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25 Best Hiking Spots in San Diego, California
- Sunset Cliffs, Photo: Courtesy of sherryvsmith - Fotolia.com
- Torrey Pines Hiking Trails, Photo: Courtesy of ablokhin - Fotolia.com
- Iron Mountain, Photo: Courtesy of samantoniophoto - Fotolia.com
- Oakoasis Open Space Preserve, Photo: Courtesy of FabrizioVigianoPhoto - Fotolia.com
- Mine Peak, Photo: Courtesy of mlstrand - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Chad McDermott - Fotolia.com
Los Peñasquitos Canyon
The Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is the largest park in San Diego, stretching over 4,000 acres and including the Lopez and Peñasquitos canyons. The trail through the park winds around and you can make it as short or as long as you wish. The portion through Los Peñasquitos Canyon is mostly flat, a 4.7-mile wide dirt loop trail beloved by the families for a weekend outing. The only difficult, but fun, part is a pile of boulders you have to go over and rocks at the base of the lovely waterfall. The trail is used by bikers and allowed for dogs, so it gets really crowded. The scenery is lovely, although a bit exposed with not much shade.
Black Mountain Rd, San Diego, CA 92121
Cowles Mountain is the tallest mountain in San Diego and is one of the favorite hiking destinations on a weekend. The main trail is 3 miles long and gains 918 feet in elevation, making it challenging if you are not fit. The dirt trail is wide and in most parts flat, with some rocky stretches. You will reach the peak of the mountain at 1,593 feet, and the spectacular view of the city and ocean beyond makes the climb well worth it.
El Cajon Mountain
El Cajon Mountain is part of the Cuyamaca Mountains and San Diego’s main natural landmark. It is better known as El Capitan and it is a very popular hiking destination for the city’s adrenaline junkies as it is the most difficult and dangerous hike in the area. It is 11 miles long and you will gain 4,000 feet in elevation, which means going up and up almost all the way. About halfway on the way up you will have to climb about 600 feet of steep rock walls and over a number of huge boulders. You will feel it in every muscle, but the view of the Cuyamaca Mountains from the top is spectacular.
Cedar Creek Falls
Cedar Creek Falls is a very popular hiking destination near Ramona, with the trailhead on Eagle Peak Road. The moderately difficult 3-mile trail descends towards the valley until it reaches a waterfall that drops 80 feet down into a cool, clear pool popularly known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. The trail on the way down is pleasantly shaded and surrounded by local plants such as scrub oak, catclaw acacia, poodle-dog bush, California buckwheat, and sage. Enjoy a swim at the pool because on the way back you will pay for the pleasure: The elevation gain up the hill is 1,102 feet.
15519 Thornbush Rd, Ramona, CA 92065
Mount Woodson is located in the geographic center of the San Diego urban area, so climbing to its top means fantastic views of the whole area and the ocean beyond. The 6.4-mile, very challenging hike with 1,800 feet of elevation gain means a lot of climbing. You will also hop over some amazing massive granite boulders with some pretty strange shapes. The most famous one is a granite sliver called the "Potato Chip," which looks like its floating in the air; nobody can resist taking a photo at its tip.
14644 Lake Poway Rd, Poway, CA 92064
Daley Ranch is a 3,200-acre natural area established by the City of Escondido to preserve and protect the open, natural spaces from over-development. It is popular with local residents for a weekend hike. There is a network of diverse trails that start as paved paths before becoming dirt trails leading to a pond, a lake, or a hill, for those who want a bit more of a challenging hike.
3024 La Honda Dr Escondido, CA 92027
Ho Chi Minh Trail
If you are looking for an adventure when near La Jolla, test yourself at the Ho Chi Min Trail. It is recommended only for fit, experienced hikers. This short, about 2-mile hike is narrow and steep on a crumbling sandstone cliff edge, which gets very slippery when wet. When you come to a log, if you are not comfortable walking over it, go under. When you get close to the beach, keep in mind that to your right is a nudist beach. If you are looking for a nice surf, go left. The trailhead is on the street near the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
9883 La Jolla Farms Rd, La Jolla, San Diego
William Heise County Park
Located just outside Julian, William Heise County Park is a nice 1,000-acre public park with a campground, picnic tables and cabins for rent, and a network of trails for every level of fitness. The forested setting makes hiking pleasant on hot summer days. The Desert View Trail is fairly steep and challenging, through dense chaparral, but eventually leads to Glen’s View, with spectacular vistas out over the Anza-Borrego Desert area and the town of Julian. This is one of the three loop trails through the park. If you are lucky, you might be able to spot mule deer, flocks of Rio Grande wild turkey and, rarely, bobcats and mountain lions.
