One of the things I enjoy about living in California is the opportunity to continue discovering new places. With an area of 163,696 square miles (about the size of Germany), you bet there are tons of places I have not been yet.
This is even better for those who enjoy the outdoors (like me!). The other day I was looking for places to camp (relatively close to Los Angeles) and bumped into the Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve.
Hmmm, plenty of campsites, a series of lakes and close proximity to San Diego. That was hard to resist! We ended throwing gear in the back of our SUV and stopped by over the weekend.
In here, I am sharing my experience and giving you all the right (or tempting) reasons to visit Santee Lakes.
Table of Contents
Santee, a city in San Diego County, is located 18 miles from the Pacific Ocean. In the late 50s, the general manager of the water district was able to develop a sewage treatment process to produce usable water. Not only he saved the city a large amount of money but also offered a low-cost water supply for irrigation, crops and recreational use.
In 1961, 4 lakes were created and one of them started to be used for recreational purposes. Nowadays, Santee Lakes is a 190 acres park with 7 lakes recycled water lakes.
Things to Do in Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve
The lakes receive more than 650,000 per year. Let’s explore what can be done and seen there.
The park offers about 5 miles of walking, running and biking trails.
If you are not traveling with your bike, there are cruiser, tandem and surrey rentals on-site.
This is one of the most popular amenities on the park. The lakes are stocked with fish year-round and a fishing license issued by the state of California is not needed (a permit available at the General Store is needed though).
Many families take their young children to fish in the park. This is a simple and affordable option for those who want their children involved in outdoor activities.
Day and night fishing is permitted for people spending the night in the camping area.
Pedal boats, canoes, and kayaks are available for rent on Lake 5. This is a fun way to spend an hour or two exploring small islands, canals, and wildlife.
The park has plenty of tables and benches ideal for picnicking. Families arrive early to claim the shaded, big spots.
Waterfront gazebos are available for parties, wedding and birthdays.
For the Kids
Well, it is fair to say almost everything in this park screams kid-friendliness.
However, there are several amenities that are designed with the little ones in mind. Each major area has a big playground including slides, swings and obstacle courses a little bit reminiscent of America Ninja Warrior.
Then, the Sprayground is the place to go for some water fun.
Santee Lakes Camping
Many visitors love the idea of escaping away for the weekend without having to travel far from home. That is why the 300 full-hookup campgrounds seem to be fully booked every weekend (at least during warm months).
Guest have exclusive use of lakes 6 and 7 plus showers, swimming pools, a clubhouse, laundry facilities and wi-fi.
Santee Lakes Cabins
For those who prefer a bit more comfort, cabins (including floating ones) are available for rent.
Cabins are fully stocked with a queen bed, sleeping mattresses, bunk beds, kitchen, sofa, TV, propane barbecue, fire ring and pedal boats.
What to Eat in the Park
The Waterfront Grill offers simples fare such as hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, turkey burgers, hot dogs, and sausages. This is an establishment designed to grab a quick bite and keep going. Most visitors bring their own food.
Fees and Hours of Operation
Park is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Day use hours vary depending on the season but they are usually between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Day use fee is between $4 – $6 depending on the day of the week.
Day use amenities are available for those staying on the campground or cabins.
Other Camping Options in the Area
The Santee Lakes campground is very popular and it can be difficult to book a spot during summer. If you want to visit the park but cannot find a space to stay, I recommend checking the Kumeyaay Lake Campground.
This spot is located only two miles from the Santee Lakes entrance. Since this campground is not on the San Diego County Parks website (it has its own website) it is relatively easy to find an available spot there (even days before the arrival date).
If you are staying at the park several days, you may want to check out the Mission Trails Regional Park, a place offering 42 miles of trails, a 14,000 square foot visitor center, a historical dam, big lake and much more.
And, of course, you have all the attractions of San Diego basically at your front door.
For ideas, check out the 200+ San Diego bucket list ideas on this post I wrote a while ago.
Where to Eat in Santee
If you are a big foodie, have no fear!
There are plenty of delicious food options in the city of Santee. The best part is that some of the best restaurants are one or two miles from the park. Here are some of my recommendations.
I enjoyed eating at Janet’s Cafe & Deli way too much! After seeing the huge portions being served to other guests, I decided for the cinnamon roll French toast. My husband had eggs, bacon and pumpkin pancakes. Everything seems to be good at this place so the possibilities of a bad pick are low. They also serve lunch.
Another great place to get breakfast is the Omelette Factory. They serve about 15 types of omelets, steak and eggs, pancakes, waffles and much more. They have hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and soups too.
Coffee lovers should story by Kaffe Meister!
Lunch and Dinner
Phil’s BBQ has been serving rib, pulled pork and chicken since 1999. The restaurant chain has won many prizes in the San Diego area. This choice will please the entire family.
The competition to be the “best” burger in California is fierce. I have my own favorites but I am open to trying new flavors. That is why the options at Anny’s Fine Burgers are so tempting. They serve things such as the garlic mushroom, sand dune, and Korean BBQ burgers. My mouth water just thinking about this place.
If you feel like having some Asian flavors you can visit places such as Pho Ca Dao, Leela Thai and Okawa Steak House & Sushi.
And, do not forget to try some good Mexican food. Since this is San Diego County, the options are plenty (like there is a Mexican joint every two blocks). Pick a place and ask what they do best.
Discovering the Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve was a treat for me and my husband. I hope I have given you enough reasons to visit this place or the area.
More of Southern California
- San Diego Tourism Authority
- Los Angeles Ultimate Bucket List
- 20 Reasons to Love Los Angeles
- 150+ Places to Go in Orange County
- Orange County Beach Towns
Have you been to Santee Lakes or to any place in San Diego East County? What are your recommendations?
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