SAN DIEGO.COM: BEST HIKES IN SAN DIEGO
When most people think of San Diego, the beach comes to mind first. Then, it’s the proximity to the border and the rich food scene it helps to inspire. The area's hiking, however, is often overlooked by visitors who focus on exploring the beachside neighborhoods and busy downtown area.
San Diego is a coastal desert city that just so happens to have plenty of mountains nearby. This makes it a great spot to enjoy both the beach and the mountains. No more deciding between the two, because, here, you can have it all! There are numerous hikes in the San Diego area, and we’ll talk about 10 top picks.
It can be overwhelming to decide which hikes to go on, especially if you have limited time. Whether you are a visitor or looking to hike on the weekends between work, we’ll give you all the info that you need to choose which ones might be best for you.
10 Best Hikes in San Diego County
We recommend trying all these trails in San Diego if you can because each boasts a different level of physical demand, varying views, and proximity to other cool San Diego spots.
You'll find that some offer steep slopes or rocky terrain best suited for experienced hikers while others offer a moderate hike while allowing you to take in some of the best views in Southern California.
There are certainly more hikes than what we’ve got here, some are even different hiking trails in the same area as our picks. We want to provide a good range of options and locations, though, so that you can get a sense of what’s what in the world of the best San Diego hikes.
So, let’s get into it!
1. Three Sisters Falls Trail- Ramona
Image from backcountrycow.com
About an hour to the northeast of downtown San Diego, you’ll find this moderate, 4-mile hike, in Ramona. This area is one of the most popular for locals, and visitors, to enjoy seasonal activities, especially in the fall, thanks to the beautiful trees and greener landscape that it boasts. You can continue on to Julian, California which is a nearby mountain town and the home of the famous apples and apple cider that locals tend to see in stores all autumn long.
The best thing about this hike is that it ends up at the Three Sisters Falls, where you’ll see some beautiful views and have a chance to cool off after hiking along the barely shaded, dry paths. The three main waterfalls, the Three Sisters Falls, are well worth driving, and hiking, for.
You’ll want to plan for about 3-4 hours of hiking, especially as the way down into the canyon is a bit easier than the trek back, which is primarily uphill.
2. Annie’s Canyon- Encinitas
Image from hikeitbaby.com
One of the most unique hikes in San Diego, you’ll find that Annie’s Canyon is a short and easy loop filled with an otherworldly feel. Thanks to its narrow sandstone slots that require a ladder to traverse between the sheer canyon walls, you won’t mind that the hike doesn’t require too much skill or finesse. On the other hand, if an easier, shorter hike is what you’re looking for, it’s hard to go wrong with this beautiful spot!
At just 1.5 miles, the hike is categorized as easy, and you can access it from some other nearby trailheads if you’re hoping to compound it with an additional day hike. An added benefit is that this loop is located in Encinitas, just about half an hour north of the downtown San Diego area. You’ll be super close to some of the best beaches, great burrito spots, and fun little shops that you can explore after your hike.
3. Iron Mountain Trail- Poway
Image from hikingsdcounty.com
Another hike that gets you a little further from central San Diego, the Iron Mountain Trail is in Poway, which is to the northeast of downtown and can be found on the road to Ramona. This hike is a hard one, spanning about 6 miles, but it is one of San Diego’s most popular hikes. Make sure that you pay attention when putting this spot into your maps, though, or you might end up taking an impromptu drive to the Iron Mountain near Los Angeles instead.
Expect some steep inclines, rocky areas to climb on, and paths that are both open to the elements and encircled in trees or bushes. You’ll have your fair share of detours there that will take you to places like the Ramona Overlook and different staging areas, which can be fun diversions on the way to your route.
4. Torrey Pines Broken Hill Trail Loop- La Jolla
This is a hike that can be as easy, or as hard, as you want to make it. Depending on whether you start at the free parking below the entrance to the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, or whether you pay about $20 to drive up the hill to the hike’s official start, your experience here can vary significantly. The broken trail loop itself is moderate, at about 3 miles in total. The views of the Pacific Ocean below, at Torrey Pines State Beach, are an almost constant companion to this hike, making it feel like a beach trail though it lies far above the water.
If you want to enjoy a view of the coastal trails and ocean nearby, there are plenty of benches and stopping points along the way so that you can take it all in. You’ll see everyone from kids in school field trip groups to college students, retirees, and families hiking along the trails of Torrey Pines State Park. If the broken hill loop trail isn’t quite enough for you, or you’d like to stray off of the main trail, you can take one of the other routes back to the beginning of the hike. The Guy Fleming Trail, for example, is an additional loop trail that is under a mile long and gives you a quick way to go from the paved road to feeling like you're really in a state park.
You can choose to add an entire extra loop trail if you’d like to explore more of the state park. None of the trails are too intensive, and you could easily take a few detours, especially when it's cooler outside. Even on a hot, sunny day, the sea breeze is enough to make this a pleasant hike for all to enjoy. It’s central to San Diego, has a fun beach trail, and is a great way to get outdoors for a while!
5. Stonewall Peak- Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Image from CaliforniaThroughMyLens
Located in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, to the east of San Diego, but south of Ramona and Julian, the Stonewall Peak Trail is most easily accessed by parking in the campground day use lot across the street. There is a fee, but it’s worth the good, secure parking that it offers. Stonewall Peak is a relatively mild hike that allows you a 360-degree view of the surrounding hills and valleys from its top observation point. Great for panorama photos and taking some fun POV videos, it’s a perfect spot to feel like you’re spending some much-needed time in nature, even if you drive right back to the city afterward.
