10 Top Hikes Near San Diego

Rate this story:

The temperate climate and varied topography of the greater San Diego area delivers an enjoyable getaway for hikers of all abilities. Whether you are looking for a seaside stroll, a rolling hike on open hillsides, a tough climb to a peak with a view or a route-finding challenge in the desert, the trail systems at the southern end of California will not disappoint.

Along the Pacific Ocean, you will find impressive shorelines scattered with scenic inland bays, sunny beaches, diverse marshes and intertidal lagoons. Further inland, the terrain becomes hilly and transitions to drier and more rugged chaparral landscape. Here, as you depart from the suburban neighborhoods, the trails become increasingly remote and stunning, with viewpoints and hidden waterfalls to explore. Further east of downtown San Diego, you can hike into the mountains on gentle slopes through oaks and conifer forests interspersed with views of the coast to the west and the desert to the east. And if you are looking for an out-of-town adventure, plan a visit to the Anza-Borrego Desert, an otherworldly desert landscape home to a seasonal wildflower bloom.

No matter what type of hike you are looking for, get started on your next adventure with this list of 10 popular San Diego hikes, as shared by the Hiking Project community.

Batiquitos Lagoon Trail

    • Location: Batiquitos Lagoon Ecological Reserve in Carlsbad, 30 miles north of San Diego
    • Length: 3.3-mile out-and-back
    • Difficulty Rating: Easy
    • Best For: A wheelchair- and stroller-friendly trail to explore the waterfront
    • Dogs: Leashed

Located in the Batiquitos Lagoon Ecological Reserve, this trail is an ideal outing for families or for those looking for an easy day hike. This 544-acre reserve features a variety of habitats ranging from intertidal mudflats to coastal marshes—if you keep your eyes open you might spot birds such as herons and egrets. The landscape is home to marsh and wetland plants like cattails and pickleweed near the waterfront and a mix of upland plants like sagebrush and yucca further inland from the shore. You can also bring your fishing rod to extend your day with an afternoon of post-hike fishing.

The Batiquitos Lagoon Trail runs along the north side of the lagoon, and there are five public parking areas along its length. For this particular hike, start from the end of Gabbiano Lane—be aware that parking is limited at the end of the cul-de-sac, so you may have to adjust your starting point depending on parking availability. This trail is a popular spot for locals looking for a quick workout or afternoon outing.

The flat, wide and well-maintained trail heads east from the parking area, winding along the northern shore of the lagoon. This smooth and hard-packed dirt trail makes this an easy outing for young children or beginner hikers. You can easily customize the length of your hike as well, by simply turning around whenever you are ready. For the full out-and-back hike as mapped here, keep on exploring until you reach Batiquitos Drive where you can then return the way you came.



Blue Sky Ecological Reserve

  • Location: Blue Sky Ecological Reserve in Poway, 26 miles northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 5-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty Rating: Easy/Intermediate
  • Best For: A partially shaded hike on a wide, easy trail
  • Dogs: Leashed

Blue Sky Ecological Reserve offers hikers a unique destination just outside of Poway. Located close to neighborhoods, this easily accessible reserve provides a peaceful escape into a nearly 700-acre canyon that feels more removed from civilization than you might expect, given its proximity to Poway. With a landscape ranging from oak woodlands to coastal sage scrub and native chaparral, the trails have a mixture of shaded paths and open views. As an added bonus, the park offers guided hikes every weekend if you are interested in learning more about the plants and animals found in the area.

The out-and-back hike starts on the Green Valley Truck Trail, a wide and well-maintained path with picnic benches and restrooms along the way. You will start with a barely perceptible climb through the trees, for an easy and shaded start to your hike. After about 1.5 miles, take a left at a junction, and the trail gets noticeably steeper as you climb toward Lake Ramona. The trail here is more exposed, so make sure you have appropriate sun protection and plenty of water. The benefits of the open trail are the panoramic views of Lake Poway, Lake Ramona and the town of Poway that you will enjoy as you climb. Eventually, you will come to the Lake Ramona dam; the Green Valley Truck Trail continues for about another mile if you would like to extend your hike. Otherwise, take a break to enjoy the views before heading back down to the trailhead the way you came.

