Hiking San Diego
In addition to ample sunshine, hiking San Diego offers hikes for everyone. From coastal hikes, to moonscape deserts, to big mountains, there’s tremendous variety. San Diego County’s 4,261 square miles are the most biologically diverse in California, with over 2,000 plant species, over 500 species of birds, and hundreds of species of reptiles and mammals.
This “best of” loop on the Big Laguna Trail offers a little bit of everything, and is one of my favorites. You’ll get scenic a mountain meadow and lake, a peaceful oak and pine forest, glimpses of the highest peaks in San Diego County, a climb to a mountain summit, a stretch on the PCT, and incredible views into the desert and high mountains beyond. Even though the hike is only about 12 miles through the Laguna Recreation Area, you’ll feel like you covered more ground because of the tremendous variety.
Pine Valley, CA - 12 miles, Moderate
Hot Springs Mountain, the highest point in San Diego County at 6,535 feet, would be worth hiking just for that fact, but there’s so much more to enjoy. After a tough initial climb, the trail is peaceful and scenic as it winds through conifers, giving the feel of a higher alpine area. And at the summit, you get to visit the oldest standing fire tower serving Cleveland National Forest, dating to 1942, and then enjoy a ladder climb up to the actual summit. It’s a fun and beautiful hike that’s tough but not too tough.
Warner Springs, CA - 10.5 miles, Hard
The South Clevenger Trail has gained popularity because of a unique attraction: a pair of lawn chairs perched on a boulder, offering epic views down into San Pasqual Canyon. Visiting the chairs is fun, but there’s also much more to enjoy on this hike in the San Pasqual – Clevenger Canyon Open Space Park. You have a moderate climb that provides spectacular views of the valley and then the final summit, where you get sweeping views of high peaks like El Cajon and Cuyamaca Peak. It’s a fun hike with lots of natural eye candy and photo opportunities.
Escondido, CA - 5 miles, Moderate
Cedar Creek Falls Trail is one of San Diego’s most popular hikes. The trail offers epic views of the San Diego River Gorge before you arrive at Cedar Creek Falls, almost the perfect waterfall, plunging 80 feet down into a bowl-shaped pool of clear water. It’s such a popular hike that you need a permit to do it. The extra work is worth it though, the experience is magical, but you need to avoid the crowds if you can. In this guide I’ll tell you everything you need to know to make the best of this hike.
Ramona, CA - 6 miles, Moderate
Considered “the hardest hike in San Diego” by some (more on that later), the El Cajon Mountain Trail makes you work for it, even though the summit is only at 3,648 feet. El Cajon Mountain, which towers over eastern San Diego, dominates the skyline you drive down I-8. Its sheer granite cliff face is also colloquially known as El Capitan or El Cap, after the iconic granite rock face in Yosemite National Park. We won’t be going up the sheer cliff on this hike but instead taking a rolling trail through El Capitan County Preserve, known for its steep climbs on the way out AND back. Aside from a great workout, the payoff is spectacular views from Palm Springs to Mexico and the bragging rights to say you conquered El Cajon Mountain.
Lakeside, CA - 12 miles, Hard
A favorite of San Diego hikers, this hike in the Eflin Forest to Lake Hodges Overlook offers a lot. Starting in a quaint valley along Escondido Creek, believed to have been a meeting point for neighboring native tribes, you’ll ascend the picturesque Way Up Trail until you reach the shores of Olivenhain Reservoir. After circling the reservoir, you’ll arrive at Lake Hodges Overlook, where panoramic views of the lake and mountain peaks are a feast for your eyes.
Escondido, CA - 7 miles, Moderate
This mellow hike on the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail takes you to the highlight of the park, a waterfall plunging through volcanic rock. Along the way you’ll encounter a forest of giant California live oaks and sycamores, the grave of European royalty, and a year-round stream that many endangered species call home. Nestled in a valley insulated from surrounding development, Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is not only one of the most bio-diverse areas in SoCal, but it’s also one of the largest urban parks in the USA.
San Diego, CA - 7 miles, Easy
The Goat Canyon Trestle hike is iconic: a meandering trail along what is dubbed “the impossible railroad,” through the spectacular Carrizo Canyon, and finally to the world’s largest wooden trestle bridge, hidden miles away from civilization. Although not offering any big mountain climb, it is a strenuous hike through a harsh desert environment, with over 16 miles of distance to cover.
Jacumba Hot Springs, CA - 16.5 miles, Hard
A local favorite, the Monserate Mountain Trail loop hike features a tough little climb with some unique trail markers. First off, you’ll climb about 1,200 feet straight up the mountain, which is challenging but doable. And along the way, you’ll have trail markers for every ten stories of the original World Trade Center, put there for the Fallbrook Firefighters 9/11 Memorial Hill Climb. The top offers panoramic views and a fun summit area that often includes a flag. You can head straight back down or hike a loop that rewards you with more great views into the Agua Tibia Mountains.
Fallbrook, CA - 4.5 miles, Moderate
The Eagle Rock hike, near San Diego in Warner Springs, is an easy adventure on the legendary PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). You’ll meander up a babbling brook in the shade of oaks, and then cross grasslands offering views of San Diego County’s high points. At the end, you are treated to Eagle Rock, perched on a hillside and overlooking this remote area. Overall Eagle Rock is a great hike with lots of payoff for not much effort.
