Our guide to unique lodging and adventures in San Diego’s beautiful backcountry
By Miriam Raftery
June 13, 2018 (Santee and Lakeside) – The Lakeside and Santee areas in San Diego’s East County encompass portions of the San Diego River Park as well as multiple lakes and reservoirs idyllic for fishing, boating, hiking, and birdwatching. Lodging options range from camping and cabins to a casino and spa resort on tribal land. You’ll also find museums, a rodeo, racetrack speedway, breweries, nature preserves, parks, live theatre, modern shopping and quaint downtown district to explore.
There are wonderful getaway adventures to be found along local trails, ranging from easy hikes to mountain climbing, as well as fishing, kayaking, canoeing, pedal boats, inner tube floats, rowboats and even places to bring jet skis and water skis.
The San Diego River, which has its headwaters in the Cuyamaca Mountains and Cleveland National Forest east of Lakeside, flows all the way to the Pacific Ocean—even passing underground along some stretches. The Lakeside River Park Conservancy and San Diego River Park organizations have been working to restore sections of the river through Lakeside and Santee. There are opportunities for walking, hiking, horseback riding and dog walking at the San Diego River Park Trail in Lakeside and Walker Preserve Trail in Santee.
Further along the river’s route, just west of Santee, Mission Trails Regional Park is the largest urban park in America at over 6,000 acres including the historic Old Mission Dam and a five-peak challenge for mountain climbers. There’s a great visitor center where you can learn about park wildlife and history dating back from the Kumeyaay Indians through the Spanish and early California periods. There are plenty of short hikes as well, free concerts on many Sunday afternoons as well as art shows and seasonal events.
In Lakeside, you can hike to the top of El Cajon Mountain, a dramatic precipice which locals call El Capitan due to its resemblance to the Yosemite landmark, starting at the trail head in El Capitan County Preserve. The preserve is a county park, but the reservoir lake along the San Diego River channel in El Monte Valley is within the El Capitan Lake Recreation Area where you can fish from boats, float tubes or shore. You can also bring personal watercraft such as jet skis or wakeboards.
Nearby, El Monte County Park has groves of old oak trees, large picnic areas and pavilions suitable for groups, ball fields and hiking trails.
San Vicente Reservoir off Highway 67 in Lakeside has a depth of 320 feet when full and recently completed the tallest dam raise in the U.S. It’s a favorite destination among fishing enthusiasts including bass, bluegill, catfish and more. Waterskiing, wakeboarding and some personal watercraft are allowed here.
Louis Stelzer County Park has 420 acres of oak woods and coastal sage scrub, including hiking trails and an ascent to Kumeyaay Promontory. There are also playgrounds, barbecues, track trails for kids and more.
Oakoasis County Preserve off Wildcat Canyon Road in Lakeside has nearly 400 acres with manzanita, chaparral and woodlands. There’s a loop trail and the park is also noted for its frequent stargazing nights open to the public through the San Diego Astronomy Association.
Lake Jennings, located east of downtown Lakeside closer to the Interstate 8 side of the community, is a wonderful lake where you can camp in tipis provided by the site or bring your own tent. You can rent kayaks or pedal boats, go fishing, or enjoy hiking in woodsy setting with mountains beyond where you may see egrets, herons, osprey or eagles as well as animals such as raccoons and deer.
Lindo Lakes County Park is a family-oriented park a block from Lakeside’s historic district, with two small natural lakes where you’ll seek plenty of ducks and geese, outdoor exercise equipment, picnic and BBQ facilities, shaded grassy areas, horseshoe pits and more. While catch and release fishing is allowed, at this lake, eating fish caught is not recommended currently due to invasive and potentially toxic blue-green algae. There’s also a library and community center there.
Santee Lakes is a park with several reservoirs where you can stay overnight in floating cabins, cabins on shore, or bring your tent or RV for camping. There are pedal boats and other types of boat rentals, bicycle and bike surrey rentals for families, fishing, picnic grounds and islands you can pedal out to for a private picnic. Santee Lakes also hosts seasonal events such as a concert at the lakes in summer, a Spring Egg-stravaganza and Santa at the Lakes.
Santee Community Center Park and Santee City Parks offer additional recreatioal opportunities.
Barona Casino and Resort
The Barona Casino and Resort is located on the Barona reservation off Wildcat Canyon in Lakeside. The resort hotel includes a full-service spa where you can relax with a massage, facial or other treatment. It’s a great play to stay for a weekend while enjoying the area attractions. The large casino offers a wide ranging of gaming, from slot machines to table games. There’s also a championship golf course and some excellent restaurants including a steakhouse, lavish buffet, cafes, an Italian restaurant and food court.
Breweries and distilleries
The San Diego region overall is among the top craft beer brewing areas in the nation, and Santee’s brew spots provide some good places to sample local beers as well as spirits. Cheers!
Yee-ha! Each year in May, the Lakeside Rodeo and Lakeside Western Days celebrate the area’s western heritage complete with a Western-themed parade, barbecues, and professional rodeo events from bull-riding to barrel racing. There are other rodeos and additional events at the Lakeside Rodeo Grounds at other times during the year. Check Lakeside Rodeo for these.
Lakeside Chamber of Commerce lists seasonal events such as Lakeside Western Days and Spirit of Christmas on their calendar of events.
The Barona pow-wow held the first weekend in September attracts Native American dancers and drummers from across the U.S. You’ll also find Indian craft vendors, foods and more. https://www.facebook.com/BaronaPowwow/
The City of Santee hosts an outdoor summer concert series, Santee Salutes Fourth of July celebration with bands and family activities, holiday festivities and other community events through the year; just click on their calendar of events at the bottom of the city’s website.
Off Broadway Live in Santee stages theatrical productions and Encore Supper Club featuring musical concerts.
Lakeside Historical Society has a museum in an old church on Main Street, where you can learn more about the history of the Lakeside community.
Santee Drive-In Theater is one of the last remaining drive-in movie theaters left in San Diego County.
Shopping and transportation
Santee Trolley Square Center is a large shopping center with many shops, restaurants and a trolley station for easy transit to San Diego. There’s also a Target Store and other chain outlets. Just blocks away, Santee also has big box stores including Costco, Walmart, and Home Depot.
If you’re revved up as a racing fan, Barona Speedway offers stock car racing excitement.
Santee Parks and Recreation has a wide range of park activities from swimming pools to a skateboard park. Kids can also cool off at a water park for kids at Santee Lakes, run by Padre Dam Municipal Water District.
East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the County of San Diego for providing a Community Enhancement Grant to support our “Backcountry Hidden Pleasures” weekend getaways coverage.