San Diego / Carlsbad California at the end of March
January 31, 2011 8:16 AM   Subscribe

San Diego / Carlsbad California at the end of March with an eight year old? Places to stay? Stuff to do? Weather? Worth the trip?

We’re considering heading to Southern California (from MA) at the end of March, mostly to make a pilgrimage to Legoland. We’ll probably be in the area for most of a week and we’re wondering what else there is to do that would be doable that time of year.

Where to stay: San Diego, Carlsbad, or somewhere else? We’d prefer to rent something like a condo or timeshare that has a kitchen.

What to do: We enjoy theme parks (though The Critter is still not into the scary rides), hiking and nature, science-type stuff, museums, interesting drives, good food, beaches, and just about anything else. The zoo is on the “must see” list, as is Legoland. Right now those are the only two definite things.

I’d like to see the desert, as I’ve never seen one. Is March a good time to see the Anza Borrego? Are there any hikes we can do that aren’t going to kill us? We’re all strong hikers but I’m assuming the desert is a whole different animal. Can I get anywhere without 4WD? Any general advice?

Places to go: Is it worth taking a day trip to Los Angeles or is there enough to do in San Diego / Carlsbad?

Weather? What should we expect? Is swimming possible that time of year? Shorts or jeans? Should we expect rain?

What else? General advice for the area is welcome. Great food, great drives, great beaches, etc.

I'm a New Englander currently trying to figure out where to put another 20 inches of predicted snow so please fill me with visions of sunny and warm So. Cal.
posted by bondcliff to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

I don't have kids, so I can't comment on an eight-year-old's attention span -- especially your specific eight-year-old -- so keep that warning in mind.

The first time I went to San Diego it was on a corporate trip. One of the entertaining diversions provided by our host was a day on the Old Towne Trolley.

As hokey as it sounds, it really was a great way to be introduced to the city. In fact, it was such a great introduction that when I went back to the city on my own and played tour-guide for my travelling companion, we took the same tour.

Now in comparison, I've been on a mediocre tour of San Francisco and a horrendously awful tour of LA, so I'm definitely not a person to say "take the tour no matter what."

It looks like they've changed some of the stops since I took it, but I'm guessing the style the guides use to deliver their information will be the same: upbeat, interactive, very positive and full of knowledge. I think it's the kind of delivery a young child could enjoy.

As for the stops, the Old Town area (see route map) is probably worth a bit of your time (even if you go there on your own and skip the tour).

The Mission is typically a destination for those interested in history.

Balboa Park is very nice, but I don't know if it holds any attraction for an eight-year-old.

The Hotel del Cornado and Cornado Island are usually on the typical must-see tourist sights lists of San Diego.

For you, as an adult, La Jolla is a nice area to wander around and shop in (if you've got piles of cash) and dine in (ditto the previous piles of cash comment).

I really love the San Diego and southern California area, but as I said, I can't offer up too many kid-friendly suggestions. Have a great trip.
posted by sardonyx at 8:56 AM on January 31, 2011

Okay for some inexplicable reason, none of my links worked. Let me try adding them again.

Sorry, for some reason I'm having a hot-linking issue today. Here they are without the hyperlinks. Sorry, you'll have to cut and paste.

I just love computer gremlins.
posted by sardonyx at 9:00 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: - Check out all the harbor seals on the beach in La Jolla
- Adventure to the Salton Sea and check out Salvation Mountain, among other things
posted by illenion at 9:04 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, a fun desert option might be to head over to Joshua Tree, and stay at Hicksville Trailer Palace.
posted by illenion at 9:10 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: I'm a Torontonian with a great love for San Diego, having been for holiday 3 times in 2 years (we have friends there). There are lots of good things to do with a kid and adults. I haven't been there in March, but suspect you'll need to pack sweaters and sandals.

The San Diego zoo is still one of the world's best, with pandas, polar bears and great apes right in the city. Another possibility is the Wild Animal Park (which is also part of the zoo, not a
commercial thing) is inland about an hour, with large pasture spaces for animals who like that kind of thing like lions, and condors and giraffes. The WAP requires more walking, but it does have some interior shuttle services AND the possibility of sleeping overnight in a platform tent at the zoo. With a kid, I would do both, probably with a day in between.