Warner Springs, CA - 6.5 miles, Easy
The Bernardo Bay Trail in San Dieguito River Park is a natural oasis, just minutes off the I-15 freeway. In this short loop hike on the banks of Lake Hodges, you’ll enjoy great water views, a variety of fauna, and a ton of wildlife. In fact, this whole area is known as a birding hotspot. And while I wouldn’t travel hours to do this hike on its own, its location just off the I-15 makes it a great spot for a quick leg-stretching rest stop.
San Diego, CA - 2.5 miles, Easy
Iron Mountain, in San Diego County, is one of the most popular hikes in the area. Hiking to the summit is tough, but not extreme, and once there, you can soak in panoramic views from the high mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The summit even has a viewfinder and picnic benches where you can relax. In this guide, I’ll show you how to safely do the hike, avoid the crowds, and beat the heat.
Poway, CA - 5.6 miles, Moderate
The Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail is a gentle hike that offers a lot of scenery packed into a short distance. One of the only National Recreational Trails in San Diego, the hike takes you through mountain pines and cedars, offers panoramic viewpoints, and ends at the iconic Palomar Observatory, the largest in the world from 1948 to 1976. The Observatory Trail is easy to follow, not too steep, and great for families.
Palomar Mountain, CA - 5 miles, Moderate
The Santa Margarita River Trail hike is a true gem. The hike follows the shady shores of the Santa Margarita River, Southern California’s last undiverted, free-flowing river, home to over a hundred species of animals. The peaceful river banks also hold glimpses into the area’s past, including Native American artifacts and relics of a railroad that once connected San Diego to the outside world. Today the Santa Margarita River Trail is protected and well-marked thanks to the non-profit Wildlands Conservancy. It’s a beautiful trail that’s easy, with a flat 3 mile option or a longer 5.7 hike to a hidden beach.
Fallbrook, CA - 5.7 miles, Moderate
The Batiquitos Lagoon Trail hike is easy and peaceful, offering a great way to experience one of the few remaining tidal wetlands in Southern California. There’s lots of wildlife, a nice mix of sun and shade, and a family and stroller-friendly path that’s great for everyone. The Batiquitos Lagoon Trail is also right off of Interstate 5 in Carlsbad, making it a convenient place to connect with nature amidst interstates, tourist attractions, and other development.
Carlsbad, CA - 3.4 miles, Easy
The 13.5 mile Oak Grove Trail to High Point hike starts in historic Warner Springs and gently makes it’s way up to one of the only active fire towers in San Diego County, which also happens to be the tallest fire tower in California. On the way you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of San Diego County and the high mountains of Southern California. The hike is not too technical and includes fire roads, but it is still a decent challenge with a fair amount of climbing.
Warner Springs, CA - 13.5 miles, Hard
I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of the Potato Chip Rock hike, even if you’re not familiar with it. Potato Chip Rock is the iconic rock formation in San Diego County where everyone grabs a photo of themselves perched out on the rock, over the oblivion. The hike to the rock and summit of Mt Woodson is a fun one, with a few options to get to the top. It’s a hard hike because of the uphill, but otherwise well-marked and easy to do. It gets crowded so plan your trip accordingly (keep reading!).
Poway, CA - 7.5 miles, Hard
The Cowles Mountain hike brings you to the highest point in San Diego at 1,593ft, with views from Mexico to Orange County. Cowles Mountain is also one of the most popular hikes in San Diego, so I’ve routed this hike up the less trafficked and more scenic “back way” up the mountain. It’s a fun, safe beginner hike, and a must-do if you’re in San Diego.
Santee, CA - 5 miles, Moderate
The Stonewall Peak Trail hike is the most popular hike in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park for good reason. It’s not too tough, offers great 360 views from Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and has a unique bald rock face summit. Give the hike a try, you won’t be disappointed. Stonewall Peak, at 5730ft high, is also right next to the 2nd highest peak in San Diego County, Cuyamaca Peak, and both can be hiked in a day. Break your hikes up with a picnic in Paso Picacho Campground.
Julian, CA - 5.4 miles, Easy
The hike to Cuyamaca Peak brings you to San Diego County’s second highest point at 6,512 feet. It’s only 20 feet lower than the highest peak, but much easier to hike. On a clear day, you can see for 100 miles from the summit, including the Coronado Islands and Table Top Mountain in Mexico. Even though the hike goes to a high point, it’s not a tough backcountry expedition, but rather a a great hike for a beginner – no tricky twists and turns.
Julian, CA - 6 miles, Moderate
This Torrey Pines hike takes you to the best of the park – you experience get great ocean views, hike through unique geological formations, get a glimpse of the world-famous golf course, hike on an antique version of the Pacific Coast Highway, and of course, get see the Torrey Pine. The Torrey Pine is the rarest pine tree in the United States and is an endangered species. You can only see them here and on the Channel Islands. As you’re hiking Torrey Pines, remember that the environment is fragile, so please stay on the trail. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of those once in a lifetime destinations, I highly recommend this hike!
La Jolla, CA - 3.3 miles, Easy