View of a lake and rocky hills.

Lake Ramona from Green Valley Truck Trail (Photo Courtesy: Hiking Project contributor Jennifer in San Diego)

 Torrey Pines State Reserve Loop

  • Location: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, 17 miles north of San Diego
  • Length: 2.4-mile round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Easy/Intermediate
  • Best For: Oceanside hiking along a scenic beach
  • Dogs: No dogs

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve protects a fragile coastal environment that is home to one of the nation's rarest pines—the Torrey pine. Apart from Santa Rosa Island, this reserve is the only location where this rare tree grows. Additionally, the reserve is adjacent to Los Peñasquitos Marsh Natural Preserve, one of the last salt marsh areas in southern California. These factors, combined with the unique, jagged cliffs, deep ravines and scenic stretches of beach all make for a spectacular setting for a hike.

There is a general admission fee per vehicle if you don't have a valid annual California State Parks Vehicle Day Use Pass. The park is open daily from 7:15am to sunset—plan to arrive early if you want to avoid the crowds as the park is busy year-round. For more information on this unique area, swing by the visitor center which opens daily at 9am. Be aware that rattlesnakes are native to the area, so keep an eye (and ear) open as you hike. Pack enough water for the hike, as well as appropriate beach footwear and possibly towels if you plan to break up your hike with a swim in the Pacific Ocean.

This hike is a great way to experience Torrey Pines via a relatively easy loop, though be prepared for some elevation gain at the start. As mapped, the loop begins from the large parking area at the north end of the reserve. Alternatively, you could start from the visitor center or a smaller parking lot located along the main park road. The first part of the hike is a mile-long climb on a wide path that follows along the shoulder of the main park road. Although this section is not as quiet or as impressive as what's to come, it is still scenic.  

When you reach the visitor center, turn onto the Beach Trail. This trail descends through increasingly impressive coastal scenery until dropping steeply via a set of stairs to the beach. From here, head north along the beach, making sure to look inland at the impressive ravines and Torrey pine-clad hills. Stop to dip your toes in the ocean or cool off with a quick swim. After about a mile of hiking along the beach, you will return to the large parking area where you started.

A hillside by the ocean.

Torrey Pines State Reserve (Photo Courtesy: Hiking Project contributor Steve Skinner)

Cuyamaca Peak

  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in Descanso, 50 miles northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 5.4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
  • Best For: Soaking up some of the best views in San Diego County
  • Dogs: Leashed

Although a trip to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park will require about an hour drive from the greater San Diego area, a visit to the park should not be overlooked. With several campgrounds, over 100 miles of trail and activities ranging from hiking, biking and horseback riding to choose from, planning a long weekend with an overnight stay at the park is a delightful retreat. With trails located in the peninsular ranges, hikers can explore a variety of mountain landscapes including oak woodlands, pine forests and meadows interspersed with creeks and cascades which offer a cool respite on hot summer days. The park offers interpretive programs in the summer, and the campgrounds feature amenities such as picnic tables and fire rings. A stay at any of the campgrounds makes an ideal base camp for a weekend adventure.

The hike up Cuyamaca Peak is one of the most popular in the park. At just under 5.5 miles in length, the first half of this out-and-back trail is a steady climb, gaining over 1,500 feet as it ascends from Paso Picacho Campground to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak. The path to the peak is an old fire road that was once paved and is now deteriorated so, although the path is obvious, there are places where you will want to watch your step.