4945 Heise Park Rd, Julian, CA 92036
Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail
At 6,512 feet, Cuyamaca Peak is the second highest in San Diego. It is the main landmark in the huge Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Hiking up the mountain to get to the peak is easy, and although you will be steadily going up, you will always walk on the asphalt fire road. The sight of so many dead trees, a result of the devastating 2003 forest fire, is a sobering one. Only towards the peak you will see some surviving sugar pines, incense cedars, white firs, and black oaks that once covered the mountain. The trailhead for this hike is at the Paso Picacho Campground.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park 12551 Hwy 79. Descanso, CA 91916
Mission Trails Regional Park: Oak Canyon Trail
Snuggled among rugged canyons and rolling hills, Mission Trails Regional Park is among the most popular San Diego hiking destinations, with a range of trails to choose from. The Oak Canyon Trail, running along the stream and surrounded by chaparral and sage, is one of the most enjoyable. It starts at the Old Mission Dam parking lot. Keep walking by the picnic tables, the ruins of the Old Mission Dam, and the steel foot bridge that crosses the San Diego River and keep going upstream. You can take a little side trip up the stairs to the overlook if you want to enjoy a beautiful view of the Old Mission Dam. The trail is mostly flat, with several rocky areas. You will have to cross the stream several times and will intersect with several other trails, allowing you to extend your hike or make it more challenging.
1 Father Junipero Serra Trail, San Diego, CA 92119
Double Peak Trail
The Double Peak Trail is a 5-mile trail that starts at Discovery Lake Park in San Marcos. Moderately difficult, the trail will take you to Double Peak with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet, so it is fairly steep. It starts as a paved road before it turns into a dirt single trail that is much rougher. All around you will see the remnants of burnt trees from the 2003 fire, so there will be no shade. Once you come to the top of the 1,644-foot summit, you will be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the entire North County area. There is a nice little park at the summit, with benches and the shade of a few trees.
700 Buena Vista Way, Chula Vista, CA 91910
Hiking through Sheep Canyon in the spectacularly beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is going to test your stamina, but the breathtaking beauty of the waterfalls at the end of the trail make it more than worthwhile. Starting at the Sheep Canyon campground, you will be walking, and often climbing, large boulders, rough dense prickly desert plants, losing the trail and jumping over the stream, and often climbing the side of the canyon to avoid obstacles. After about 3 miles of rough going, and gaining more than 1000 feet in elevation, you will arrive at a true desert oasis, with a totally unexpectedly series of lush waterfalls with clear water rushing over smooth rocks into deep cool pools surrounded by ferns and other verdant vegetation.
Borrego Springs, CA
Borrego Palm Canyon
Borrego Palm Canyon is another amazing surprise in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, an oasis of the last remaining groves of native California palms on the planet. The trail down Palm Canyon to see the palms is a relatively easy; a 3-mile trip if you are prepared to hop over a lot of boulders, cross a stream running down the canyon, and climb some stairs. All around you are native desert plants and fascinating geological features, but the highlight of this interesting hike are the palms, massive, natural, and clumped together like a force of nature. In contrast to the surrounding desert vegetation, they look very much like they belong.
200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Hiking the Viejas Mountains, with the trailhead near Alpine, is not for the faint of heart. This 3.6-mile oxygen-depriving exercise is steep, rugged, rocky, slippery, mostly unmarked, and completely without any shade. There are short stretches of flat path, but you will gain 1,600 feet in elevation. So why bother with this nightmare? First, because it is pretty, with wildflowers growing along the trail. Second, because you can see the mountain from anywhere in San Diego and it challenges you. And finally, because when you are on top, the summit of Viejas Mountain opens up a 360-degree view of the world all around you and you can see everything. The feeling of being on top of the world is worth a few hours of suffering.
