San Diego is a fantastic place to visit, especially for a vacation. There’s just so many things to do! Lots of travel guides cover everything from whale watching in the Pacific to the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.
This traveler’s family guide discusses just a little bit more. It’s geared more towards a family who’s just moved to the area or is a full-time traveler. It explains where to buy groceries, where to find friends and family friendly stuff to do.
Family Friendly Campgrounds
There are a lot of camping opportunities in California, and we tent camp with the best of them. But RV parks are touch and go when it comes to quality and location. This traveler’s family guide to campgrounds will tell you which campgrounds have activities and environment more suited for children.
Campland on the Bay
Campland on the Bay is a massive resort, well known in the area to be one of the best places to camp for access to Mission Bay. It has every amenity for families: two pools, hot tub, camp store, parks, grassy area, private beach, and more! Every one of their sites is full hookups with a good percentage of them reserved for full-time stay. However, despite all the fantastic amenities the campsites themselves are truly a parking lot. They have as many sites as possible squeezed into their space. When you compare each site to a state park, you might feel a bit claustrophobic. Despite this, we think it’s worth it for the location!
Straight from the campground, you can launch on their private, sandy beach to the bay with your kayak, paddleboard, or dingy. It’s directly on the route for the Bay Bicycle route, a 12-mile loop that takes you around the bay. It gives you vehicle-free access to all parts of the area. Our favorite: you’re less than two miles from Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and Sea World. By far the best-located campground we’ve ever been to!
Chula Vista RV Resort
This quiet RV resort and marina are worth the cost, especially if you’re beautifully manicured landscaping, great management, and an ideal location. This site is an RV only resort with a good number of sites reserved for full-time travelers. It has its own restaurant, park, small sandy beach, and pier for fishing. Our favorite thing has been the heated pool and even hotter hot-tub which we visit almost every day. From here it’s 10 minutes to the zoo, 25 minutes to the Mission Bay area and tons of hiking and tent campgrounds.
Just a warning about the San Diego area, or really any of the coastal areas: prices here are some of the most expensive we’ve experienced anywhere. Private RV Parks and State Parks alike are high cost, all through winter, but rise even higher towards summer. There are host-camp opportunities at State Parks as a way to save some money, but you’ll want to apply for these very early to be competitive.
South Carlsbad State Beach Campground
This is a unique campground located on the bluffs of Carlsbad State Beach. The campground has over 200 sites situated in a long strip giving most campers a direct view of the ocean. Our favorite part was watching the pelicans and terns float by on the updraft, just a few feet above our heads! The beach is rocky and not a play in the sand beach but it is a favorite hotspot for surfers. The campground has some sites with complete hookups that include sewer, but most of them have no amenities at all. If you don’t want to dry camp or tent camp, book early!
Where to Buy Groceries
When we arrive somewhere, the first thing we try to do is find our local, organic grocery stores. San Diego doesn’t disappoint! However, you may have a bit of a drive if you aren’t staying centrally. This section will give you an idea of what grocery stores are in the area.
Ralphs and Vons
We’re putting these two grocery stores on top as our number one pick for the San Diego area. They are dispersed all over the place, have a medium to low price point. Happily, they carry almost every type of organic a family might need. If you are looking for specialty organic or a small-setting organic grocery store, this isn’t it.
Both stores have their own organic grocery line: “Simple Truth” at Ralphs and “Organics” at Vons. Additionally, they are large chain grocery stores so you will be able to find almost any conventional food item.
In a pinch, Albertsons (part of the Vons family) is a good choice if it is closest to you and you are doing conventional shopping. Its price point is lower but it does not contain the variety of organics as Vons and Ralphs.
Whole Foods and Sprouts
Whole Foods is a nationwide company and now, recently purchased by Amazon, reportedly has lower prices and more convenience. However, when here in San Diego we were only able to find three Whole Foods locations and they were quite far from us. We found a more local chain, Sprouts, to serve our organic shopping needs.
Sprouts has everything you might expect from Whole Foods from lots of organic produce to the prepared foods deli to your holistic vitamins and essential oil products. This is a great grocery store for stocking up on those things before traveling again.
Our favorite thing is that both grocery stores offer personal shopping and delivery. Usually, the first delivery is free! When we are here, and our Jeep needs worked on, or if you are a campervanning family with no second car, having your organic groceries delivered is a treat!
One note about WalMart in San Diego. When we’re in the Midwest and East Coast, we shop at WalMart for standard groceries all the time. WalMart in San Diego, though, has had a hard time with local regulations and competition with Ralphs and Vons. Their grocery department, therefore, is not really sufficient for full shopping. We still find all our RV needs there though!
We fell in love with this grocery store! It’s an amazing little grocery store—it has a holistic and organic, farmer’s market vibe to it. They even have their own observational beehive and make their own honey right on site!!
Our favorite thing was the enormous prepared food section. They have everything from sushi to pizza to full dinners. This would be a great place to go when you first pull in and set up. On those days, we struggle with not just ordering a pizza. Going to Lazy Acres would give you a healthy, full prepared option to eating out while also not having to cook on top of travel and set-up.
Where to Find Friends
One of our greatest concern was where to find play and socialization opportunities for our daughter. Since she wasn’t going to have regular play-dates with friends, we were worried she wouldn’t learn to share, respect space, and simply chit chat. There are a few standard things we always look for and then we explore the area to see what unique opportunities there might be as well.
Library Book Programs
The San Diego County Library system is great. They have many branches spread out throughout the county, so no matter which RV campground you’ve chosen you will probably be within short reach of one.