What makes this hike more moderate is the stairs at the very top, which are bordered by rocks on one side and a handrail on the other but are steep and a bit more rigorous than the rest of the mild incline of the lower parts of the trail. At 4 to 5 miles, depending on the route you wish to take, the hike should take about 2 hours. You can either return the way that you came, or you can take an alternate route down, to complete the loop option. The loop is a bit less common, so you may find yourself avoiding some crowds by taking this way down.
6. Potato Chip Rock- Poway
Image from sdfamilytravelers
A famous hike thanks to the funny pictures that are angled to look like this thin ledge is much more dangerous than it really is, Potato Chip Rock is a spot that you don’t want to miss. The hike is about 7 miles long and is a moderate trek. Bring your camera for this one, because the photo op is half the fun of getting to your destination. The Mount Woodson trail is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego County, so you’ll want to expect to see some crowds.
If you go earlier in the day, there’s a good chance you’ll hit less traffic, see fewer people on the trail, and might even get better weather (especially if you want to beat the summer heat.) There are parking lots that you can use but you’ll find that many people simply park on the side of the road to save some money on parking fees. Watch out for traffic coming by, of course, but this is a commonly used option.
7. Kwaay Paay- Santee
If you’re looking for a view of San Diego’s beautiful downtown, next to the waters of the Pacific Ocean, all while marveling at the mountainous feel of your immediate area, Kwaay Paay is for you. At just 2.5 miles round trip, the hike isn’t a long one, but it does get steep toward the end, with steps leading to the summit. You’ll surely get your cardio in with this one. There are a few route changes you have the option to take, but you’ll find that the majority of hikers seem to stay on the main path. You can always just follow the crowd if you aren’t feeling too particular.
Located just 10 miles from downtown San Diego, in the Santee area, you get great views of the city and of the nature that so conveniently surrounds it.
8. Cedar Creek Falls Trail- Ramona
image from hikingsdcounty
Another Ramona hike makes the list, because of its popularity among San Diegans and visitors alike. The Cedar Creek Falls trail is in the Cleveland National Forest, and just so happens to end at a unique point. Upon getting to the end of this out-and-back trail, you’ll find a waterfall flowing into a secluded pool of water, bordered on both sides by rock faces. The hike is both difficult and largely unshaded, so the pool is quite a refreshing destination. At nearly 6 miles round-trip, this strenuous hike will leave you feeling tired in all the right ways. While it's no Pacific Crest Trail, it is one of the best San Diego hikes. We wouldn’t recommend going in the heat of summer, though, because conditions can be very harsh.
One last thing to keep in mind is that you need to reserve a permit ahead of time to do this hike. They don’t have permits available on-site, so make sure to grab a permit online.
9. Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail - Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Image from peakbaggerblobs
Cuyamaca Peak is the second-highest peak in San Diego, making it one of the only places in the area to get snow. Not only that, but Cuyamaca Peak is in the center of San Diego county, which means that it is also accessible and well-situated for taking in the surrounding landscape. Thanks to the combination of its exceptional elevation and central location, Cuyamaca Peak offers hikers some unparalleled views of everything from the other crests in the park to the coastline far beyond.
The 5.5-mile loop trail is deemed a difficult hike, but it’s mostly due to the elevation gain. It should take around 3 hours to complete, depending on how often you stop to take in the views. Really, the hike can be good for even those just getting started, because it is not overly technical. If a hiker has some water, and snacks, and is determined, the hike can be accessible to even those who have barely any hiking experience.
Like the Stonewall Peak hike in the same park, you’ll want to expect to pay a $ 10-day usage fee for the nearby parking lot, but it’s well worth the proximity to the start of this hike.
10. Tecolote Canyon Trail- Clairemont Mesa West
Image from trailrunproject
If you’re looking for another, very centrally located, San Diego trek then you may find yourself eyeing Tecolote Canyon. The canyon is woven into the fabric of San Diego’s central suburbs, just into the east of the popular Pacific Beach and northern Mission Bay areas. An almost 7-mile trail, you’ll find that the hike is moderate and will take a little over 2 hours to complete. It’s not a loop, so you’ll end up returning the same way you came. You’ll see lots of people running, walking their dogs on leashes, and even mountain biking. The proximity to so many neighborhoods makes this a well-loved, highly trafficked trail.
The southern part of the trail is a bit more open, with low plants that don’t offer proper shade. When you get to the northern section, however, you’ll find that there are plenty of trees to offer some cover from the sun.
Whether you stay close to the city and hit the Torrey Pines trail in the morning or decide to drive to Eastern San Diego to check out the Three Sisters Falls, you’re sure to find one that is just right for you. You might also stumble upon options not on our list, like the Los Peñasquitos Canyon trail, Cowles Mountain, the Oak Canyon trail, and so many more. With other locations like the San Diego river, Palomar Mountain State Park, and the Blue Ranch Sky Road, it's not difficult to find San Diego trails that check all the boxes.
San Diego and its surrounding area have so many wonderful hikes that we can’t get into each and every one of them here. If you have a favorite that we missed, let us know in the comments!
If you’ve tried your hand at some hikes and are looking to follow it up with some grub in America’s Finest City, check out our article on the 11 Best Burgers in San Diego.