Hidden Gems in San Diego, CA [Explore San Diego]

San Diego is famous for its beaches and parks. People from across the globe come here to soak up the sun and watch the waves come and so. Moreover, San Diego attracts over 28 million visitors a year.  

Evidently, San Diego is one of the U.S.’s top travel destinations, and the popular spots can be crowded at times.

But if you are the type of person who likes to follow the little-known hideaways of a place, here are 10 of the most amazing hidden gems in San Diego. 

Key Takeaways

Hidden Gems in San Diego

  1. Black’s Beach
  2. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
  3. Palm Canyon
  4. Coronado Sand Dunes
  5. Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail
  6. Harper’s Topiary Garden
  7. Sunny Jim Sea Cave
  8. Mar Scenic Trail
  9. Zoro Garden Butterfly Habitat
  10. Musical Bridge on 25th Street

1. Black’s Beach

Black’s Beach

If you love a quiet beach experience, head over to Black’s Beach before the word gets out. It can be accessed via a steep route down from Torrey Pines State Beach.

This clothing-optional beach remains relatively unknown due to its remote location. 

Sit back on the clean and fresh sands with a very movie-like backdrop of sandstone cliffs. Are you an expert surfer? Black’s Beach is well known for its great surf breaks, but the waves here are not ideal for beginner surfers.

If you want to get a peek at underwater life, this is the place for you. During low tide, you can find intertidal species in the tidepools. 

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2. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

Throwback to 1912, the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge was originally built to carry pedestrians over the ravine by the engineer Edwin Capps. It spans over the Kate Sessions Canyon, connecting Bakers Hill and Hillcrest neighborhoods.  

The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge has 375-foot wooden planks that offer a narrow and wobbling crossing. While not crowded, this a popular spot for photographers due to the dramatic views.

The bridge is basically a shortcut that pedestrians can take to get some great views of the Cabrillo Bridge, canyon, and gardens. 

3. Palm Canyon

Palm Canyon

The Palm Canyon is inside Balboa Park’s gardens. The path down to the canyon floor is 20 feet, and you’ll find yourself in a palm tree-filled canyon oasis.

The path into the canyon is full of ferns with over 400 species of palms and towering deciduous trees. 

Do you look for peaceful places on your travels for picnics? Palm Canyon is the perfect place for you! This place was actually developed over a century ago, in 1915, by the San Diego legend Kate Sessions for the Panama California Exposition. 

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4. Coronado Sand Dunes

You might already know that everything in San Diego is mostly associated with beaches. Even the hidden spots. The Coronado Sand Dunes is located south of Coronado’s main beach.

This place has enormous letters spelling “Coronado” in the dunes, which are visible from the sky. This is usually only noticed by pilots landing at North Island NAS. 

A city worker named Armando Moreno used the kelp that washed to the shore to spell “Coronado” by burying it under the sands in the late 1980s.

It took him 2 years and a shovel to dig trenches and create 10-foot-high letters spelling “CORONADO.” 

In 1990, an additional 50 feel spelled “BEACH” to the right for better aerial views. Although this is mostly erased from ground-level view, satellite images can still capture the hidden letters. 

5. Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail

Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail

Want to run from San Diego’s urban life? A peaceful valley lined with cottonwood trees sounds good? Well, Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail is probably the escape that you’re looking for. Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail is situated behind the neighborhoods of Rancho Peñasquitos. 

Three miles of trails along the creek’s banks, shaded by oaks and crossing sage-covered slopes, sounds like the perfect destress walk.

One of the main highlights of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail is the panoramic sweeping views along the trail. In usual cases, such views can only be seen by the circling hawks. 

Another highlight here is the waterfalls with optional clothing and swimming holes. You can also see wildlife, including mountain lions and grazing deer, here. Even though the  Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail is closer in proximity, the place is relatively undiscovered. 

