Try San Diego’s five toughest hikes — if you’re ready for a challenge

Dive into 2021 with these harder hikes not for the faint-of-heart.


San Diego has its share of lung-busting, thigh-burning hikes. Set mostly in arid, sun-exposed areas, these local treks combine heat, altitude and incline for challenging adventures for even the most seasoned athletes.

“El Cap,” El Cajon Mountain

Length: 11 miles round trip

Dubbed San Diego’s hardest hike, the relentless up and down journey is not for the faint of heart. This is training ground for hardcore athletes gearing up for Ironman races, Ragnar races, marathons and demanding hikes like Mount Whitney.

Insider tip: Don’t (repeat) don’t go in summer. It’s too hot and brutal. Go early in the morning in winter to lessen your chances of heat stroke. Don’t bring a dog unless that dog competes in triathlons, and don’t go unless you are in seriously good shape.

Where it is: 13775 Blue Sky Ranch Road, Lakeside

Mount Woodson/Potato Chip Rock

Mount Woodson/Potato Chip Rock
(Christina House)

Length: 7.6 miles round trip

There are two paths to the famous Instagram spot, but the toughest one is off the trail from Lake Poway. The first half is the most grueling thanks to sets of steep, rocky inclines. Take advantage of the flat spots before you embark on the second half through boulder fields and the easier (whew!) finale to the flake.

Insider tip: Take it slow and easy with plenty of rest breaks. Load up on water and sunscreen as much of the trail is without shade. For an easier journey, try the 4mile route from Highway 67.

Where it is: From Lake Poway: 14644 Lake Poway Road

Fortuna Saddle ascent (North Fortuna)

Length: 5.3 miles

Known for its use in military training, this vicious incline between North and South Fortuna is a thigh-blasting, breath-sucking workout. Strenuous on the way up and stressful to the knees on the descent, this fire road section of the trail is a challenge. Good news: The rest of the trail is moderate in difficulty, and once you’ve conquered this portion, the remaining saddle between North and South Fortuna will feel like a breeze.

Insider tip: Don’t be bashful about catching your sharply inhibited breath on the way up, and watch carefully for the slippery and uneven gravel to avoid spills when heading back down.

Where it is: Mission Trails Regional Park

Oak Grove to High Point, Palomar Mountain

Palomar Mountain trails.
(Ernie Cowan)

Length: 13 miles

Combined with its 13-mile distance, sharp switchbacks and rocky inclines, this hike is not for the casual hiker. And with a gain of 3,500 feet, this ascent will get your legs burning and heart pumping. Make sure to start early for cooler temperatures and wear plenty of sunscreen and protective clothing as much of the trail is exposed.

Insider tips: You’ll need an Adventure Pass to take on this trail, so stop by a ranger station before embarking on this challenging adventure. Stay overnight at the Oak Grove Campground nearby the trailhead to relish your accomplishment or awaken fresh to get an early start.

Where it is: 95965 CA-79, Warner Springs

Rabbit Peak and Villager Peak Trail

Length: 23.8 miles

The longest trail on our list is known as one of the toughest among local hikers, but the beautiful views of Anza-Borrego make the pain worth it. Pack your navigation skills, bring a buddy, and get ready for rugged terrain and hard-to-see paths.

Insider tips: Don’t try to tackle this hike all in one day. Unless you’re an experienced hiker ready for an excruciating day, split the hike into two days and camp at either of the peaks. And if you spend the night, be sure to go to bed early so you don’t miss the beloved sunrise on Rabbit Peak.

Where it is: Borrego Springs

**Advice for all tough trails**
Establish your own limits and stick to them. Don’t try to be a hero. If you feel dizzy, shaky or nauseous, stop and rest, and if symptoms don’t start improving within a few minutes, head back down and try another day. A good heat factor rule of thumb is to get off the trails once the mercury reaches the 80s.

Pack PLENTY of water. It is stunning (and frightening) to see people trekking up grueling, hot trails with one small water bottle, or *gasp* nothing at all. Every year, without fail, folks suffer dehydration and heat exhaustion on San Diego trails. Don’t be one of those people. Be smart, and pack more water than you need.

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