Whale watching out of San Diego harbour can be neat, but may be tedious for your critter. A boat with interpretive assistance from Scripps will be more informative fun. Make sure whales are being seen before booking (you can just walk up or maybe book in the morning by phone for the afternoon).

The Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography in La Jolla is great, though smaller than some. They've got really good information about tide pools and a touch pool with docents who help you find, identify and touch tide pool residents like sea cucumbers, sea stars, and sea slugs. They're also a big seahorse research facility, which means they have lots of different types of seahorses including tiny ones and babies (seafoals?).

The touch pool is really great because then you can drive down to Wind & Sky beach in La Jolla to go tide pooling yourself! Tide levels permitting (you can get schedules from the internet). Best to take along shoes that can get wet and/or protect your feet tho (flip flops). I've heard that young people enjoy clambering on rocks and seeing wild animals in the wild.

I've heard that Point Loma is interesting, and Torrey Pine State park, but haven't yet been to either.

The Marine History museum and USS Midway are also supposed to be good, irrespective of your feelings about militarism. Walking around on and in submarines & naval vessels can't help being cool.

In addition to the nice sandy beaches in San Diego proper (where you will be able to play frisbee in shorts in March), a different kind of beach that I liked was a rocky beach in Cardiff by the Sea near The BeachHouse and the Patagonia store. This is a surfing zone, so that might be as interesting as the different sound the waves make on fist sized rocks. There's also great pizza place in Cardiff by the Sea called Besta Wan.

The Little Italy Saturday Farmer's Market is really neat - fresh produce and funny things for the critter to see. Tasty lunch options and a great playground at the top.

I have two San Diego restaurant recommendations Jimmy Carter's Mexican cafe in because it is an affordable and delicious sit down option (it has no relationship with the former President) and El Indio which is more take-out but has tables outside. It is really rejuvenating to be able to eat outside in the winter/spring.

Finally, I have to recommend the Hillside neighbourhood of San Diego. Hillside is a great, walkable neighbourhood with interesting shops and houses.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 10:07 AM on January 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think staying in Carlsbad would be nice. You could probably get a condo-type place on or a few blocks to the beach and the downtown area there is walkable and cute. Carlsbad has great beaches that are good for families. The weather is pretty hit or miss this time of year -- you could luck out with temps in the 70s (like last week!), but it could also be rainy and in the 50s. Also, the water will be cold!

As for what else to do, the flower fields in Carlsbad will be open (, which are right by Legoland. You could also visit the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad ( The Wild Animal Park is definitely worth the trip and from Carlsbad it would be a straight shot on the 78 freeway. March would also a good time to go to the desert as the wildflowers should be in bloom.

Disneyland would probably be fun and not too crowded in early March (it gets packed during the prime spring break weeks). That's just about an hour drive from North San Diego county. Unless you're going to be there more than a week, I don't think it's worth it to drive to LA.
posted by wsquared at 11:04 AM on January 31, 2011

I think Heart_on_Sleeve means Hillcrest (rather than Hillside).
posted by illenion at 11:04 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: I was there June of last year, so I can't speak to the weather in March.

Balboa Park is huge and there should be plenty to keep an 8-year-old interested - there's a car museum, science museum, model railroad setup, natural history museum, plus the zoo. There are art museums and the Botanical Building for the adults. You could easily lose two or three days just going to everything in Balboa Park.

Point Loma is pretty (if it's not fogged in), and there's a stretch of beach there that you can walk down and go tide pooling. It's more challenging than a stroll on Crane Beach - lots of crumbling walls of sand, some sheer cliffs, and rocky terrain. The old lighthouse is set up to walk around and get an idea of what it was like when it was staffed.

