Ballooning & Scenic Flights
A peaceful balloon ride reveals sweeping vistas of the Southern California coast, the wine country surrounding Temecula (70 min. north of downtown), or rambling estates and golf courses around Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe (25 min. north of downtown). For a sunrise (Temecula) or sunset (Del Mar) flight, followed by a traditional Champagne toast, contact Skysurfer Balloon Company (tel. 800/660-6809 or 858/481-6800; www.sandiegohotairballoons.com). The cost is $165 for sunrise ballooning, $205 for sunset trips. California Dreamin' (tel. 800/373-3359 or 951/699-0601; www.californiadreamin.com) has sunrise Temecula flights with rates ranging from $138 to $148; biplane excursions over Temecula's wine country start at $248 for two people. Check both companies' websites for special offers. Also of interest to balloonatics is the Temecula Balloon & Wine Festival held in early June; call tel. 951/676-6713, or visit www.tvbwf.com for information.
For more non-motorized flight, you can soar like an eagle on thermal winds with Sky Sailing (tel. 760/782-0404; www.skysailing.com), 31930 Hwy. 79 in Warner Springs, about a 90-minute drive from downtown San Diego. A 20-minute flight aboard a glider, for one or two people, starts at $125.
Barnstorming Adventures (tel. 800/759-5667 or 760/930-0903; www.barnstorming.com) offers just about everything but wing-walking. Vintage biplane flights leave from Montgomery Field, 3750 John J. Montgomery Dr., in Kearny Mesa, taking passengers on scenic flights along the coast; rates start at $199 for one- or two-person, 20-minute rides. Air Combat flights, with you at the controls (under the guidance of active-duty fighter pilots), offer simulated dogfights. If you're bringing your own adversary, you need to reserve space 1 to 2 weeks in advance; if you need your target assigned, call 3 weeks in advance). Rates start at $298. You can also opt for a flight -- with or without aerial acrobatics -- in a 1941 SNJ-4 warbird ($345 and up), or a 30-minute you-fly-it experience (no pilot's license necessary; $177).
With its impeccable weather and varied terrain, San Diego is one of the nation's preeminent bicycling destinations -- the city was even named "1 of the top 10 cities in the U.S. to bicycle" by Bicycling magazine. Many major thoroughfares offer bike lanes, but downtown is definitely a challenge. To obtain a detailed map by mail of San Diego County's bike lanes and routes, call iCommute (tel. 511 or 619/699-1900), or go to www.511sd.com (there's a downloadable version). You might also want to talk to the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition (tel. 858/487-6063; www.sdcbc.org). Bicycle helmets are legally required for those 17 and under.
The paths around Mission Bay, in particular, are great for leisurely rides; the oceanfront boardwalk between Pacific Beach and Mission Beach can get very crowded, especially on weekends (but that's half the fun). The Bayshore Bikeway around San Diego Bay is one of the region's most popular rides. This 16-mile round-trip bike trail starts at the Ferry Landing Marketplace in Coronado and follows a well-marked route down to Imperial Beach, along the Silver Strand. The road out to Point Loma (Catalina Dr.) offers moderate hills and wonderful scenery. Traveling old State Route 101 (aka the Pacific Coast Hwy.) from La Jolla north to Oceanside offers terrific coastal views, along with plenty of places to refuel with coffee, a snack, or a swim. The 13-mile climb up steep switchbacks to the summit of 6,140-foot Mt. Palomar is perhaps the county's most invigorating challenge and offers its most gleeful descent. Cycling San Diego by Nelson Copp and Jerry Schad is a good resource for bicyclists and is available at many local bike shops.
Rentals, Organized Bike Tours & Other Two-wheel Adventures -- Downtown, call The Bike Revolution, 522 Sixth Ave. (tel. 619/564-4843; www.sandiegobiketoursinc.com), where city/hybrid bike rentals start at $25 for the day; guided tours are $65 to $89. Other downtown spots include San Diego Bike Shop, 619 C St. (tel. 619/237-1245; www.sdbikeshop.com), which rents hybrid bikes for $30 per day; and across the street, Pennyfarthing's Bicycle Store, 630 C St. (tel. 619/233-7696; www.pennyfarthingsbicycles.sdcausa.com). Rates here start at $10 for the first hour and $5 for each additional hour. If you don't feel like huffing and puffing against a headwind, you can get an electric bike in Little Italy at Ivan Stewart's Electric Bike Center, 2021 India St. (tel. 619/564-7028; www.iselectricbikecenter.com); rates start at $50 for 2 hours.
