The 8 Best San Diego Hikes

The 8 Best San Diego Hikes

By Melissa McGee July 18, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

Taking a hike is a great way to reduce stress and add a sense of adventure to any workout routine—a short hike in the forest beats a run on the treadmill any day. We can’t think of a better way to get your body in shape and clear your mind, all while reaping the benefits of being outside in nature. 

The hiking trails in San Diego are among the most beautiful in the entire state, offering views of the city’s gorgeous beaches, undulating mountains, and deep canyons. While there are many San Diego hikes worth mentioning, here are a few of our top picks. 

The Top Hiking Trails In San Diego

Take a leisurely stroll along the La Jolla Beach Trail to admire breathtaking views of the San Diego coastline.

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1. La Jolla Beach Trail

Location: 11101 North Torrey Pines Place, La Jolla

Hours: Dusk–dawn

Parking: There’s a parking lot by the trailhead.

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 2.1 miles

Time: 1 hour

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes

The La Jolla Trails is suitable for hikers of all ages and skill levels, thanks to its relatively flat and easy-going nature. The pathway is also ideal for joggers, runners, and cyclists, and the occasional fly-fisherman. Although crowded at times, the trail offers views of the Pacific Ocean, surf spots, and sunbathing seals. (For a fun adventure away from the crowds, go to the 42-acre La Jolla Heights Open Space—one of the area’s best-kept secrets—to become one with nature.

For an outdoor adventure filled with waterfalls, streams, and creek crossings, tackle the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail.

2. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail

Location: 12020 Black Mountain Road, San Diego

Hours: 8 a.m.–sunset

Parking: Park in the lot near the trailhead.

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 7.4 miles

Time: About 2.5 hours

Route: Loop

Dogs allowed: Yes, but they must be on a leash.

The Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is great for all hikers, regardless of their skill level. Complete with waterfalls, streams, and creek crossings, this adventure-filled route is fit for the whole family. The spectacular scenery makes this trail worth visiting. Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve attracts many hikers for its beautiful views and rich biodiversity—the canyon is home to over 500 plant species, more than 175 types of birds, and a variety of reptiles and mammals. The 3,700-acre preserve features about 12 miles of hiking trails, making for an unforgettable adventure.

Admire the famous Torrey pines and sweeping ocean views while hiking through Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

3. Torrey Pines Hike

Location: 12600 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla

Hours: 7:15 a.m.–sunset

Parking: Paid parking is available at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 3.3 miles

Time: 1–2 hours

Route: Loop 

Dogs allowed: No

As its name implies, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is home to the nation’s finest pines—the Torrey pines. The reserve has several hiking trails varying in length and difficulty, but one of the easiest and most beautiful is the Guy Fleming Trail. This loop trail offers two overlooks with panoramic views and has the greatest variety of wildflowers, ferns, cacti, and habitat diversity in the reserve.

To extend your adventures at Torrey Pines, you can also hike along the Parry Grove Trail, a secluded half-mile loop. There’s also the Razor Point Trail, which twists through coastal greenery, offering hikers a picturesque view of nature. If you’re planning a visit during the winter months, you might spot gray whales or dolphins as you trek along the coast. Although it’s a considerably steep climb, you’ll have a gorgeous view.

Head to Cowles Mountain to conquer one of the best San Diego mountain hikes and to see gorgeous panoramas of the region.

4. Cowles Mountain Trail

Location: 8282 Mesa Road, Santee

Hours: 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

Parking: Free street parking is available near the start of the trail.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 5 miles

Time: 2 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but they must be on a leash.

Cowles Mountain is one of San Diego’s most popular hiking destinations. Although this trail is challenging, you can conquer the mountain—all you need is a bit of perseverance. The Cowles Mountain Trail is not very shaded (so start early), but the magnificent view at the top is definitely worth the effort. Once you reach the Cowles Mountain summit, panoramic views from Mexico to Orange County await you.

Climb to the Iron Mountain summit in Poway and be rewarded with views of San Diego County and distant Baja California Peninsula.

5. Iron Mountain Trail

Location: CA-67, Poway

Hours: Dawn–dusk

Parking: Park for free along the road, at the base of the mountain.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 6 miles

Time: 3 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but they must stay on a leash.

While the name itself is intimidating, the Iron Mountain Trail is manageable for beginner and advanced hikers alike, making it one of the most popular places for weekend hiking. Climb your way to the east side of the mountain to enjoy a breathtaking view. Iron Mountain is the second-highest peak in the Poway area—plan your hike on a clear day to see Mount Woodson and the Catalina Islands. 

The hiking trail is mostly a shadeless path, so plan accordingly and bring plenty of water. Other activities, such as mountain biking and horseback riding, are also recommended on this trail. If you’re an avid hiker or are in the mood for an extra challenge, the Iron Mountain Trail offers additional routes that take you to other mountain peaks.

Hike to Cuyamaca Peak, the second-highest point in San Diego County, to enjoy vistas of the surrounding region.

6. Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail

Location: 12551 CA-79, Descanso

Hours: Dusk–dawn

Parking: There’s a parking lot available by the trailhead.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 7 miles

Time: 4+ hours

Route: Loop

Dogs allowed: Yes, as long as they are on a leash.

One of the most rewarding aspects of any hike is the summit view, and Cuyamaca Peak doesn’t fail to deliver—it has an elevation of 6,512 feet, which is the second-highest point in San Diego County. The trail is located within the 24,700-acre Rancho State Park, which is home to beautiful oak and conifer forests, meadows, and mountain brooks that you’ll soon be calling your second home. With various hiking routes to choose from, including the Azalea Glen Loop and the Conejos Trail, you won’t regret the trek up to the summit. No matter which route you choose, you’ll discover lush trees and granite rocks throughout your journey.

Hike to Three Sisters Falls in Cleveland National Forest to experience one of the best waterfall hikes in San Diego.

7. Three Sisters Falls Trail

Location: Boulder Creek Road, Santa Ysabel

Hours: Dusk–dawn

Parking: Parking area available.

Difficulty: Challenging

Distance: 4.2 miles

Time: 2+ hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: No

Considered a challenging journey, the Three Sisters Falls Trail spans across rugged, rocky terrain with steep inclines. But this path is also among the best waterfall hikes in San Diego, so if you’re an adventurous risk-taker, this one’s for you. Although the trail can be somewhat crowded, you’ll pass through several ecosystems along your journey before reaching three majestic waterfalls, making your efforts worthwhile. Three Sisters is amazing for the adrenaline junkies—kick it up a notch with mountain climbing and rock traversing.

Trek to the top of Mount Woodson in Poway to snap photos of the iconic potato chip rock.

8. Potato Chip Rock via Mount Woodson Trail

Location: Lake Poway, 14644 Lake Poway Road, Poway

Hours: Dusk–dawn

Parking: Parking is available by the lake.

Difficulty: Challenging

Distance: 7.5 miles

Time: 3-4 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but they must remain on a leash.

As its unique name suggests, Potato Chip Rock is famous for its iconic shape (which resembles a chip) and is reachable by trekking along the Mount Woodson trail in Poway. Great for summer hiking and photo-session indulgence, this trail will lead you to the prominent rock and the Mount Woodson summit. Although the hike uphill is challenging, the views are worth the trouble; you’ll be able to see Lake Poway, the Pacific Ocean, and even downtown San Diego from the top. 

Looking for more adventure? Follow up your San Diego hike by refueling with an indulgent California burrito, hitting the water, taking a scenic drive, or exploring the bustling city center.

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