission San Luis Rey

If your kids are studying the missions or about to, Oceanside is home to the largest of the 21 California missions. Mission San Luis Rey is home to a community of Franciscan Friars and open daily. The museum houses artifacts from Native American, Spanish, Mission, Mexican Secularization and American Military periods and the cemetery is open to the public. Okay, this one’s not free, but you can enjoy entry into Mission San Luis Rey for about the same as a Frappuccino. Admission is $4-$5 with kids under the age of 5 free.

25. Catch A Sunset At The Pier

oceanside pier

Almost every night, the sun puts on a spectacular show down at the water. There’s something a little more magical about watching it take a bow between the pylons of the pier. And really… how often do you stop to enjoy this? We’re guessing your answer is “not nearly enough.”

Your Turn…

This is by no means a complete list so what is your favorite free thing to do in North County San Diego?

Photo Credits: Carlsbad Beach San Diego Botanic Garden Batiquitos Lagoon Oceanside Pier Surf Museum La Jolla Seals Self Realization Leo Carillo Ranch Mission San Luis Rey Palomar Observatory Hiking at Torrey Pines Carlsbad Trail Tide Pool

Sugar Jones: Sugar Jones has been blogging about life since 2008. She has contributed to various local news stations for lifestyle segments, speaking about tech, social media, travel, food, and family. She most enjoys sharing her favorite places and things to do around her adopted home of North County. You can follow Sugar's adventures on her blog, Live the Sweet Life, Facebook, and Google+.