County’s Lakes Are Great Destinations

Today we’re in search of lakes — north, south and east on this San Diego day trip. I assume you can find the big lake to the west.

For a region known for its beaches, San Diego county has too many lakes to count. The City of San Diego alone operates 10 lakes, reservoirs for our drinking water; water districts generally run the rest of them.

We’re veering from our normal format today, giving trips to visit three of the largest. These lakes are open only on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and charge an entry fee; check the City’s lakes website or call (619) 465-3474 for more information. Let’s start in the south.

South: Lower Otay Reservoir. It’s an easy drive to the Lower Otay. Exit Interstate 805 at Olympic Parkway, head east and when you see the water, turn right. Lower Otay dates back to 1897 and holds many places in San Diego history. Historic photos show when the original dam burst during the 1916 flood, the famous Hatfield the Rainmaker storm.

Lake Hodges
Lake Hodges
Today, it and the Olympic Training Center provide the dividing line between Chula Vista’s Eastlake neighborhood and the back country. The U.S. rowing teams can at times be spotted on the lake. The lake offers boating, picnicking and fishing. The shoreline is 25 miles.

Most recently, the lake was in the news when a U.S. Navy SB2C Helldiver was pulled up from the bottom.

After turning onto Wueste Road from Olympic Parkway, it’s a pleasant, curving road around the water’s edge to the parking/picnic/boat launch area.

From here, head back down Olympic Parkway (and take the tour of the Olympic Training Center if you have time) to the freeway, or north to Otay Lakes Road, then east out to state Route 94 for some really spirited driving.

Lower Otay Reservoir
Lower Otay Reservoir
East: El Capitan Reservoir. You’ve probably seen it a dozen times, that lake to the north of Interstate 8 just west of Alpine. It’s El Capitan, another City of San Diego lake far outside of the city. Dating to 1935, it boasts 22 miles of shoreline but only a couple are accessible by car. Water skiers and personal water craft can be seen on this lake, the only City lake that allows them. Fishing, hiking and picnic areas are there as well.

No visit to lakes in San Diego County could be complete without going to Lakeside. There’s three accessible from Lake Jennings Park Road — the namesake Lake Jennings, which is just off of I-8, El Capitan and Lindo Lake.

Getting to El Capitan is half the fun. It’s more than seven miles up a scenic gorge to the lake, past stables, citrus (looked like lemons to me) groves and other small farms. Lakeside is known today mostly as a bedroom community, but the drive gives visitors a look into the old days in the back country. You’ll pass El Monte County Park, another hidden gem, along the way.

The reservoir fills a fairly narrow canyon with three fingers that was once part of the Kumeyaay Indian Reservation. Visitors in the picnic/boat launch area can’t even see the north end.

El Capitan
El Capitan Reservoir
North: Lake Hodges. Visible from I-15 between the Via Rancho Parkway and Pomerado Road exits, Hodges has a 25-mile shoreline and the largest picnic area. It’s reachable by Del Dios Highway or Via Rancho Parkway from I-15. From either direction, the congestion disappears once drivers turn onto the access roads.

The small, tree shaded community of Del Dios is along the northeast shore and includes one of the classic county restaurants, Hernandez’ Hideaway. The margarita was reportedly invented by the original owner, but that’s another story.

The thick trees provide a welcome canopy for drivers, with a couple of parking and picnic areas before reaching the ranger station. It’s a beautiful oasis in urban North County ripe for a San Diego day trip.

During especially wet years, Hodges dam can spill, providing spectacular views from Del Dios Highway.

Others worth noting are Lake Cuyamaca (near Julian), close-in Lake Murray (exit I-8 at Lake Murray Boulevard) and Lake Morena (near Campo). You can count yourself a real local if you can provide driving directions to the Mt. Helix and San Dieguito reservoirs, or Jack’s Pond (no relation).

Sorry, all you midwesterners longing for sticky bottom lake swimming; I don’t know of any that allow humans or dogs to take a dip. But all of our lakes are in scenic locations and along great routes for a drive. ⚙

Route and Info


  • Moderate. All of the access roads to the lakes are narrow and twisting.


Lower Otay Reservoir

  • Interstate 805 to Olympic Parkway. Go east.
  • Right at Wueste Road.

El Capitan Reservoir

  • Interstate 8 to Lake Jennings Park Road. Go north.
  • Right (east ) at El Monte Road.

Lake Hodges

  • Interstate 15 to Via Rancho Parkway. Go west.
  • Left at Lake Drive.



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