I grew up in South Bay, so the local scenery has a cherished place in my heart. Spanning 52 square miles, my hometown of Chula Vista is known for its sprawling urban landscape, filled with housing developments, strip malls, and other hallmarks of modern suburbia. Along our daily commutes, landmarks like the 54 freeway junction, the palm reader along the 5, the towering radio mast, the Plaza Bonita mall, and the distinct smell of the Sweetwater River serve as guiding beacons.
Yet, within this urban tapestry, I catch glimpses of nature quietly thriving: a lone flamingo in San Diego’s bustling bay; the rolling hills of San Miguel Mountain beyond the 125, where civilization gives way to roaming mountain lions and other critters; and Otay Lakes, a serene haven where fishermen cast lines amid vast green vistas.
These passing scenes are a gentle reminder that San Diego is the most biodiverse county in the United States (even if it doesn’t always feel like it). There is an unexpected beauty quietly thriving in South Bay—a harmonious collision between nature and humanity, offering pockets of solitude for those who know where to seek them.
Here are four peaceful outdoor destinations in San Diego’s South Bay.
Cast a Line at Otay Lakes
As you drive down the 125, glimpses of the Lower Otay Reservoir and distant mountains unfold. With more than 70 acres to roam just 20 minutes from downtown Chula Vista, Otay Lakes County Park is a prime destination for anglers seeking carp and seclusion. Navigate the perimeter of the Otay Reservoir by foot, or opt for a boat rental, sharing the waters with the US Olympic rowing team on occasion. For a more cloistered spot, trek to Upper Otay Lake, a breeding ground for largemouth bass, catfish, and sunfish, which can be caught and released during a sacred half hour before and after dawn and dusk.
Summit San Miguel Mountain
Adorned with antennas that piqued my curiosity as a child, San Miguel dominates the South Bay horizon, standing 2,500 feet above its surroundings. Scaling this iconic mountain rewards hikers with a panoramic view of Bonita and the rest of South County. The trailhead nestled at the edge of Mount San Miguel Park marks the start of an unexpectedly formidable trek, ascending above Sweetwater’s suburbs and Little League fields below.
Moderately steep and rocky terrain demands sturdy hiking shoes and grit, but the trail winds through sloping hillsides, offering glimpses of native wildlife that occasionally cross your path. At the peak, a pile of boulders referred to as the Rock House offers an ideal vantage point to witness a sunrise illuminating our city.
Surf the Strand
Embark on a journey up the Silver Strand at dawn and discover a quiet beach stretching 2.5 miles. It’s perfect for RV camping, noseriding, and shore fishing—and you’ll often have it all to yourself. In the early morning, a thick layer of fog frequently blankets Silver Strand State Beach and masks the cityscape beyond, making the area feel like a remote strip of shore on the edge of oblivion. Pay your fees at the ticket booth and enjoy a slice of coastal solitude.
Explore the Tijuana Estuary
Along the southern fringe of Imperial Beach lies a sprawling, 2,300-acre sanctuary teeming with wildlife. Enthusiasts of birdwatching and nature walks must venture to the Tijuana Estuary to witness this unique ecosystem (and take a detour through the visitor center). Above the waterline, native plants thrive and animals such as ospreys, jackrabbits, and foxes roam the grasslands.
Beneath the surface, crabs, salamanders, and even smoothhound sharks navigate the shallows. Seventy percent of the Tijuana Estuary is composed of wetlands, so don waterproof shoes as you embark on a picturesque walk or bike ride through the reserve.