10 Favorite Hikes in San Diego

Posted by Adventure 16 | 10.11.2017

San Diego is home to some of the most amazing hiking trails in California. From climbing around cultural landmarks to plummeting into death defying waterfalls, here’s 10 San Diego hikes everyone should do at least once.

1. Cowles Mountain


Running to the top of Cowles Mountain is a timeless San Diego tradition
Running to the top of Cowles Mountain is a timeless San Diego tradition. 


For those looking to sneak a quick hike into their day, Cowles Mountain, located in Mission Trails Regional Park, may be the perfect lunch hour workout. At 1,595 feet, it’s the highest peak in San Diego city limits. While only 1.5-miles to the top, the steepness of the trail can quickly turn into a high intensity race to the top. With the convenience of its location and 360 degree views of the city, hikers can expect to find Cowles busy with college students, families, and lots of dogs.

Pro TipContinue the grind by going out to Pyles Peak, a much less traveled trail to the second highest peak in Mission Tails. Round trip to Pyles peak adds another three miles.

2. Palomar Mountain


Sunset over the Pacific from the top of Palomar Mountain
Sunset over the Pacific from the top of Palomar Mountain. Joe Wolf


Large Douglas firs and cedar trees accompanied by views of the San Jacinto peaks give Palomar Mountain a Sierra Nevada-like feel. One of the highest peaks in county at 6,140 feet, the 13-mile round trip is a strenuous half day hike. For those ready for the challenge, consider making it an evening adventure and visit the Palomar Observatory (4.5 miles up and home to a 200 inch reflecting telescope) for some serious stargazing.

3. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park


San Diego's Sunset Cliffs
San Diego's Sunset Cliffs. Bill Morrow


With easy access located at Ladera St. and Sunset Cliffs Blvd in Ocean Beach, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park may be the most relaxing and enchanting hike on the list. Showcasing the vast beauty of San Diego with 1.5-miles of majestic sea cliffs, tide pools, and ocean air, this hike doubles as a romantic date option. And if you’re headed for the cliffs in the evening, expect to see bottlenose dolphins and plenty of seals splashing along the rocks.

Pro TipFor a treat, take some extra time to go all the way down to the Ocean Beach Pier for a pint and one of the best fish tacos in San Diego at South Beach Bar & Grille at the end of Newport Avenue.

4. Balboa Park Trails


Balboa Park isn't all museums
Balboa Park isn't all museums. Jay


Home to world renowned museums, art exhibits, and botanical gardens, Balboa Park brings many things to mind. The list of events and sightseeing options around the park can even make locals forget that the 1,200-acre cultural landmark is surrounded by miles of hiking trails. With five trails to choose from, ranging from 1.5-miles (trail 1) to 6.6-miles (trail 5), hikers at any level can wind down canyon paths and up again through lush oak and pine covered hills.

5. Borrego Palm Canyon


Borrego Palm Canyon
Borrego Palm Canyon. Rick McCharles


No hiking guide for San Diego would be complete without mention of Anza-Borrego, and Borrego Palm Canyon is the state park’s quintessential adventure. Breathtakingly desolate in the best ways, the trail delivers desert charm through ripe cactus gardens, wildflowers, and bighorn sheep (borregos). There are 3.2 miles of relatively flat trail that ends at the third largest palm oasis in California, where hikers can sway along and take in the stretch of deep colors only a desert sunset can provide.

Pro TipStart at the Visitor's Center for a nice interpretive .7 mile walk to the campground. Then either follow the signs to Borrego Palm Canyon trail from there, or hike up the View Point Trail for a panoramic view of the surrounding desert floor.

6. Mount Woodson


On top of Mount Woodson, all covered in boulders
On top of Mount Woodson, all covered in boulders. Dan Holl


Known for its unmistakable rock formation near the top, locals know Mount Woodson best as "Potato Chip Rock." And it has become a rite of passage photo opt for San Diegans over the years. Lined with massive boulders that tower over 6.4-miles of zigzagging trail, the difficult hike leads to one of the highest peaks in the county where views of Lake Poway and Palomar Mountain await. For this hike pack extra water, snacks, and a camera.

