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Things to do in the San Diego Backcountry

Santa Ysabel valley in San Diego County

San Diego’s east country is often overlooked thanks to its reputation for being a beach community. The backcountry is full of microclimates. Those who do venture east experience beautiful mountains, lakes, canyons, and desert ecosystems. In a little less than three hours, you can drive from the beach through the mountains and end up in the desert. This mostly untouched region is a hub for outdoor recreation, entertainment, and history. Let’s discover the San Diego Backcountry.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears

Lions, Tigers, and Bears is a 93-acre animal sanctuary for rescued big cats, bears, and other exotic animals. The San Diego County community of Alpine has a spectacular landscape that just happens to offer the perfect habitat for the more than 60 animals that now reside here. They offer a variety of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Reservations are required.

Ramona H.E.A.R.T. Mural Project

Ramona is located in the geographical center of San Diego County. Most visitors pass through on their way to other destinations, but Ramona has a lot to offer. One attraction is the Ramona H.E.A.R.T. Mural Project. Local artisans are working together to display the local heritage, history, and industries for all to enjoy. There are over 20 murals throughout the community. The murals are easily visible from inside the car. If you get out for a closer look, see if you can spot the hidden heart(s) in each painting.

Oasis Camel Dairy (Witch Creek, 13 miles west of Julian)

Camels in San Diego? Yes, that's right! Once a month, Oasis Camel Dairy holds open farm days. You can feed, pet, and ride the camels. How cool is that? The camels even have their own skincare line made right on the farm. You can buy milk soap, camel milk lotion, camel milk bath bombs, camel milk lip balms, and camel milk serum. Check their website for more details.

Sky Sailing

Have you ever dreamt of flying? At Sky Sailing in Warner Springs, this dream can come true. Here adventurers can soar, riding the air currents with the birds in a sailplane (also called a glider). Passengers will have a birds-eye view of Palomar Mountain and Observatory, Warner Springs Ranch, Lake Henshaw, and the edge of Borrego Springs.

La Jolla Indian Campground

Just north of Julian and South of Palomar Mountain is Pauma Valley, and there sits the La Jolla Indian Reservation and Campground. From the campground, visitors can easily make a day-trip to the greater Julian area, Anza-Borrego Desert, and the northern part of San Diego County. The reservation’s main attraction is tubing down the San Luis Rey River. Additionally, there is a camp store nearby.

Palomar Mountain and Observatory

Palomar Mountain sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level in northern San Diego County. As visitors drive up the mountain, they can pause at a number of vista points that offer spectacular panoramic views. Its world-famous Palomar Observatory has been a vital contribution to astronomy. Tours are offered when weather conditions allow. Visitors can also explore the Palomar Mountain State Park and the national park.

Julian Backcountry Quilt Trail (JBQT)

Since 2014, the Julian Women's Club has been working with property owners and businesses to create Southern California's first quilt trail. Each of the over 30 painted quilt squares shares something about local history, the owner, and the property. For those looking to see the whole collection, a nice drive through the San Diego Backcountry is required. If that's not for you, there are six quilt squares all within walking distance of each other, hanging in store windows in the town of Julian.

Warner-Carrillo Ranch House

In 1857 Vincenta Carrillo built an adobe house in the rural community of Warner Springs. The home served as the Butterfield Stage Stop from 1858 until 1861.

“The ranch house plays a leading role in the history of the American West. It represents Mexican and American culture contact during the Mexican Republic; the Frontier period of the westward migration; and the Gold Rush and the cattle ranching industry from 19th century Californio to 20th century to today.
Its importance as the southern emigrant overland trail and Butterfield Stage Station cannot be overstated and it is for this significance that it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1962.
It still sits in the midst of a huge expanse of open space, a setting virtually unchanged from the mid 19th century. Located on San Felipe Road (State Highway S2) a half mile east of Highway 79 in the Warner Springs area and owned by the Vista Irrigation District (VID), the surrounding land is still used for cattle ranching.”

- Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO)

Today the property is owned and operated by Save Our Heritage Organization. When on weekends they open the site up for tours. Please check with SOHO to ensure the site is open for tours. There is a small admission fee.

California Wolf Center

California Wolf Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to returning wild wolves to their natural habitat. The center offers a variety of public and private tours. (Reservations required for all tours).

Glamping in Mount Laguna with Alter Experiences

Alter Experiences takes the hassle out of camping. When you stay with them, they provide everything, even an outdoor kitchen sink. Sleep up in the trees or on a comfortable bed inside a fully decorated bell tent. Either way, you’ll wake up to the birds singing and the fresh mountain air in the Cleveland National Forest.

The Judith A Bassett (JAB) Canid Education and Conservation Center

In memory of Judith A Bassett, David and Amy Bassett founded the JAB Canid Education and Conservation Center in Santa Ysabel, CA. The center focuses on wolves and dog-like animals (canines) and fox-like animals (vulpines). Here you can find domesticated Russian foxes and many other gorgeous animals. Visitors can schedule appointments for close encounters.

Agua Caliente County Park

Nestled within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Agua Caliente County Park is best known for its geothermally heated spring pools. During the winter months, visitors enjoy camping, hiking, and swimming. The grounds include an indoor pool (for 14+ years old) and two outdoor pools. The park has a large campground with hook-ups and seven camping cabins. Wildlife sightings are common.

Galleta Meadows Sculptures

On the eastern edge of San Diego County sits Borrego Springs. This community was home to Dennis Avery, son of R. Stanton Avery, the founder of Avery Labels. Dennis used part of his inheritance to establish the Galleta Meadows Sculptures. Visitors can drive around to over 120 large metal sculptures created by artist Ricardo Breceda. The collection includes metal sculptures of dinosaurs, mammoths, wild horses, giant sloths, camels, birds of prey, saber-tooth tigers, and much more. You can view them from the car or walk right up to them.


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