El Cajon is a city of about 100,000 residents that’s nestled into the scenic mountains 30 kilometers northeast of downtown San Diego.
In Spanish, its name means ‘the box,’ which refers to its boxed-in location; it’s surrounded by mountains that offer abundant recreation activities for outdoorsy types.
The city is comprised of nearly 15 square miles of land. In addition to its rugged beauty, it offers visitors a variety of historical, artistic, and cultural attractions.
Day trips to San Diego are popular as well; depending on the time of day, the trip usually takes less than an hour.
1. Olaf Wieghorst Museum and Western Heritage Center
Named after a regional artist most well-known for his depictions of life in the American West in the 19th century, the Olaf Wieghorst Museum and Western Heritage Center is one of El Cajon’s premier cultural attractions.
Located on Rea Avenue in town, it features an impressive collection of works that focus on horses, cowboys, Native Americans, and the area’s impressive natural features like deserts and mountains.
The paintings include oils and watercolors. In addition to its permanent collection, the venue hosts a variety of year-round events, including guest speakers, visiting exhibits, and educational opportunities for budding artists.
2. The Water Conservation Garden
Despite its huge population and sprawling cities, Southern California sports a notoriously dry climate that makes water conservation a hot topic.
The Water Conservation Garden on Cuyamaca College Drive in El Cajon is spread over more than five acres and includes several distinct cultivated areas, walking paths, and engaging and educational exhibits.
In addition to viewing the abundant flowers, trees, and plants, guests will learn about native vegetation, and how to incorporate it into home gardens in sustainable ways.
Guests may show themselves around the grounds or hook-up with one of the regularly scheduled docent-led tours.
3. Sycuan Casino
Though the San Diego area is home to quite a few casinos, few of them are set in such beautiful natural surroundings as Sycuan Casino in El Cajon.
A favorite retreat for locals and out-of-state visitors alike, it’s consistently ranked as one of the region’s best gaming values.
Featuring hundreds of slot machines and dozens of table games like poker, blackjack, and bingo, it’s a big hit with diehard gamblers. There are plenty of other activities for those who’d rather not risk their limited vacation dollars on a roll of the dice.
Other options include world-class dining, live entertainment, and a spa.
4. Air Group One Commemorative Air Force Museum
Located on North Marshal Avenue in an actual hangar, the Air Group One Commemorative Air Force Museum is a must-visit attraction for history buffs and aviation lovers.
Though it tends to draw big crowds from retired and active military personal, it’s also a massive hit with kids, who find the collection of sleek war-birds particularly impressive.
In addition to its restored aircraft, the museum hosts many annual events, including family-friendly activities like helicopter shows, hot-air balloon rides, live entertainment, and face painting booths for little ones.
Consider checking their calendar of events online before making a special trip.
5. Burning Beard Brewing Company
The dry and often hot weather in Southern California’s high desert has a peculiar knack for sapping the energy of those who spend long days on their feet out in the elements.
Thankfully for lovers of craft brews, there are a number of options in and around El Cajon.
Burning Beard Brewing Company is located on Vernon Way in El Cajon. Though it has only been around since 2015, it has attracted a loyal following of beer lovers, who appreciate its big selection, comfortable atmosphere, and contemporary yet retro digs.
Their beers run the gamut from ales and IPAs to porters and stouts, so finding a tasty option shouldn’t be a problem.
6. Sky Combat Ace
Becoming a combat ace in a high-performance aircraft usually takes years of training at an elite military institution like the US Air Force Academy.
But for those visiting El Cajon, there’s a much faster option, and according to previous participants, it was far and away the most exhilarating activity of their entire vacation.
Sky Combat Ace was founded by an Air Force pilot. Its excursions incorporate lots of military-style jargon and training and make for truly unique and reasonably authentic experiences.
Guests can choose from several packages, including aerial combat and aerobatics; they’ll be paired with an experienced instructor every step of the way.
7. Crafted Greens
Though you might deduce from its name that Crafted Greens is a vegan restaurant, their menu does feature lots of homemade comfort food, like steaks, soup, and hearty sandwiches.
They pride themselves on using high-quality ingredients, resulting in tasty meals that are much healthier than you’re likely to get in most restaurants.
Popular menu items include seared ahi tuna, Caesar salad, fresh, locally sourced vegetables, and baked goods like brownies.
Crafted Greens is located on Jamacha Road in El Cajon. They do a brisk takeaway business for those who’d like to dine in their hotel rooms after a long day.
8. Heritage of the Americas Museum
For value-conscious travelers looking to get the most bang for their bucks, the Heritage of the Americas Museum is an excellent fit because it’s actually a number of distinct museums all in one place.
