Being active outdoors doesn’t have to be complicated or require a lot of gear or planning – it can be as easy as exploring a local park or playground with your kids. Checking out a new park allows parents and kids to be adventurous, without needing to leave the city or spend a lot of time searching or packing for an exotic outing. San Diego is known for its perfect weather and gorgeous beaches, but it’s also home to some of the most amazing parks, playgrounds, and green spaces. Local San Diego mom of four, Wendy Cox, is here sharing the best parks and playgrounds for kids in San Diego, California. 

Best parks in San Diego California - best city and county parks for kids and families

Best parks and playgrounds in San Diego

San Diego really is my favorite city. One of the reasons I love San Diego so much is because it has some of the best parks, playgrounds, and outdoor public spaces for kids and families. As a San Diego resident for over 20 years (13 of those as a mom), I can’t even tell you how many hours I have spent at the lovely parks in and around San Diego.

Park time was especially important when my kids were little, and we lived in an apartment. During those early days of motherhood, I had two rambunctious little boys that needed time outside to burn some energy. Now we have 4 older kiddos, but we still frequent many of the best parks in San Diego.

There are two types of public parks in San Diego: city parks and county parks. The city parks typically have less acreage than county parks, are free, and there are many more city parks than county parks. Whether you’re here on vacation, new to the city, or a long-time resident looking for a new place to explore, here is my list of the 10 best parks in San Diego.

Best city parks in San Diego 

1. Maruta Gardner

We call this the “pink park” because, you guessed it, a lot of the structure of this park is pink! Maruta Gardner is a fairly new park and was built in the last few years. Because it’s so new and so much fun, you will likely never have the park all to yourself. There are so many different things to play on here that it can accommodate a lot of people without seeming too crowded. 

Maruta Gardner - Best city parks in San Diegobest parks and playgrounds for kids in San Diego

The main feature of this San Diego park is a giant pink slide. It’s wide enough to fit several kids (or adults!), side by side, and it has a definite spring to it. You’ll see kids slide, jump, run, and bounce down this amazing piece of equipment. Getting to the top of the slide is quite the adventure, as well. A wave-shaped climbing structure is how you gain access to the summit of the slide.

Maruta Gardner Park - San Diego, CA Maruta Gardner - playground for kids

In addition to the giant pink slide, Maruta Gardner also has built-in hammocks and spinning toys. The smaller playground for younger kids, a saucer swing, and a four-person teeter-totter with seats are also fun. What more could the kids want?

Maruta Gardner - best san diego parks for kidsMaruta Gardner park - san diego

Adults will be happy to know that this park is conveniently located near a variety of shops and restaurants. It’s the closest city park to Belmont Park, a permanent outdoor carnival of sorts featuring the Giant Dipper roller coaster and other carnival-type attractions. Maruta Gardner is right on the bay. It’s across the street from Mission Beach, and has built-in cement seating with umbrellas for shade. 

Maruta Gardner - close to mission beach san diego

2. Old Poway Park

About 30 minutes east of downtown San Diego is Old Poway Park, also known as “The City in the Country.” This park makes it to the top 10 best because it’s like going back in time. They really live up to the “Old” in their name. The park has a Heritage Museum, the Nelson House depicting life back in the early 20th century, and our favorite- the Poway Midland Railroad. For a few dollars, you and your kids can take a ride around the park on this full-sized, vintage railroad. Your budding engineers will be over the moon as they circle the park on the train. 

Old Poway Park - best parks for kids in san diegoOld Poway Park Railroad for kidsBest Parks in San Diego - Old Poway ParkIf you happen to be in the area over Christmas, you won’t want to miss Christmas in the Park. Santa will arrive on the train, and the park will be all decked in lights. It’s a magical experience! During the other months, you can find a farmer’s market every Saturday morning. The Hamburger Factory restaurant is also open year-round.

Across the street from the train depot is a small but fun playground, softball fields, and a little pond. You’ll feel like you stepped back in time when you’re at Old Poway Park.
Old Poway Park playground san diego californa - Old Poway Park

3. Liberty Station

San Diego has a rich military history, which is reflected in various ways at the parks of Liberty Station. The land that Liberty Station sits on used to be the Naval Training Center. Then it was moved to the new location nearby. As you walk around Liberty Station, you will notice a plethora of flags, plaques, and other military items. There is even a 2/3 scale destroyer ship called the Recruit that you can walk around. 

Liberty Station Park - best parks in San Diego for kids

If you have a little one that enjoys airplanes, this park is for you. It’s directly in the flight path of the San Diego International Airport, and every few minutes, you will see and hear, a plane overhead quite close. 

Watch the planes from Liberty Station - best parks in San Diego

Liberty Station has two playgrounds next to each other, separated by the bathrooms. One playground is for the younger crowd, and the other is for older kids. It’s nice to have the separation if you have kids similar in age. If you have more than one child and think they might want to be at different playgrounds, I would consider bringing along a second set of hands in case you need to split up. This park has an extensive bike path meandering along the water. We taught three of our kids how to ride a bike here because it’s very flat and has a lot of long, straight cement paths. There are also cement picnic tables near the playground.