Each of these branches has their own calendar and schedule of book groups for children of all ages. They sometimes have programs for homeschoolers who want to get together. Our favorite classes while in San Diego were to look for the bilingual (Spanish/English) book groups. These are taught in Spanish, with Spanish children’s books, and were great practice for our daughter. Another interesting class was their special needs class; we love that this class gives our daughter experience with different learners and people with different needs.
I talk about the San Diego Zoo later in this article, but nestled inside the zoo is the “Children’s Zoo”. It is the same entrance fee–you get into the zoo and it’s really just an area of the zoo itself.
This is a fantastic place to find friends as the zoo is always crowded and this play structure is just so much fun. Although I say this later, I’ll say it again right now: if you’re in the area for a while, getting a membership to the zoo is worth it!
Traffic is a bear in San Diego. Make sure to leave an extra 30% of time on top of what your GPS program says it will take just in case you hit a snag on the freeways.
Spanish Speaking Babysitters
As parents on the road, it’s challenging to find time to go on playdates when you have a child that needs a babysitter and no family/friends nearby. One of our solutions has been to use UrbanSitter to find a babysitter whenever we’ll be in an area for an extended period of time.
While in San Diego, we found a wonderful babysitter. One of the perks is that you can request specific languages and we chose Spanish–a very common second language for southern California. This gave our daughter experience with a native language speaker as well as a sweet, young woman to hang out with while we went to the movies.
This might sound a bit scary to you, and I’m not going to lie…the first time we left our daughter with a stranger I was so nervous. But Urbansitter has great community and fingerprint vetting programs. We chose a girl who had over 40 reviews, perfect 5 stars, and 20+ repeat bookings–meaning that families tried her out and then used her again because they were satisfied.
Still, the first time we went out we only went 5 minutes away for 2 hours! I might write an article about this experience, especially if I use it again in another place, so stay tuned for it.
Family Friendly Fun Stuff to Do!
Slightly different than where to find friends, this category is a list of where to have adventures! Some of them are touristy and some are hidden gems. You may find friends to play with here, but it is not a high chance of likelihood. What’s almost guaranteed is that something in this list will add to your fun!
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
This is one of our favorite places in the entire area. Since we were staying in San Diego for a couple of months and will be returning next winter, we immediately purchased an annual pass. If you plan to go to the zoo or Safari Park just three times the pass will pay for itself. Since each park takes a few days to explore, the annual pass was worth it!
The zoo has great exhibits and lots of animals. The overlapping walkways are amazing, such as the Monkey Trail high in the canopy and the Tiger Trail down on the ground. We love going to the Children’s Zoo and petting the animals. The playground featured above in “Where to Play” is always full of friends and fun.
Try to visit the Zoo in the morning and during the week. The parking lot fills up REALLY fast and the weekends are so crowded you’ll think you’re at Disneyland or Six Flags.
One of the coolest aspects, though, is the miniature playgrounds in each area. For example, in the gorilla area, there are 4 climbable gorilla sculptures. In Koala area there is a multi-branch tree to take a nap in—just like the koalas! For a family with young children, this is an invaluable design perk. Toddlers love animals but seeing them from fences that are often too tall unless they are carried and animals that are stationary and far away isn’t the MOST fun a toddler has ever had. So in these areas, we see a few animals and then get the antsies out of our pantsies on a climbable structure! It’s fantastic!
The Safari Park has a great carousel and kids areas. It is more spread out, so there is more walking, but this is good if you have a toddler that needs to expend some energy. This is also good if you’re looking to increase the steps you’re walking each day. If you have an annual pass and are close, this would be a great morning walk
If you know that you are going to be doing multiple “touristy” activities, check out the packages that are available online. Packages include the Zoo, Sea World, and Legoland amongst others.
We love Sea World. We love sea animals and all things water. The kid-friendly splash zone and the climbing areas here are fantastic! In the morning, she would play in the toddler soft area and climb up all the ropes. When it got warmer, we would get soaked in the splash zone. They even have an enormous dryer (for money) that will dry you off in no time.
Much like the zoo, if you are going to be in the area for a while I highly recommend getting a season pass. This is a great place to bring your children just for some morning or afternoon playtime, much as you would to a local park. There are always kids here to interact with.
We found the Sea World cold animal sections to have animals that are much more active than the Zoo. Their enclosures are temperature controlled so we think they are just more comfortable moving around when it’s hot outside.
Mission Bay (canoeing, kayaking, biking, walking)
Mission Bay is one of the biggest tourist draws in the area. You can find many activities, including canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, boating, biking, and just laying in the sun.
The beach is long, has a huge boardwalk (called The Strand), and many access points. On the south side, Belmont park has amusement park rides and vending foods. In peak season it is CROWDED. But, it’s not the only thing to do in Mission Bay.
One of our favorite things to do is park at the Aquatic Center (which is free) and put in for kayaking on the bay. This bay is actually called Fiesta Bay and if you look across it, you can see the sandy RV parking that’s FREE. If you feel like you can get your rig down there on the beach, and there are a LOT of people who do, you can camp out there.
Another great thing to do from this location is to bike the loop. There is a 12-mile inner loop that goes around the bays. Here is a link to the site on MapMyRun which will show you the elevation and distances:
But I used this blog to know where the fun stuff was to visit. He has pictures and anecdotes, and he tells you where all the great stuff is.
A short distance away, just north along the coast, is Pacific Beach. The beaches there are less crowded, though the parking is difficult. We often found a spot and a great beach on Ocean Blvd. There is a little park there and only parking on the West side of the road, so you’ll want to approach the beach from the north, down Wilbur Ave. off of Mission Blvd.