Its collections focus on art, archaeology, anthropology, and natural history, and they’ve been known to keep inquisitive visitors busy for hours on end.
Items on display include Native American artifacts and the fossilized remains of amazing animals who tumbled to their deaths in the La Brea tar pits near LA thousands of years ago.
Guests will also appreciate original works by art icons like Frederic Remington, and the facility features desert gardens and quiet outdoor seating areas as well.
9. The San Diego Aerospace Museum Restoration Facility
The San Diego area has a long tradition of military aviation. For lovers of classic airborne fighting machines like F-86 Sabre Jets and F-8 Crusaders, there’s one true standout.
The San Diego Aerospace Museum Restoration Facility is located in El Cajon, and it specializes in bringing mothballed fighters back to near-original condition.
It takes thousands of hours of painstaking work and lots of money to make it all happen, but visitors tend to agree that it’s well worth it.
The museum features finished aircraft suspended from the ceiling as if still in flight. The staff offer a number of fascinating activities that allow guests to get a behind-the-scenes look at the restoration works in progress.
10. Singing Hills Golf Resort
The year-round weather in El Cajon and San Diego couldn’t possibly be more conducive to outdoor activities like golf.
Singing Hills Golf Resort in El Cajon is the only area facility that features three 18-hole courses; they’re set amidst nearly 500 acres just a few miles from the Sycuan Casino.
For those visiting the casino, free shuttles are offered to and from the golf course. Whether you’re looking for a short par-3 course or a traditional full-length one, you’ll find it at Singing Hills.
The course’s amenities include a pro-shop, driving range, and pre-round putting and chipping areas.
11. El Cajon Bistro & Bakery
El Cajon Bistro & Bakery is a locally-owned restaurant located on Jamacha Road near the downtown area.
El Cajon was founded in 2013 and is most well-known for its fresh baked goods, hearty breakfasts, and potent coffee.
Previous guests have appreciated the restaurant’s efficient service, ample portion sizes, and the fact that nearly everything they ordered looked as if it leaped from the pages of a glossy culinary magazine.
In addition to their comfy and contemporary dining area, El Cajon does a brisk takeaway business that’s popular with those on the go.
Perennial menu favorites include eggs Benedict, omelets, scones, and fresh fruit smoothies.
12. Mission Trails Regional Park
Comprised of more than 7,000 acres spread across some of San Diego County’s most pristine natural areas, Mission Trails Regional Park deserves an itinerary spot for activity and nature-oriented travelers looking to distance themselves from the crowds.
The largest municipal park of its kind in the entire state, it’s popular with bikers, hikers, photographers, and rock climbers.
The park is located about 15 kilometers northwest of El Cajon and features more than 60 miles of trails.
Though some are best left to rugged adventurers, many are appropriate for moderately fit visitors and those traveling with little ones.
Camping and fishing are popular as well, and the park’s docents frequently host guided activities.
13. Lamplighters Community Theater
Located about eight kilometers southwest of El Cajon on Severin Drive in La Mesa, Lamplighters Community Theater has been around in one form or another since the late 1930s.
Over the decades, it has changed a few times, but now all these years later, it’s still one of San Diego County’s premier community theaters.
Throughout the year, the theater’s performers and production staff put on half a dozen shows. They’re always much-anticipated productions that draw theater lovers from all over the county.
Check their website’s calendar of events to see what’ll be on the stage when you are in the area.
14. Mount Helix Park
Also located in La Mesa, just a stone’s throw from the aforementioned community theater, Mount Helix is the perfect destination for those interested in great views of the San Diego skyline without actually driving into the city.
The park features a loop trail that’s flat, well-marked, and appropriate for travelers with children. There are plenty of shaded seating areas and wide-open spaces that make it ideal for picnics, jogging, or just a lazy afternoon under a tree with a good book.
There are also interpretive signs spread around the park that impart interesting factual tidbits about the plants and animals that call the area home.
15. San Diego Trolley Tour
With so much to see and do in El Cajon, there’s really no need to venture into San Diego, but for those who do, there are tons of activity options.
Taking advantage of a San Diego Trolley Tour is a great way to see the city’s different sides without fighting the traffic. For many visitors, it’s a nice break from El Cajon’s rural setting.
Tours wind through a number of the city’s distinct neighborhoods and districts, including shops, museums, galleries, and tons of drinking and dining establishments.
For those who’ll just be in the city for a day or two, trolley tours are a great way to quickly get familiar with the lay of the land.
San Diego is about 40 minutes southwest of El Cajon.