When you’re done riding bikes and playing on the playground, there are many other options for things to do outside nearby. You could play some basketball at the basketball courts, or fly a kite on the large grassy areas. It’s usually windy at Liberty Station, so you will probably have success with a kite. You’ll want to make sure you have a jacket, though, because the wind can be a bit chilly coming off the water.

Another great advantage of Liberty Station is all of the amazing shopping and dining just a few minutes walk away. The Public Market has a variety of phenomenal food choices, and you’ll want to stop at Moniker General for a cup of coffee and do a little shopping as well.

Liberty Station playground - best parks in san diego

4. Fanuel Street Park

If you’re looking for a quiet, tucked-away park, Fanuel Street is the best spot for you. Located in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego, Fanuel Street is the perfect stop along a long bike/jogging path. You’re sure to see bikers, walkers, rollerbladers, runners, and even roller skaters. If you brought bikes or scooters, this is a great place to use them. 

Fanuel Street Park - San Diego California Fanuel Street Park - best parks and playgrounds for kids

In the summertime, Fanuel Street Park is a great alternative to the beach. There are no waves because the park is on the bay side, and there are significantly fewer people here than at the beach. It’s a good spot to let the kids cool off in the water. Fanuel Street is also an easy spot to launch a paddle board or kayak from. The water is calm, and the views are spectacular. 

Fanuel Street ParkBeach at Fanuel Street Park - San Diego

Another draw of Fanuel Street Park is the large grassy area near the bathrooms. We like to bring a soccer ball or the RC car here because there is a lot of space to kick a ball and drive the car.

One unique aspect of this park is the small pod of cement dolphins set in the sand near the playground. I can’t even count the hours my kids have played on these dolphins! They’re a nice little San Diego touch that you don’t find at a lot of playgrounds. The one drawback to this park is that the parking is limited. Other than that you’re going to love it!

Fanuel Street Park

5. Moonlight State Beach Park

There are various beaches around San Diego that also have parks and playgrounds, but Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas pretty much has it all. From a snack bar to boogie board rentals, you won’t find yourself wanting for anything. 

Moonlight State Beach Park - best parks in San Diego Moonlight State Beach Park

The playground at Moonlight is fun, but there is so much more to do here than just slide on the slides. There are volleyball courts, fire pits, outdoor showers, large bathrooms, palm cabana umbrellas, beach access, a shop with beach rentals, a snack bar, and lifeguards on duty. 

Moonlight State Beach Park - best parks for kids in San Diego

This beach park has a large dedicated parking lot and street parking. The lot is situated above the beach, so the view while you look for a parking spot will be priceless. You’ll notice as you walk to the beach that you’re admiring the grand Pacific Ocean. The waves here are not small and there can be currents/rip tides. Make your beach day a success with these tips.

Moonlight State Beach Park

6. Tecolote Shores

Quite possibly the newest park in San Diego is Tecolote Shores. Any San Diegan with kids was anticipating the opening of this park, and it finally happened late last year. 

Tecolote Shores - San Diego, CATecolote Shores - best parks for kids in San Diego

Tecolote Shores is a great place to be if you have kids that span the ages. Half of the park is more like an outdoor gym, with stationary bikes and machines for resistance training. The other half of the park is a large playground with slides, swings, and these cute spinning egg chairs. Dividing the two parts of the park is a covered area with picnic tables. 

Tecolote ShoresThe ground here is that squishy playground material, which makes it great for when someone takes a spill because it isn’t as abrasive as cement. There is also a good-sized sand pit, so don’t leave the bag of sand toys in the car!

Our favorite part of Tecolote Shores park is the climbing rope. There is actually a bell you can ring at the top of the rope, and the kids get so much satisfaction from being able to ring the bell! It also affords an opportunity for some teamwork. 🙂

Tecolote Shores Tecolote Shores

The playground at Tecolote Shores is surrounded by large fields of grass, and is located right along Mission Bay. The jogging path here is about 3 miles one way, so if you’re training for a race, this is a great spot. The only downside is that the bathrooms are not that close. It will take you several minutes to walk to the nearest bathroom, or maybe even more if your toddlers are as distracted as mine were!

7. Coronado Tidelands Park

If you’re looking for a park with great views of the city, go no further than Tidelands Park in Coronado. It’s located on Coronado Island, a man-made island accessible by the iconic Coronado Bridge. 

Coronado Tidelands Park

My favorite part of this park is its accessibility. The newer part of the playground has an ADA-accessible ramp. The ramp leads to a “boat” that can also accommodate a wheelchair. My boys loved playing on that boat!

