Mission Bay is one of San Diego's most popular outdoor destinations. It's more than just a body of water. It's a complex of waterfront parks, public beaches and grassy, palm-lined recreation paths strung along 27 miles of shoreline. That size makes it the largest human-made aquatic park in the country.
Mission Bay's shape is nearly square, and with land on all four sides. Water gets in through the Mission Bay Channel on the southwest corner.
The western side is a narrow peninsula, with just one street running north and south along it. In the middle are Fiesta Island and Vacation Isle. You can reach both of them by road.
Why You Should Go to Mission Bay
At Mission Bay, you can fly a kite, go bird-watching or have a picnic, but water sports rule. The east side of Mission Bay is where people go to play with jet boats, jet skis and the like. The western, seaward side attracts sailboats and sailboarders. You can rent sailboats, jet skis, kayaks and power boats from Mission Bay Sport Center on the west side of the park.
If you plan to go, you may want to check water quality to be sure the beaches are open and safe. Just go to the San Diego County Beach Water Quality website. Choose the "central" pulldown and select any of the Mission Bay Beaches to get a report by clicking on the location marker.
Why You May Want to Avoid Mission Bay
You'd think a park that covers 4,200 acres would always have plenty of room, but San Diegans love Mission Bay, and it can get busy.
Arrive early. Bring plenty of food and drinks with you. The closest stores are a short drive away, but you might have to abandon your parking spot to get there.
Mission Bay is difficult to navigate by car if you don't know where you're going. Major streets are more like freeways, with few stop lights or places to pull off to check a map.
To make matters worse, signs are hard to follow and sometimes small. If you don't know where you’re going before setting out and don't take advantage of a GPS or navigation app, you’ll end up lost (or at least frustrated).
How to Enjoy the Beaches at Mission Bay
The park has many beach areas. The easiest way to find one you'll like is just to drive around until you see one. In general, the locations along I-5 get a lot of highway noise. You learn to ignore it after a while, but with quieter parks on the other side of the bay, why not go there instead? Ventura Cove and Bahia Point near the Bahia Resort (Gleason Drive off Mission Bay Blvd) are lovely, as is Mariners Point across the street.
Hours vary at the Mission Bay parks, but most of them close at least a few hours per day. Lifeguards are on duty on weekends in late spring and early fall, and daily in summer. Alcohol is prohibited everywhere.
The water is quite calm inside Mission Bay, but don't let it create a false sense of security. The shore drops off sharply, and a child who is waist deep in water can take one step and be in over their head.
Dogs are allowed off leash at Dog Beach and on Fiesta Island. Otherwise, they are allowed on the beach only in the later part of the day, with hours that vary by time of year.
Dogs with a license are also allowed on the sidewalks and parks near the beach during the night and early morning, but they must be on a leash. Get current hours and rules for dogs at the beach at the City of San Diego website.
Camping at Mission Bay
You'll find a few places to camp around Mission Bay, and it makes a good base for your San Diego visit. Find out more about the campgrounds in the San Diego Camping Guide.
More Things to Do at Mission Bay
Besides the parks and the beaches, these are a few other things you can do in the Mission Bay area.
See Sea World: Killer whale Shamu is the star here, but you'll find plenty of other things to do.
Have Some Old-Fashioned Fun at Belmont Park: Belmont is an old-fashioned beachfront amusement park that's home to the 1925 Giant Dipper roller coaster.
They have a small midway, and you'll find places to eat and drink nearby.
Beach bonfires are fun at Mission Bay, and you'll find containers for beach fires at many of the Mission Bay beaches. You can have a fire from 5:00 a.m. to midnight. Bring wood and/or charcoal, which you can buy at many San Diego area grocery stores. You can find the current bonfire regulations at the City of San Diego website.
Getting to Mission Bay San Diego
Mission Bay is bordered by I-5, East Mission Bay Drive, Mission Boulevard and Sea World Drive. Ingraham Street runs north-south through the middle of it, across the water and Vacation Isle. You can get there from I-5 or by taking I-8 west to its end and following W. Mission Bay Drive.