10 best hikes in San Diego
An uphill hike beats an hour on the squeaky treadmill any day. A clear head, a fit body and even more exploration of America’s Finest City? Let’s get to it.
There’s a trail for everyone in San Diego, from the picturesque walking paths of Torrey Pines State Reserve to the plunging hills of Three Sisters Falls. Lace up those hiking boots and pack some extra trail mix for the ten best hikes in San Diego.
1 - Torrey Pines State Park
The Razor Point trail (1.3 miles) or Guy Fleming Trail (0.7 miles) both offer dramatic, picturesque views of the big blue with easy trails accessible to almost anyone. In the winter, you might spot Gray Whales or bottlenose dolphins throughout the year. There’s also a Beach Trail (1.7 miles), which is a bit steeper and allows access to the beach.
Length: 1-2 miles, depending on trail // Difficulty: Easy
Getting there: Take Hwy 5 to Carmel Valley Road, go west to Camino Del Mar and go south about one mile to the reserve entrance at the foot of the hill.
2 - Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
With a relatively tranquil route, the Los Penasquitos Canyon hike is great for all ages and skill levels, without skimping on some impressive natural sights. Waterfalls, year-round streams and creek crossings abound throughout the trail. Keep your eyes open – you might just see a deer walking the path.
Length: 4.7 miles // Difficulty: Easy
Getting there: Exit the 15 Freeway on Mira Mesa Blvd. Head west and make a right on Black Mountain Rd. Follow it north and take a left on Canyonside Rd. Parking is available here.
3 - Cowles Mountain
Cowles Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego. Sure, it has its steep switchbacks (the trail leads to the highest point within San Diego), but almost anyone can get through it with enough determination. There’s no spectacular greenery here, but the views are pretty picture-worthy. Keep an eye out for snakes crossing the path.
Length: 3 miles // Difficulty: Moderate
Getting there: Take Interstate 8 to the College Avenue exit. Proceed north on College Avenue to Navajo Road. Turn right and proceed on Navajo Road to Golfcrest Drive. Turn left on Golfcrest Drive to enter parking lot.
4 - Iron Mountain Trail
Don’t let the name intimidate you. In Poway, this boulder-lined trail is manageable for most hiking levels, making it ultra-popular on weekends. While it begins flat, the climb creeps into the eastern mountains and rewards hikers with panoramic vistas. Pack your sunscreen; little shade is offered. To increase difficulty, additional trails are optional throughout the way to other peaks.
Length: 5.8 miles // Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Getting there: Highway 67 and Poway Road. There is a small gravel parking area on the side of the highway.
5 - Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail
For the hiker searching for a rewarding view with various options, this one’s for you. There’s an array of routes to choose from to get to the top of Cuyamaca Peak, including the Azalea Glen Loop, Conejos Trail, West Side Trail and the Azalea Springs Fire Road. Located near Julian, you’ll come across everything from fallen forest trees to granite rocks and expansive views of the mountains and valleys below.
Length: 6.7 miles // Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Getting there: From I-805S, take I-8E and exit CA-79N/ Japatul Valley Rd toward Julian. Continue on CA-79N and park at the Paso Picacho Campground ($8 per day).
6 - Lake Poway to Mount Woodson
It’s all about the photo opp here. Okay, not totally, but the death-defying “Potato Chip Rock” can be held responsible for bringing hordes of hikers to Mount Woodson just to snap a pic on the sliver of granite rock hovering over San Diego. The hike itself is strenuous and should be started early in the day. It begins around Lake Poway, and quickly steepens straight to the top with little relief. Ample water and snacks are recommended.
Length: 6.4 miles // Difficulty: Hard
Getting there: From Espola Road, go to the Lake Poway entrance. Parking is $5 for the day.
7 - Cedar Creek Falls to Devil’s Punchbowl
With one of the most spectacular destination points, the Cedar Creek Falls Trail also comes with a precautionary warning. Devil’s Punchbowl – the swimming hole at the end of the trail – has witnessed multiple deaths over the years from cliff jumpers. A massive waterfall pours into the natural pool, surrounded by 75-foot cliffs. On this trail, the way down is easy, but it’s the way back that’s uphill. Note: Guests need to purchase a $6 pass prior to visiting.
Length: 4.2 miles // Difficulty: Hard
Getting there: 15531 Thornbush Road, Ramona. Once you get to the end of Thornbush Road, the trailhead will be on your left.
8 - Mission Trails Regional Park: Oak Canyon Trail
Options are endless at this urban national park, with more than 40 miles of trails near Kumeyaay Lake and Lake Murray. One of the most popular, Oak Canyon Trail, offers a sycamore and oak-lined ravine winding north from the Old Mission Dam. A babbling stream accompanies hikers and the route drops deep into the canyon.
Length: 3 miles // Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Getting there: The trailhead is accessible from the Old Mission Dam parking lot. Walk down the pathway to the San Diego River, cross the bridge and begin.
9 - Double Peak Trail
Starting at Discovery Lake Park in San Marcos, this loop trail combines moderate steepness with restful views. At the top of the 1,644-foot summit, hikers are treated to a spectacular 360-degree view of the North County area. A majority of the trail was effected by the fires, so don’t expect much shade. The first mile is paved and then turns into a rougher single track. Dogs are welcome!
Length: 5 miles // Difficulty: Moderate
Getting there: Start at Lakeview Park off Foxhall in Discovery Hills. Cross the spillway bridge and the Discovery Lake Dam, and head up the paved road that winds up the hill.
10 - Three Sisters Falls Trails
Constantly named one of the most challenging hikes in the San Diego area, Three Sisters Falls follows steep inclines and rocky terrain. Ropes throughout the route are secured to help visitors climb up and down. This is not for the faint of heart; rock and boulder climbing is a required skill to make it to the Three Sisters Falls. Bring ample water.
Length: 4 miles // Difficulty: Extremely hard
Getting there: The trailhead is located on Boulder Creek Road where Cedar Creek road intersects. You can park at this intersection, and follow the trail west along a ridge until you see another trail intersect to the south to take.
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