East County’s Best Kept Secrets: A Guide to San Diego Hidden Gems

It’s no secret that San Diego is known for its excellent restaurants and beautiful scenery, but San Diego also has lots of hidden gems that fly under the radar. This article explores some of San Diego’s best-kept secrets in East County.

Restaurants and Bars

There is no shortage of delicious restaurants and unique bars in East County. Here is a list of four East County hidden gems for food, drinks, and entertainment:

Junction 52 Bar and Grill: Located on Mission Gorge Rd. in Santee, Junction 52 Bar and Grill is a family-owned restaurant and local favorite. With an open, sports-bar atmosphere, Junction 52 is a perfect place to hang out with friends and enjoy some great food and drinks. With a large menu of food and drink options, there’s something for everyone.

Shooters Cocktails: Known for its fun and friendly atmosphere, Shooters Cocktails in Spring Valley is the perfect place if you’re looking for a good time. With karaoke several times per week, pool tables, and dart boards, Shooters Cocktails isn’t just a bar, it’s a place where people come together. 

Antica Trattoria: This Italian restaurant just east of Lake Murray is the perfect place for date night. With a wonderful selection of wines and a beautiful ambiance, this upscale eatery is known for its delicious dishes and attentive service. Antica Trattoria is also known for its delicious desserts, the perfect way to finish off your fine dining experience.

Coin Haus: If you’re looking for a fun and unique way to spend your evening? Coin Haus on La Mesa Boulevard is an industrial beer house and arcade located right in the heart of La Mesa. Enjoy a great selection of beers, ciders, and kombuchas, while letting out your inner child in the arcade.

Outdoor Spots

Everyone loves the San Diego beaches, but they can be so crowded. East County San Diego is full of beautiful outdoor spaces that are often overlooked.

Water Conservation Gardens: Located in the El Cajon, Rancho San Diego area, next to Cuyamaca College, the Water Conservation Garden is just as beautiful as it is unique. The landscape features drought-tolerant plants of all kinds including trees and flowers, running waterways, and a community space for events. The garden also features unique statues, a koi pond, and an interactive area for kids!

Santee Lakes: Known by locals as a great place to camp and fish, Santee Lakes is a great place to experience nature right in your backyard! Often overlooked by tourists, Santee Lakes has everything you need for a good time. From horseshoe pits and volleyball courts to pedal boats and even a “sprayground,” you’re bound to have a great time.

Sweetwater River Trail: If you’re looking for a beautiful place to hike less busy than Mission Trails, check out the Sweetwater River Trail on Campo Road in Jamul. Located in the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, the trail features beautiful scenery with historic landmarks such as the Sweetwater Bridge and Sweetwater Dam. This is a great palace for pictures and to get away into nature, while still being close to the city.

Photo Ops

Are you looking for cute, unique places to take some pictures? East County is full of picture-perfect hidden gems that are Instagram-ready. 

Hidden Murals of Lemon Grove: Located on Lester Avenue in Lemon Grove, these beautiful murals are right across the street from the Lemon Grove Depot trolley station. The vibrant colors and beautiful compositions are a great look into urban street art in San Diego!

Summers Past Farms: This well-known gem in El Cajon is located along Olde Highway 80 and is a beautiful, picturesque setting. From the flower garden, pond, and bridge out back to beautiful canopies… the possibilities are endless. Summers Past Farms also has a wonderful gift shop in a post-and-timber barn the owners, Sheryl and Marshall Lozier built themselves!

La Mesa Secret Stairs: Loved by La Mesa locals, these “Secret Stairs” offer gorgeous views of San Diego. These public stairs are located in a secluded neighborhood, which makes them the perfect hidden gem. Totaling 425 steps, these stairs will give you a nice workout with stunning views as your reward.

Not so Hidden Gems

While not strictly hidden gems, we would hate to leave out these more popular destinations from this list of great places to check out in East County. There’s a reason why they are so popular!

Mount Helix Park: At the top of Mount Helix in La Mesa, Mount Helix Park offers panoramic views of San Diego County. The views from this park are truly spectacular, and it would be a crime to live in San Diego without experiencing the sunset from up here. But beware! Parking here is a challenge, so make sure to plan ahead.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park: The sister to the World Famous San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park is just as incredible and unique. With more space in East County, the Safari Park has large open areas where animals can stretch their legs and mingle like in the wild. With unique activities like on-the-ground safaris, hot air balloon rides, and up close interactions with exotic plants and animals, there’s a reason why San Diegans and tourists love the Safari Park.

Mission Trails: Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the most special places in San Diego. Encompassing over 8,000 acres, Mission Trails has some of the best hiking trails and recreation spaces in San Diego, including the ever-popular Cowles Mountain. Another great spot and a hidden gem in Mission Trails is the historic Old Mission Dam, built in 1803. 


East County is a vibrant region with much to offer to those willing to explore. With mouthwatering restaurants and beautiful outdoor settings, each hidden gem makes San Diego even better. Whether you're a local looking to rediscover your hometown or a visitor eager to experience the lesser-known wonders of San Diego, East County welcomes you with open arms.

With its diverse landscapes, rich history, and warm hospitality, East County San Diego is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. So what are you waiting for? Come, uncover the magic of East County, and create memories that will last a lifetime.

*Thumbnail image credit to  the Mount Helix Park Foundation

Contact Steven Rotsart, your local East County real estate agent!

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