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Hiking is what you make of it — maybe you’re in it for the exercise and adventure, or maybe you’re more into the photo ops and trail snacks. Regardless, and whether you’ve lived in San Diego your whole life or were one of the smart ones that migrated here, you’ll know that the area is a mecca of outdoor activity. Start your adventure with a steep mountain climb and then go cool off by the beach, all in one day.
Lace up your boots, fill your water bottle, pick your scenery, and hit the trails: here are the best hiking spots in San Diego.
Looking for a quick jaunt that’s sure to impress? Hop on the quick and easy La Jolla Coast Walk. The half-mile trail might be short, but it’s sure to impress with no shortage of coastal views (we recommend going for sunset), roaring sea lions, and crashing surf that will leave you itching for a quick dip in the Pacific. Continue down the trail and soak in setting sun at one of the many benches lining the coastal path.
Situated in Solana Beach, the San Elijo Lagoon runs east to west from the coast, passing under the 5 freeway, and all the way to the ritzy Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood. Along the south side of the lagoon, you’ll find seven miles of mostly-flat trails ripe for exploration. Be sure to check out the Mushroom Caves carved into the sandstone, they are one of the more unique sights in San Diego and will immediately transport you to a different planet. Adventure away!
“Essential Southern California” is how most people would describe Torrey Pines. Aside from the fancy golf course by the same name, the Torrey Pines trails are a system of well-maintained pathways that lead you up to (and in some cases over) the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean just north of La Jolla. The docents (super smart guides) at Torrey Pines are filled with great knowledge and are always happy to tell you about the nature you’re experiencing – like the fact that the Torrey Pine is the rarest native pine in the United States! You could spend all day exploring here. Hop on the Beach Trail Loop for a mild 2.3-mile stroll along the bluffs, or choose your own adventure at any one of the other trails criss-crossing the area.
Just west of the San Diego Airport you’ll find Ocean Beach, the sleepy town perpetually stuck in the 1970s. Pass by the tie-dye until you reach Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a beautiful stretch of 68 acres along the Pacific Ocean. The 1.7-mile, out-and-back trail will treat you to some of the best views in San Diego. cough Take a date cough Keep an eye on the ocean for surfers enjoying a few of the most popular breaks, as well as grey whales during migration season! The trail is dog-friendly, so if you don’t have that date just bring along a furry friend.
Lake Hodges is actually a reservoir just south of Escondido and about a half hour’s drive outside of San Diego. Surrounding the lake, you’ll find miles of trails that loop around the shimmering water — it’s sort of beautiful… Make it far enough around the lake and you’ll find the dam that sits on the San Dieguito River and creates the reservoir. All year long these trails are packed with hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers tackling the varied terrain. And we think the seven-mile out-and-back primary route is just the right distance to break a nice sweat and fit that workout in. Get yourself here while the water still exists (kidding. But not really. Because droughts).
“Los Peñasquitos” translates to “the little cliffs”, and these little wonders create a unique trail experience just north of the city. Across miles of trails that criss-cross the creek, you’ll find a waterfall, multiple wooden bridges, giant California live oaks, a grove of sycamore trees, and the opportunity to see any of a handful of animals like deer, bobcats, and coyotes (hopefully from afar), to name a few. Hop on the canyon trail, a 6.8-mile loop that takes you right by the falls. When you hike here, be ready for adventure!
Just a quick hour outside of San Diego, this hiking spot feels like an entirely different world. It exists on the east side of the Cleveland National Forest at about 6,000 feet of elevation. Just the drive up Mount Laguna is scenic — in fact, it’s called the Sunrise Highway, and you should leave early enough if you want to witness its beauty. The best part about Mount Laguna though? Miles of the epic Pacific Crest Trail (2,659 miles total from the Canadian border to Mexico) traverse Mount Laguna. Fitt Tip: bring a backpack with the essentials, like fresh socks and trail mix.
The only controversy surrounding Cowles Mountain is how to pronounce the name (coals vs. cow–les). Aside from that, we have peace. Pretty much everyone agrees that this is one of the top hikes in San Diego. It’s easily accessible, well-maintained, and juussst challenging enough (2.9 miles and 950ft. of elevation). Get out early and bring your water; it does get crowded and warm! But let us tell you: The views at the top are worth it all — on a good day you can see the ocean!
A hike on Iron Mountain in Poway, a city just northeast of San Diego, has a grand total of 5.3 miles and 1100ft. of elevation gain. Seriously, this hike is nothing to sneeze at. Go in the spring to see a beautiful assortment of blooming wildflowers and enjoy the backdrop of amazing boulders all year round. And like many of the other popular hikes, this trail does enjoy heavy traffic during the weekends, so come out on a weekday for solitude and peace and quiet.
Possibly the most Instagrammed spot in all of San Diego county, Potato Chip Rock lies at the top of Mount Woodson. This 7.6-mile, out-and-back hike gains over 2000ft. of elevation on its way up, with no shortage of stellar views of the Pacific Ocean. A few insider tips: bring more water than you think you should; be prepared for it to be well-trafficked on the weekend; and (for goodness sake) don’t wait in a line at the top to take your photo on Potato Chip Rock. There’s plenty of other amazing backdrops to pose in front of. Stand out from the crowd!
This 6.7-mile, out-and-back trail in Cleveland National Forest (about 1.5 hours from SD) isn’t for the faint of heart. But those willing to take on the strenuous, nearly 1,500ft. of elevation will be rewarded by stellar sights that will make you forget you still have to make the trek back down. Large granite boulders, blooming wildflowers (in the spring), and vistas featuring the Cuyamaca and Laguna mountains combine to make this one of the most visually stunning treks in the area. Fitt tip: the mountain air can be chilly in the autumn and early spring, so bring a few layers.
If you’re looking for an isolated hike that will test your fitness and bring you into the bushwhacking wilderness, El Cajon is the place for you. The Mountain Trail is 10.6 miles long, and climbs over 3500ft. of elevation, leading to scenic vistas and passing fields of mountain wildflowers. The trail is well-maintained for the most part, though some places will require special attention as trail markers are sometimes sparse. Fitt tip: The path is unshaded in many places, so maybe wear a hat and bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Get out and chase some waterfalls! The trail to Three Sisters Falls is a popular, 4.2-mile trek that leads to one of Southern California’s most iconic waterfalls. The out-and-back path passes through gorgeous rocky scenery and is a great spot to catch a glimpse of local wildlife. Though the trail is accessible year-round, the best time to go is during the (albeit rare) rainy season when the falls are flowing at their strongest.