Pro Tip: If you prefer a little more strenuous hike, try making it a loop. Start on the Lake Poway side, go up to the summit and take the Fry-Kogel Trail down to the 67. Loop around to the road and go up to the peak from there, then drop back down by Potato Chip rock and straight back down to Poway lake.


7. Iron Mountain


Looking southeast from Iron Mountain Peak
Looking southeast from Iron Mountain Peak. thphht


Well-marked and maintained trails coupled with diverse Californian beauty make Iron Mountain an extremely popular destination. Located in Poway, the 6-mile hike offers little coverage from the sun, but has a backdrop of sprawling hills, coated with purple lilacs and massive boulders. The trail is family-friendly and a big hit with horseback riders. Between the summer heat and popularity of Iron Mountain, an early morning start is recommended.

Pro TipTo make this hike a loop and get away from the masses for a bit, start at the parking lot off the 67 and Poway Road. Go up the Iron Mountain trail for about a half mile, then turn right onto the Wild Horse Trail. Take Wild Horse Trail to the Old Miners Trail or make it even longer by going out to Ellie Lane Trail and go up from there to make it a nice day hike.

8. Cedar Creek Falls


Cedar Creek Falls spilling into a punchbowl
Cedar Creek Falls spilling into a punchbowl. John Lemieux


Roughly an hour northwest of San Diego, Cedar Creek Falls is one of the best waterfall hikes in the region. The trail itself is a challenging 6-mile round trip excursion that passes through exposed, dry, and sunny stretches of land and eventually leads to a gouged-out punchbowl pool that's a veritable oasis. The finish line is a swimming hole that sits below a monstrous waterfall, dumping from 75 foot high cliffs. Bring a buddy, extra water, and witness one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the San Diego area.

Be awareThe return hike from the Falls requires more than two miles of strenuous uphill hiking. Dogs are not advised in this area due to high incidence of canine heat stroke deaths each year.

Pro Tip: Bring a printed copy of your permit as cell phone service is unreliable in this area.


9. Torrey Pines


Singletrack at Torrey Pines State Park
Singletrack at Torrey Pines State Park. Lora_313


With rare pine trees, native flowers, and jagged sea cliffs, Torrey Pine State Reserve displays the unique beauty of Southern California with 8-miles worth of hiking. Starting at the top of the reserve, it’s a “choose your own adventure” sort of destination with multiple trail choices that weave through geological highlights before opening up to views of the pacific. Razor Point (1.3 miles) and Guy Fleming (0.7 miles) provide picturesque lookout points, but for the real sunset chasers, there’s a beach trail (1.7 miles) that ends with a walk right into the sand.

10. El Cajon Mountain


Soaking in the views from El Cajon Mountain
Soaking in the views from El Cajon Mountain. Travis Rigel Lukas Hornung


El Cajon Mountain, or “El Cap” hiking trail is the most grueling on the list. Used by IRONMAN triathletes for training, the 11-mile hike follows an old mining trail all the way up to its 3,675 foot peak. And it gets hot! The trail is closed for an entire month during the dog days of August, so plan accordingly. Layered with steep trails both up and down the mountain, this trek will leave hikers with sore legs, stunning views, and a true sense of accomplishment.


Pro TipBe sure to monitor your fitness level and head back to the trailhead if you find yourself running low on energy or water, as this hike is notorious for being "uphill both ways!"

Pro Tips Provided by:

James Almon on Mt. San Gorgonio

James Almon is Manager of Information Systems at Adventure 16 and an avid hiker. To say James does a LOT of hiking is almost an understatement. What’s a lot? Well, let’s just say out of the 365 available days in a year, James hikes at least 315 of them - and on some of those days he goes twice! We’re not talking short hikes either. James’ weekend hikes are easily upwards of 13 – 20 miles each day! And did we mention that he’s also an outstanding wildlife photographer? Does James have any tips for getting out there? Just two: You need a pair of good hiking shoes and a good guide book such as Jerry Schad’s Afoot & Afield.



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