Additionally, the trail is exposed with little shade, so make sure that you carry plenty of water and go early to avoid the heat of the day. The views are well worth the effort though, as you climb to an elevation of 6,512 feet at the summit. From the top of Cuyamaca, you will enjoy incredible views of the desert to the east, the ocean to the west and Lake Cuyamaca below you. On a clear day, you can even see south into Mexico and looking north, spot Catalina Island in the distance. Once you are done soaking up the panorama, simply head back down the trail to return to the trailhead.

A view of a distant lake framed by pine trees.

Lake Cuyamaca seen from Cuyamaca Peak (Photo Credit: Hiking Project contributor Jennifer in San Diego)

Cowles Mountain Backside Loop

  • Location: Mission Trails Regional Park, 13 miles northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 3-mile round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
  • Best For: A less-crowded route to panoramic views from Cowles Mountain
  • Dogs: Leashed

Located northeast of downtown, Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the more easily accessible outdoor recreation hubs near San Diego. This popular park has rolling hills and rugged valleys interspersed with open peaks and remarkable views. Due to its proximity to downtown, the park is a favorite spot for locals looking for a quick weekday escape or outdoor enthusiasts wanting a longer weekend outing. With nearly 65 miles of trails varying in difficulty, the park draws hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and horseback riders to explore the multi-use trail system. For ambitious hikers looking for a long day out, the park's popular 5 Peak Challenge hits the highlights of Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay, South Fortuna and North Fortuna. Families or beginners looking for a shorter excursion can swing by the visitor center, which is open daily from 9am to 5pm, for an educational look at the park before exploring the more mellow trails in the area.

Cowles Mountain is one of the park's popular destinations, and this loop takes you on a less-crowded route to the peak. While the main crowds will likely be found on an out-and-back hike on the main Cowles Mountain Trail, this 3-mile loop gets you off the beaten path while still taking you to the summit of Cowles. Starting from the Barker Way Trailhead, hike up the Cowles Service Road. This trail climbs quickly and, at times, steeply, up to views of downtown Santee and the hills to the north. There is a small bench where you can take a breather before finishing the climb. A little over a mile into the hike, you will come to a final steep push to the summit of Cowles Mountain. The climb ends with a few man-made steps leading to the summit marker. From the peak, you will enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding San Diego area. After you catch your breath, head briefly down the Cowles Mountain Trail before turning onto Barker Way Trail. This well-marked route switchbacks down to the trailhead where you started.


Iron Mountain Peak Trail #10

  • Location: Iron Mountain in Poway, 30 miles northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 5.8-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
  • Best For: An easily accessible and popular trail for a day hike
  • Dogs: Leashed

Located in and maintained by the City of Poway, the trail system around Iron Mountain is a popular destination for day hikers. The well-maintained trails are easily accessible from downtown and offer a scenic outing for hiking, biking or horseback riding. The area features rolling hills and hard-packed trails. In the spring, keep an eye open for wildflowers. In the summer, be sure to pack plenty of water as much of the trail is exposed. The Iron Mountain Staging Area has public toilets and limited parking, so be sure to arrive early, especially on the weekends, when this popular trailhead will fill early.

From the staging area, the hike begins with a gentle climb through a tree-lined field. This shaded landscape quickly changes to an open chaparral hillside as you start to climb more steeply. You will pass several trail junctions which are well marked with signposts. Continuing on past the Iron Horse Trail #11 and the Iron Peak Mountain Alternate Trail, you will climb an increasingly narrow trail with several steep and rocky sections—there are a couple places where you will want to watch your footing.

Just before the trail turns south to continue the climb, you will pass a junction with the Ellie Lane Trail #12. As you continue on, be sure to look around at the expansive views; the landscape here is dotted with interesting boulders. At just over 2 miles, the trail switchbacks up an open ridge before ending at the summit of Iron Mountain. From here, on a clear day you will be treated to views of Poway to the west, Mount Woodson to the north and San Vicente Reservoir to the southeast. To finish the hike, simply descend to the trailhead the way you came.