The playground and great views aren’t the only great things about this park. It also has bathrooms near the playground and a large grassy area. The grassy area is perfect for a game of tag! There are also baseball fields and a bike path. Head north on the bike path and you’ll end up at Ferry Landing. Here there are shops, restaurants, and a ferry that can take you downtown.

Coronado Tidelands ParkCoronado Tidelands Park

Best county parks in San Diego

8. Felicita County Park

This 346-acre park is located in the eastern part of San Diego County. Because of its distance from downtown, Felicita Park has a completely different feel than the busier city parks. The trails here are dirt, and Felicita Creek runs year-round through the park. Apart from the ocean, you don’t see much water flowing in San Diego. This creek is a novelty to us San Diegans! 

Felicita County Park - best county parks in San Diego

The fee to park here is $3. Gates to the park open at 9:30 am and close at sunset. Park rangers enforce these times, so you’ll need to make sure you’re wrapping up and heading out at the appropriate time. 

The oak trees growing here are very mature and provide ample shade. Even though it gets warmer in East County, you can find a lot of places in Felicita Park that are shaded. 

While the over 1.5 miles of hiking trails here are dirt paths, there are two playground areas with paved sidewalks perfect for scooters or other wheeled adventures. The playgrounds have shade sails up too, so if you’re visiting in the hotter months the slide shouldn’t burn your legs on the way down! 

Felicita County Park Felicita County Park

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Felicita Park was once a large Kumeyaay Indian village. Today there is a small museum relating the history of the park, as well as a TRACK trail scavenger hunt. The TRACK trail website has a variety of activities to do along the trail, and when you log the information onto the website, your kids can win prizes for the time they spent at the park. 

Felicita County Park

9. San Dieguito County Park

Heading up the coast from downtown San Diego and a little bit inland, you will find the beautiful, 100-acre San Dieguito County Park. There are two main parts of this park, an upper and a lower section, connected by a series of trails and an area known as Activity Hill. Activity Hill has viewing platforms where you can see the ocean, rope bridges, and audio panels that teach you about the wildlife and history of the park, and two TRACK trails.

San Dieguito County ParkSan Dieguito County Park

If you enter at the upper park entrance, there is some free off-street parking, or you can pay $3 to park anywhere inside the park. The upper park has five different playgrounds, each a little different from the other. The two closest to the entrance are fairly small, so if you’re looking for a peaceful experience, you might want to start here. The two newer playgrounds just up the hill are typically busier, but all of these playground areas have bathrooms close by. 

San Dieguito County Park

San Dieguito County Park

The lower park doesn’t have playgrounds, but it does have large expanses of grassy areas that are wonderful for picnicking. It also has a butterfly garden and lots of great climbing trees!

10. Santee Lakes

It’s hard to categorize Santee Lakes as a park because it is so much more, but I couldn’t leave it off the list. Santee Lakes has a campground, a small splash pad, multiple playgrounds, 5 lakes, fishing, ducks to feed, and our favorite- paddle boats! 

Santee Lakes

I also love that there are so many picnic areas surrounded by mature trees to enjoy. Many of the picnic areas also have a built-in barbeque so you can enjoy a warm meal outside.

The entrance fee here is $7 per vehicle, so it’s somewhere that you would want to plan to spend the day. With so many activities, it’s not difficult to find a variety of things to do while you’re here. And if you’re into fishing or your kiddos want to try fishing for the first time, this is a great place to start. The lakes are stocked with fish year-round.

Santee Lakes

Santee Lakes is a series of 7 man-made lakes that were built with the purpose of highlighting what can be done with recycled water. Every day 2 million gallons are water are recycled to create what you see in the lakes. About 230 species of birds either reside at the lakes or make a short stop here during the colder months, making this an excellent place for birdwatching!

Santee Lakes Santee Lakes - best parks san diego

Best San Diego parks and playgrounds

All of these parks are within about 30 minutes of each other. That’s one of the things I love so much about San Diego. There is so much variety within just a few miles, and never a lack of somewhere new to explore. I’ve lived here for over twenty years and am still discovering new parks, hiking trails, gardens, tidepools, beaches, etc.

These ten parks are just a tiny percentage of the many outdoor spaces in San Diego that are fun and family-friendly. San Diego can be an expensive place to be in, so if you’re on a budget, any one of these parks will suit your wallet just fine.

Next time you’re in San Diego and find yourself needing some outside time with wide open spaces, I hope you end up at one of these ten best parks. 

About the author

Wendy is a married momma living in central San Diego, CA, raising 4 human kids, 2 goat kids, 4 chickens, and one grumpy cat. She enjoys gardening, hiking, camping, backpacking, going to the beach, and generally getting out of doors. Wendy is a family photographer and also works at several local elementary schools as a garden educator. She dreams of traveling to all 50 states and beyond, and believes that there is great beauty to be found in all parts of the earth, we just have to open our eyes to see it.

You can find more from Wendy online in the following locations:
Instagram: @wendycoxphotography
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