Due to a mild, sunny climate and a plethora of landscapes and natural features, San Diego County offers a diverse array of hiking trails. Within San Diego County you'll find ocean cliffs covered with Torrey pines, rolling mountain ranges, and the incredible Anza-Borreo desert. In addition, there are are over 2,100 plant species, 500 species of birds, and hundreds of different reptiles and mammals. San Diego County's 4,261 square miles are the most biologically diverse in California, if not the United States.
San Diego is an ideal hiking destination all year long. In the spring you can find amazing wildflowers on the coast (April) and in the mountains (May through June). During the hot summer months, stick to the coastal and beach hikes or get an early start to your inland hikes as the temperatures can be 15 to 20 degrees warmer inland. Don't worry too much about "May Gray" or "June Gloom" on the coast because the marine layer typically burns off by noon. Fall brings golden foliage across the region. In the winter months you can find a bit of snow in the mountains to the east. Perhaps your ideal day is building a morning snowman in the mountains and making sand castles on the beach in the afternoon.
Whatever the season or your hiking skill level, San Diego County is a treasure trove of adventure and wildlife viewing. Crowds are the only downside to hiking in San Diego, which is an issue in many large cities. Do yourself a favor and get up early, hit the trails with the morning sun, and you'll likely miss some of the masses.
Without further ado, here are 10 of our favorite hiking trails in San Diego.
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a popular destination, and eight separate trails offer a variety of difficulty levels and types of scenery. From these trails visitors can observe the Torrey pine and the unique geology of the ravine and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Beach access is possible as well, connecting the reserve to the Torrey Pines State Beach.
What would an adventure in San Diego be without a hike to Mount Woodson and Potato Chip Rock? The 7.5-mile there-and-back trail is surprisingly strenuous and exposed. Be sure you bring plenty of water and your patience as you wait in line for your iconic photo on Potato Chip Rock.
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is a popular destination for San Diego weekend warriors, and for good reason. It’s just a short distance from the city, but it feels much more isolated, especially compared to other San Diego hikes that have vistas overlooking subdivisions. On this 6-mile loop you're likely to see upwards of 175 species of birds, so be sure to bring your binoculars.
Cedar Creek Falls is an amazing seasonal waterfall and a great hike in the San Diego area. It plunges down 80 feet into a deep swimming hole known as the Devil's Punchbowl. The fairly strenuous 3-mile trail winds through the chaparral hills of eastern San Diego County. Heat is always something to consider before doing this hike, no matter the season. As you descend into the valley, expect a 10-degree temperature rise. In the summer, temperatures can exceed 115 degrees!
Another great swimming hole in San Diego County is Three Sisters Waterfall. Carved out of the Cuyamaca Foothills by Boulder Creek, the series of falls is reached by a quick 2-mile descent into the canyon. This means, of course, that the return can be a very hot 2-mile climb, so be sure to bring and save plenty of water.
At 1,592 feet, Cowles Mountain (pronounced "coals") is the highest peak in San Diego. Its multiple approaches, easy access, and 360-degree views from the summit make it one of the most popular hikes in the county. Although the route from the most popular Golfcrest Drive Trailhead is only 1.5 miles long, the elevation gain of almost 950 feet makes the hike quite a workout.
Another popular hike just outside of Poway is the 6.4-mile hike to Iron Mountain's summit. The vista offers 360-degree views of the surrounding hills, including the San Vicente Reservoir. For rock climbers, some of the granite formations along the trail make for good bouldering.
The Silvercrest Trail in Palomar Mountain State Park is a scenic 1.2-mile hike that is great for families with young kids. The well-maintained trial winds its way through the forest and offers lots of opportunities for shade.
Oak Canyon and Grasslands Crossing in Mission Trails Regional Park is a 1.8-mile loop that passes historic landmarks, oaks along a dry riverbed, rolling hills, and a river crossing. This is another great family-friendly option as there is very little elevation gain along the trail.
A visit to the Cabrillo National Monument will offer hikers amazing views, a historic lighthouse, and tide pools. Following a path from the visitor center to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse will take you to the park’s summit. This is the best place to take in the view of San Diego, and the lighthouse itself is beautiful. Gray whales are migratory and cannot be seen year round, but they are generally visible in the winter.
What are some of your favorite hiking areas in San Diego County?