In Mission Beach, there's Cheap Rentals, 3689 Mission Blvd. (tel. 800/941-7761 or 858/488-9070; www.cheap-rentals.com), which has everything from beach cruisers ($12 per day) to tandems ($24 per day) and baby trailers ($12 per day), as well as skates, surfboards, and even chairs, umbrellas, and coolers. Or try Mission Beach Surf & Skate, 704 Ventura Place, off Mission Boulevard at Ocean Front Walk (tel. 858/488-5050), for classic beach cruisers and more. In Coronado there are two great places for rentals (both owned by the same folks), Holland's Bicycles, 977 Orange Ave. (tel. 619/435-3153; www.hollandsbicycles.com), and Bikes and Beyond, 1201 First St. at the Ferry Landing Marketplace (tel. 619/435-7180). They've got beach cruisers and hybrids, mountain bikes, pedal surreys, and skate rentals; expect to pay $7 per hour for a basic cruiser, $30 for 24 hours.
For organized bike tours, Hike Bike Kayak San Diego, 2246 Av. de la Playa, La Jolla (tel. 866/425-2925 or 858/551-9510; www.hikebikekayak.com), has a variety of offerings, including a La Jolla coastal ride and a family excursion around Mission Bay, but the big draw is the plunge down La Jolla's Mount Soledad. It's a 3.5-mile descent through luxury neighborhoods with scintillating vistas (ages 14 and up; $50).
The birding scene is huge: More than 500 species have been observed in San Diego County, more than in any other county in the continental United States. The area is a haven along the Pacific Flyway -- the migratory route along the Pacific Coast -- and the diverse range of ecosystems also helps to lure a wide range of winged creatures. It's possible for birders to enjoy four distinct bird habitats in a single day.
Among the best places for bird-watching is the Chula Vista Nature Center at Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 619/409-5900; www.chulavistanaturecenter.org). You may spot rare residents such as the light-footed clapper rail and the western snowy plover, as well as predatory species including the American peregrine falcon and northern harrier. In addition, the nature center has aquariums for turtles, sharks, and rays; aviaries featuring raptors and shorebirds; and a garden with native plants. Also worth visiting is the Kendall-Frost Reserve in Mission Bay. Most of this 30-acre area is off-limits to the public, but you can get close to it via the pathway that extends north from Crown Point or by kayak. The reserve draws skimmers, shorebirds, brants, and, in winter, the large-billed savannah sparrow. The Torrey Pines State Reserve, north of La Jolla, is a protected habitat for swifts, thrashers, woodpeckers, and wren tits. Inland, Mission Trails Regional Park is a 5,800-acre urban park that is visited by orange-crowned warblers, swallows, raptors, and numerous riparian species; and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park makes an excellent day trip from San Diego -- 268 species of birds have been recorded here.
Birders coming to the area can obtain a copy of the free brochure Birding Hot Spots of San Diego, available at the Port Administration Building, 3165 Pacific Hwy., and at the San Diego Zoo, Zoo Safari Park, San Diego Natural History Museum, and Birch Aquarium. It's also posted online at www.portofsandiego.org/environment; click on "Birds of San Diego Bay." The San Diego Audubon Society is another great source of birding information (tel. 858/273-7800; www.sandiegoaudubon.org). The group also operates two wildlife sanctuaries that are open to the public on weekends.
Hang-Gliding & Paragliding
Since 1928, the Torrey Pines Gliderport, 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr., La Jolla (tel. 858/452-9858; www.flytorrey.com), has been one of the world's top spots for non-motorized flight. Set on a windy cliff top above Black's Beach, it draws legions of hang-gliding and paragliding enthusiasts, as well as hobbyists with radio-control aircraft. A 20- to 25-minute tandem flight with a qualified instructor costs $150 for paragliding and $200 for hang gliding. The difference between the two sports? Hang gliders are suspended from a fixed wing, while paragliders are secured to a parachute-like nylon wing. If you've ever dreamed of flying like a bird, this is your opportunity. Even if you don't muster the courage to try a tandem flight -- and there is something rather nerve-racking about stepping off a 300-foot cliff -- sitting at the cafe here and watching the graceful acrobatics is a treat in itself.
If you already have experience, you can rent or buy equipment from the shop at the Gliderport -- note that the conditions here are considered "P3" -- or take lessons from the crew of able instructors. A 5- to 7-day beginning paragliding package is $1,095; advanced hang-gliding lessons run $195 per day and must be scheduled ahead of time. Winds in December and January are slightest (that is, least conducive for the activities here), while March through June is best. Peak flying time is in the early afternoon, so call in the morning to check on conditions; reservations are not accepted. The Gliderport is open daily from 9am to sunset.