Palm Canyon Loop

  • Location: Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs, 88 miles northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 3.0-mile round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
  • Best For: A weekend camping trip combined with a hike to a stunning desert oasis
  • Dogs: No dogs

A trip to Anza Borrego Desert State Park is well worth the two hour drive from San Diego as this desert is home to many hiking trails, a stunning wildflower bloom (in season), a variety of wildlife including the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep and a diverse landscape ranging from colorful badlands to lush, palm-filled oases. Planning an overnight trip to one of the park's campgrounds will treat you to a starry night sky and the opportunity to more fully explore the park's 600,000 acres of pristine desert. The park's day-use areas are open from dawn to dusk, and there is a day-use fee. Be sure to bring plenty of food, water and sunscreen for your trip, as some areas of the park are quite remote.

The hike to the Palm Canyon oasis is one of the park's most well-known outings and for good reason. Though rated as intermediate difficulty due to the rocky footing and a bit of wayfinding where the trail becomes faint, the overall length and grade make for an enjoyable outing for hikers with some basic hiking fitness and experience. Starting from the parking area on the west side of the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, head out on the well-marked and easy-to-follow Palm Canyon Trail. The first part of the hike passes through a flat, sandy and open area with low vegetation and wildflowers in season.

After about 0.5 miles, the trail turns north and enters the canyon. After another 0.5 miles, you will cross the Borrego Palm Canyon Stream. Looking upstream at this point, you can spot the cluster of California fan palms at the oasis. The trail here passes through some dense underbrush before becoming rocky and a bit hard to follow—keep an eye open for occasional arrows that mark the way. Continue hiking up the stream to reach the oasis. This lush, shaded spot offers a welcome break. Enjoy the shade before heading back the way you came. On your return trip, you can choose to take the Palm Canyon Alternate Trail to add a bit more variety as you loop to the southeast of the main trail to return to the trailhead.


Cedar Creek Falls

  • Location: Cleveland National Forest, 68 miles northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 4.6-mile lollipop loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/Difficult
  • Best For: A challenging hike to enjoy one of San Diego's most well-known waterfalls
  • Dogs: Leashed

Tucked in the hills east of San Diego, this extremely popular area in Cleveland National Forest has instituted a permitting system for hikers wanting to visit Cedar Creek Falls. The falls can be accessed from two trailheads, the San Diego River Gorge Trailhead (also known as the Thornbush Trailhead) or the Saddleback Trailhead. Either entry point will require a day-use permit which can be booked in advance online. The hike to the falls from either trailhead is challenging, and it’s recommended to bring plenty of water and to avoid hiking during the heat of summer. Be sure to remember water for your four-legged companion too if you choose to hike with your dog; however, it is not recommended to bring your dog during the summer months due to the extreme heat.

The hike to Cedar Creek Falls is challenging due to the elevation change and the exposed sections that can make it quite hot, especially from May to November. Starting from the Saddleback Trailhead, head out on the Eagle Peak Road. This old dirt road has since become overgrown and is now a narrow, well-packed dirt path. The trail trends downhill, with wide, open views of the river valley and the surrounding hillsides along the descent. You may be able to spot Mildred Falls to the north, although this ephemeral waterfall will likely only be flowing after recent rains.

The trail continues steadily down along the ridge following along the San Diego River until coming to a junction with the San Diego River Gorge Trail. Take a left onto this trail to hike along Cedar Creek and reach the falls. Cedar Creek Falls, which is about 80 feet tall, cascades into a large pool where you can enjoy a dip to cool off after your journey. While this pool makes a refreshing watering hole, use caution on the slippery rocks and do not try to climb around the falls. And remember to save enough energy for the hike back which includes a steady and grueling climb up to the trailhead.

A view of Cedar Creek Waterfall.