Walking down the beach at La Jolla was interesting, but maybe a little disappointing for a kid. The seals do indeed come right up to the public beaches and hang out, but while it's legal to go hang out on those beaches you're pretty strongly encouraged by the local activists to enjoy from a distance and leave the seals alone. If you're into watersports you could rent kayaks or SCUBA/snorkel gear and get a guided tour right up to where the seals hang out.

I stayed in the Gaslight district (hooray conference hotels...) which I probably wouldn't stay in again unless I had to be at the Convention Center.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:11 AM on January 31, 2011

Oh, and as to hiking in the desert - I've done day-long hikes in the high desert in New Mexico and Colorado (in August!) without killing myself, and I wouldn't consider myself too strong of a hiker. Just bring a hat and a lot of water. Without the altitude complications, it should be even easier around San Diego.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:13 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: LegoLand and the Zoo should be your primary things, but they're fairly far apart. If you're renting a car, this shouldn't be too much of an issue, but there's not a whole lot to do in Carlsbad other than LegoLand. Balboa park should definitely be in your plans, but it might be asking too much to try to do the Zoo and the park in one day. The park has a number of museums of different types, some very kid-friendly. You may want to skip the art museums and just go to the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center (kid-oriented science museum and a IMAX theater/planetarium), the model railroad museum, the Aerospace Museum, or the Natural History Museum. There's a cluster of cottages representing different countries that sometimes hold events or have open houses on weekends, located near the aerospace museum. Also nearby is a puppet theater.

March is probably the best time to visit Anza Borrego. It'll be wildflower season, which could be amazing or hum-drum depending on how much rain falls in the next couple months. There's a small nature trail that wanders up the canyon by the visitor center (just outside Borrego Springs) that'll take you up to some palm trees. Otherwise, there are plenty of places you can go without 4WD - it's a huge park and has a few highways running through it (S-22 , so there's plenty to see from the pavement. Off-road conditions will vary greatly, so it might be best to check in at the visitor center before trying anything off the highway. Places that are usually OK include Dos Cabezas (abandoned railroad siding - kind of spooky), the Calcite Mine, Mountain Palm Springs, Bow Willow, and maybe a bit towards Borrego Mountain. Generally, your main concern about off-roading will be sand rather than high-clearance issues, especially if you're travelling up dry washes, which frequently serve as vehicular routes. There are a lot of easy trails in the desert, but they're pretty far-flung from each other.

If you head out just for a day trip, stop in Julian (19th century gold mining town) on the way back and get an apple pie. Maybe stop at Dudley's in Santa Ysabel for fresh-baked bread (although if it's near the end of the day, they'll be out of some things).

Weather will generally be OK; not as warm as it can be but temps generally in the 70s during the day. March has the potential to be rainy, but it just depends. We're supposed to have a dry year this season. Swimming in the ocean probably won't be on your agenda - ocean temps will probably be in the low 60s.

Depending on what you're into, LA might be worth a trip, but it'll be 2+ hours drive time each way, maybe less if you going from Carlsbad.
posted by LionIndex at 11:21 AM on January 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wind & Sky beach in La Jolla

That should be Windansea.
posted by LionIndex at 11:25 AM on January 31, 2011

I believe Heart_on_Sleeve was referring to the Hillcrest neighborhood. I don't know of a Hillside neighborhood.

Also, Pt. Loma - the actually point at the north entrance to the Bay has the Cabrillo National Monument which is a nice place to visit and has killer views and history, but might be a yawner for an 8 year old. There's a nice drive along the Sunset Cliffs Road between Ocean Beach and the Navy facility there that is nice. You can't get down to the water from most places, but it is nice to get an ocean view.

Torrey Pines State Reserve is also pretty nice for walking on trails and stuff, but might not be hold the attention span of an 8 year old.

Now here's my two cents...

The SD Air & Space Museum and Fleet Science Center are in Balboa Park and the kid might dig all the hands-on stuff.
Weather? What should we expect? Is swimming possible that time of year? Shorts or jeans? Should we expect rain?
I'm not a weatherman, but I'm going to say it will be sunny with highs in the mid 60s-70 on the water and a little warmer inland. At night it will get into the mid 50s. (The weather is pretty predictable most of the time the end of March shouldn't be that far from the norm. Later in the spring the marine layer rolls in the mornings so you don't see sun until later in the day. And last summer our temps were colder than they were in the winter.). The ocean will be 57-60F which to me is too cold but not enough to keep you from getting your feet wet.