6. Harper’s Topiary Garden

Harper’s Topiary Garden

Harper’s Topiary Garden is situated in Mission Hills.  This place is basically a private residence but is considered a hidden gem for observant passersby.

This garden was created by a local artist, Isolde “Issy” Harper, and it features undulating green shrubs sculpted into charming figures like owls, horses, and abstract swirls. 

Starting in the 1960s, Harper’s topiary art expanded into a maze over 30 years. The Harper’s Topiary Garden has gained landmark status and now includes over 50 lifelike figurines.

The whimsical shapes here include animals, trees, and geometric designs. The garden has a pebble path for the visitors to stroll by and take pictures. 

7. Sunny Jim Sea Cave

Sunny Jim Sea Cave

This relatively unknown cave is situated near the popular La Jolla Cove. Want to do some seal-watching? The Coast Walk Trail along La Jolla Cove’s cliffs offers the best opportunity for that. Minutes north, a narrow tunnel accessible via a wooden staircase with 145 steps bores into the sandstone cliff face. 

The Sunny Jin Cave is 25 feet down into a cathedral-like chamber with a vaulted ceiling towering 70 feet above. The insides of the cave are full of lichen-mottled stone textures in crimson and orange.  

The Sunny Jim Sea Cave is connected to secret tunnels leading inland. This is because the cave was used to secretly store whiskey during prohibition. Well, now the place is a curio shop with swallow nests attached to its walls and sunlight-creating lens flare rays through its entrance. 

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8. Mar Scenic Trail

Mar Scenic Trail is another serene escape near downtown. This trail is located in Torrey Pines State Park Natural Reserve. The trail is only minutes away from many popular destinations in the area, like La Jolla Cove and Coronado Beach. 

It is one mile long, passing through sandstone bluffs and secluded coves with views of the Pacific Ocean. This trail has solitary desert-scapes that provide a pretty spot away from all the crowds.

When you hike here, you can also witness whale sightings, pelicans, and interpretations of coastal Indigenous life. 

The hike through the Mar Scenic Trail is pretty easy, with benches in between for resting. The best sightings here? The kind of landscapes you see on desktop wallpapers, tidepools, wildflowers, etc. You can also see migrating gray whales and dolphins during winter. 

9. Zoro Garden Butterfly Habitat

Zoro Garden Butterfly Habitat

Zoro Garden is located inside the Balboa Park. Do not be fooled by the name; this garden does not feature the busts of the prophet Zoroaster.

The garden’s history in the 1930s actually includes it being an arboretum and a site for a nudist “Nature Boys” colony. 

Fast forward to today, it serves as a family-friendly butterfly habitat transformed by horticulturists. You’ll find netted enclosures here protecting butterflies such as Monarchs and Painted Ladies.

Such butterflies are attracted by the flowers present here, including yellow zinnias, red hot pokers, and bottlebrushes. 

Quaint stump seatings are planted everywhere so that guests can observe butterflies warming themselves on sunny stones. 

10. Musical Bridge on 25th Street

Musical Bridge on 25th Street

The Bridge gets its name for a reason. The Musical Bridge on 25th Street has Chimes installed along its railings that play tunes when tapped. Have a coin or rock?

Strike the chimes while crossing over the 25th street. The bridge is pretty plain concrete, but the interactive element here is the 488 chime rods tuned to 8 notes. 

The Crab Carillon Bridge is a pedestrian shortcut for the residents of Golden Hill. This musical bridge was created by artist Roman de Salve and musician Joseph Waters. They collaborated on those public artworks inspired by change-ringing bell towers. The Crab statues were added to the bridge later, which is why it’s also called the Crab Carillon Bridge. 


San Diego’s hidden gems do not end here. There are a lot of lesser-known spots that you can visit.

While people come here to soak up the sun and the beautiful beaches, some also search for unique aspects of the place. If you want to get away from the usual crowds, head over to some of these hidden gems in San Diego before it’s too late. 

Soak up some sun on the beach and go down to the hidden cave underneath!

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