Cedar Creek Waterfall (Photo Courtesy: Hiking Project contributor Matthew Kidd)

Three Sisters Falls

  • Location: Cleveland National Forest, 54 mile northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 3.7-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/Difficult
  • Best For: A strenuous hike to a multi-tiered waterfall
  • Dogs: Leashed

Located in Cleveland National Forest, Three Sisters Falls is a destination that is quickly gaining popularity. Be aware that this area can get quite crowded on weekends and during the summer. The hike to the falls is strenuous, although recent improvements to the trail have mitigated some of the more technical terrain and made the trail easier, safer and more sustainable. Due to the remote nature of the area, you will need to be well prepared and self-sufficient for your time out on the trail. Summer temperatures can reach dangerous highs, so be sure to bring plenty of water and start early. If you choose to hike with your dog, be sure to bring enough water for them and be aware that they will need to be able to navigate some tricky terrain.

The hike starts from the Three Sisters Falls Trailhead off of Boulder Creek Road. Head west from the trailhead on a wide, gated fire road. The first half mile is relatively flat with a slight downhill grade, before the trail turns south and starts descending in earnest. The fire road transitions to a well-traveled singletrack trail that continues down the canyon. As the trail becomes steeper, be sure to stick to the marked trail as opposed to cutting any of the switchbacks to help prevent erosion. As you get closer to Boulder Creek, the trail drops steeply to the middle falls, with rocky downclimbs aided by ropes in certain places. Take your time on this final descent to the waterfall.

Once at the creek, you can explore the three distinct cascades of the Three Sisters Falls which will be most impressive after a recent rain. Even when the water flow is low, you can dip your feet in the creek to cool off before your hike back out. Again, keep in mind that your return journey will be primarily uphill so you will want to save enough energy (and water) for the trip, and try to avoid hiking out during the hottest part of the day.


Potato Chip Rock

  • Location: Lake Poway Park in Poway, 27 miles northeast of San Diego
  • Length: 7.1-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/Difficult
  • Best For: A rewarding hike to a photo-worthy rock outcropping
  • Dogs: Leashed

Located northeast of San Diego, Lake Poway Park is a great jumping off point for a weekday or weekend adventure, and the hike to iconic Potato Chip Rock atop Mount Woodson is a difficult but memorable excursion. The park offers all the amenities of a city park with a large trailhead, public toilets and picnic areas. Open from 6am to sunset, visitors can enjoy fishing and boating at Lake Poway in addition to a hike into the hills surrounding the lake. There is a non-resident day-use fee to access the park which can be paid at the entry station. Be sure to bring plenty of water if attempting a longer hike in the area, as the trails beyond the lake are not shaded and can get quite hot.

The trailhead for this hike can be found at the Lake Poway Staging Area on the west side of Lake Poway. Head southeast on the Lake Poway Trail which winds along the southern shore of the lake. After about a mile of gently undulating terrain on well-maintained trail, take a right onto the Mount Woodson Trail. This wide fire road will climb steadily through the foothills around the lake and you will be treated to views of the rock-strewn hillsides. Be sure to take a couple breaks as you climb to look back over your shoulder at the increasingly impressive view of Lake Poway from above.

The next stretch of the hike is challenging as you will face nearly 3 miles of uphill interspersed with steep sections and very little shade. As you climb, the hillside will become dotted with larger boulders, many of which are interesting, but none quite as unique as the hike's namesake, Potato Chip Rock. Near the summit of Mount Woodson, you will come across this unique formation, a shard of protruding rock that makes for a fun photo opportunity. Enjoy the views before returning to the trailhead the way you came.

A view of Lake Poway.

Lake Poway (Photo Credit: Hiking Project contributor Tilman Giese)

View More San Diego Hiking Trails

Hiking Project is a community-built resource with more miles of trail being added every day by members just like you! Sign up to join our ever-growing community and to find your next hike, comment on and rate other trails and share your own hiking adventures.

be_ixf;ym_201911 d_15; ct_150
  • be_ixf; php_sdk; php_sdk_1.4.26
  • https://origin-coopjournal.rei.com/blog/hike/best-hiking-san-diego
  • https://www.rei.com/blog/hike/best-hiking-san-diego
No Comments