Stonewall Peak is a 3.8-mile, fairly easy climb and one of the four trails in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The trailhead is at the Paso Picacho Campground; it is well-marked and steadily climbs to gain 900 feet in elevation through a series of gentle switchbacks. While you will see the damage caused by the 2003 fire, some chaparral and manzanita have regrown and the tall ceanothus provide pleasant shade in parts of the hike. Close to the top, you have to scramble over some large boulders. A set of steep stairs with a metal railing will take you to the top, where the view of Cuyamaca Peak, North Peak, Cuyamaca Lake, Middle Peak, and the distant Palomar Mountains will take your breath away.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park 12551 Hwy 79. Descanso, CA 91916
Boucher Hill Loop
The Boucher Hill Loop Trail is 3.5-mile hike in Palomar Mountain State Park to the top, where a fire tower was built in 1948 to monitor the area during the fire season, from May to December. The view of San Diego County and parts of Riverside and Orange Counties is spectacular. The trail starts at the Silvercrest parking lot and climbs steadily to gain 800 feet in elevation, passing at times through lovely groves of black oak trees with some fir and cedar trees. If you hike in November, you will enjoy the beautiful display of bright golden oak leaves.
19952 State Park Drive, Palomar Mountain, CA 92060, Phone: 760-742-3462
Del Mar Mesa Preserve
The Del Mar Mesa is a 2,000-acre coastal ridge between Del Mar and La Jolla. The preserve was created to protect a mesa on the slopes of Peñasquitos Canyon. There are 8 miles of multi-use bike, horseback riding, and hiking trails that run through hills covered with scrub oak trees and chaparral. After a rain, you will see on the trail small shallow pools filled with water called vernal pools. Start by following the wide fire dirt road barely uphill. When you reach "Cardiac Hill," the trail becomes more rugged and goes steeply downhill to Deer Creek, which runs through the canyon. At one point, you will go through a mesmerizing dense tunnel of tangled vegetation. The whole area is breathtakingly beautiful.
Del Mar Mesa Road, San Diego, CA 92130
Double Peak Trail
Double Peak is a small neighborhood park in San Marcos with a 4.7-mile-long trail. Although considered moderately difficult, the large part of the trail is an immaculate, wide asphalt road going through the neighborhood of private homes. It runs up and down but steadily gains about 1,000 feet in elevation. You will pass by lovely, lush Discovery Lake and can extend the hike by going around the lake first before continuing towards Double Peak. At some point, the cement becomes a dirt path and only towards the peak does it get a bit rougher. The view that opens in front of you is spectacular – you can see coastal San Diego, North County, and East County. There are nice benches in the little park at the summit.
Double Peak Dr, San Marcos, CA 92078
Three Sisters Waterfalls
The Three Sisters Waterfalls Trail is a 3.5-mile trail near Descanso, California. This waterfall is probably the most beautiful fall in San Diego, but it is not so easily reached by inexperienced hikers. It is a user-created trail and badly eroded in many spots. It descends deep into Boulder Creek Gorge over extremely rugged and steep terrain. At three points, you need to pull yourself along using the rope. Good hiking boots, gloves, and plenty of water are essential. This trail has seen many accidents and all hikers are warned to honestly access their abilities, as this hike is dangerous.
Boulder Creek Rd Pine Valley, CA 91916
San Onofre State Beach
San Onofre State Beach is a 3,000-acre park about 3 miles from San Clemente. It is one of the very few less developed and well-preserved San Diego beaches, with dense coastal sage, rugged sandstone cliffs looming above, and soft, white packed sand under your feet. The trail across the beach is more than 5 miles long, going and coming back, and it will give you a sense of going back in time to when the beach was full of sea lions and shells. Explore the tidal pools at high tide and enjoy the spectacular sunset, all part of this hike’s very nice experience.
San Clemente, CA 92672