You shouldn't expect rain unless you're one of those unlucky people that have that kind of thing happen to you. It only rains a handful of days here and you could pick one of those days. Most of the time even when it does rain, it doesn't rain much (you'll laugh a heavy rain event the weathercasters talk about might end up with 0.1" of rain at the airport). And the rains aren't all day, just a few minutes and pass.
posted by birdherder at 11:29 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: So I'm from that area and I used to work at Legoland. My advice:

The weather is likely to be unpredictable, especially on the coast (San Diego has microclimates, which essentially means that the weather in one area is often different from the weather in an area five miles away--so the Wild Animal Park, which is inland Escondido area, could be sunny and even warm while Carlsbad and Oceanside, which are of course right on the beach, could be overcast and cool). I got really tired of tourists at Legoland being blown away by the rain during Spring Break season--yes, it rains in San Diego and no, Legoland doesn't typically close down the park if it does! Pack a rainjacket just to be safe and you'll be fine. It's been a rainy year so far.

I'd offer you more specific Legoland advice, but it's been a few years since I last worked there and I fear my advice is getting out of date. Just be prepared to spend a LOT of money (think Disneyland prices, especially for food) and to negotiate what kind of Lego toy you're willing to pay for at the end of the stay. There's nothing scary (that I remember) about any of the rides at Legoland. If your kid likes Lego, make sure to see Miniland. I understand that Sealife now has an aquarium attached to Legoland but I would still recommend Scripps (the Birch) over that any day.

On a trip planning note, be aware that Legoland can probably take up an entire day, the beach may take up an entire day, and you can then group things together like going to Scripps and then La Jolla Cove/Children's Pool (seals!), then group Balboa Park (Zoo, Reuben H Fleet, Natural History, etc) for entertainment plus Gaslamp or maybe Old Town for food (maybe see about going to a game at Petco Park? I'm never sure when opening day is) plus Hillcrest if you end up there (with an eight year old? wouldn't be my first choice). That's all the south of Carlsbad coastal things (we're talking 20-45 minutes each way to some of these locations, not all of which will you be able to get to in a normal vacation). You can take the 5 or the 101/Coast Highway/PCH (that's one road with three names) but PCH is the prettier drive.

You're not likely to be bored in San Diego, and I would really not recommend the drive up to LA (it's nasty) unless you're staying more than a week. There's plenty to do, between Legoland, the beach, the desert, the mountains (you might like Julian, which is on the way to the desert, sort of), Wild Animal Park, Balboa Park, and various and sundry museums. Note that though they can't (cannot, by no means) be done in the same day, the Wild Animal Park and Anza Borrego are in the same direction (and Julian is somewhat perched in the middle). That would be all the east of Carlsbad inland things.

Carlsbad specific advice: the water is hellaciously cold (think 65F is a good day) but most tourists tend to wade in for at least a bit. I love Carlsbad State Beach, and most of the popular places for tourists to stay are on the beach, or you could stay at the Tamarack Resort (right off the beach). Pizza Port should be okay to take an eight year old and has the bonus of being good food. You can also venture up to Oceanside and try the Hill Street Cafe and Gallery (not the Hill Street Cafe! that's down the street and a totally different thing) depending on how picky your eight year old is.

This is epic so I'll stop but I'm happy to answer questions by Memail.
posted by librarylis at 7:18 PM on January 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Barging in here really late, so I don't know if you'll see this, but Craigslist has a large daily allotment of apartment-type places that rent by the day or week if you want a place with a kitchen. I'm seeing them in the temporary/sublet area (I'm moving to SD in two weeks and need a place to live for a while) but there is also a Craigslist sub-topic for vacation rentals specifically.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:59 PM on February 9, 2011

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