Hiking & Walking
Walking along the water is particularly rewarding. The best beaches for walking are Coronado, Mission Beach, La Jolla Shores, and Torrey Pines, but pretty much any shore is a good choice. You can also walk around most of Mission Bay on a series of connected footpaths. If a four-legged friend is your walking companion, head for Dog Beach in Ocean Beach or Fiesta Island in Mission Bay; they're two of the few areas where dogs can legally go unleashed. The Coast Walk in La Jolla offers supreme surf-line views.
The Sierra Club sponsors regular hikes in the San Diego area, and nonmembers are welcome to participate. A Wednesday mountain hike usually treks in the Cuyamaca Mountains, sometimes in the Lagunas; there are also outings for singles, families, and gays and lesbians. Call the office at tel. 858/569-6005 weekdays from noon to 5pm, or consult the website, www.sandiego.sierraclub.org. Volunteers from the Natural History Museum (tel. 619/232-3821; www.sdnhm.org) also lead free nature walks throughout San Diego County.
Marian Bear Memorial Park (tel. 858/581-9961 for park ranger; www.sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation) in San Clemente Canyon has a 7-mile round-trip trail that runs directly underneath Hwy. 52. Most of the trail is flat, hard-packed dirt, but some areas are rocky. Benches and places to sit allow you to have a quiet picnic. From Hwy. 52 W., take the Genesee South exit; at the stoplight, make a U-turn and an immediate right into the parking lot. From Hwy. 52 E., exit at Genesee and make a right at the light, and then an immediate right into the parking lot.
Lake Miramar Reservoir has a 4.9-mile paved trail with a wonderful view of the lake and mountains. Take I-15 N. and exit on Mira Mesa Boulevard. Turn right on Scripps Ranch Boulevard, then left on Scripps Lake Drive, and make a left at the Lake Miramar sign. Hours are sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week; parking is free. There's also a pleasant path around Lake Murray. Take the Lake Murray Boulevard exit off I-8 and follow the signs. See www.sandiego.gov/water/recreation for information on both locations.
Other places for scenic hikes include Torrey Pines State Reserve, Cabrillo National Monument, and Mission Trails Regional Park. Guided walks are also offered at each of these parks.
An invigorating route downtown is along the wide sidewalks of the Embarcadero, stretching around the bay. A locals' favorite place to jog is the pathway that follows the east side of Mission Bay. Start at the Visitor Information Center and head south past the Hilton to Fiesta Island. A good spot for a short run is La Jolla Shores Beach, where there's hard-packed sand even when it isn't low tide. The beach at Coronado is also a good place for jogging, as is the shore at Pacific Beach and Mission Beach.
Safety note: When jogging alone, be wary of secluded trails in Balboa Park, even during daylight hours.
Gliding around San Diego, especially the Mission Bay area, on in-line skates is the quintessential Southern California experience. In Mission Beach, rent a pair of in-line skates or a skateboard ($5 per hr.) from Cheap Rentals, 3689 Mission Blvd. (tel. 800/941-7761 or 858/488-9070; www.cheap-rentals.com). In Coronado, go to Bikes and Beyond, 1201 First St. at the Ferry Landing (tel. 619/435-7180; www.hollandsbicycles.com); rates are $6 per hour.
If you'd rather ice-skate, try Ice Town at University Towne Center, 4545 La Jolla Village Dr., at Genesee Avenue (tel. 858/452-9110; www.icetown.com). During the winter holidays, outdoor skating rinks open at the Hotel del Coronado and downtown at Horton Square (www.sdice.com).
At the La Jolla Tennis Club, 7632 Draper Ave., at Prospect Street (tel. 858/454-4434; www.ljtc.org), there are nine public courts, the oldest of which have been here since 1915, a gift from the ubiquitous Ellen Browning Scripps. It costs $7 for adults and is free for those 18 and under; it's open daily from dawn until the lights go off around 9pm. The Balboa Tennis Club, 2221 Morley Field Dr., in Balboa Park (tel. 619/295-9278; www.balboatennis.com), has more than two dozen courts, including a stadium court. Day passes are $5 adults, $3 seniors 65 and above, $2 for children 17 and under; reservations are for members only. The courts are open weekdays from 8am to 9pm, weekends from 8am to 8pm. The ultramodern Barnes Tennis Center, 4490 W. Point Loma Blvd., near Ocean Beach and SeaWorld (tel. 619/221-9000; www.tennissandiego.com), has 20 lighted hard courts and 4 clay courts. They're open Monday through Thursday from 8am to 9pm, Friday through Sunday 8am to 7pm. Court rental is $6 to $10 per person for all-day usage (upon availability); a $4 light fee may apply for night play. Those 17 and under play free.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.