So-Cal Climbs: 12 Best Hikes In San Diego

Though San Diego is undoubtedly more famous for its surf, sand, and tacos, it also features some truly stellar outdoor venues that don’t require you to put on a pair of board shorts – like a wide range of hiking trails. In fact, there are literally dozens spanning across the whole of the county from the deserts in the southeast to the beaches in North County, each locale offering unique animals, plant life, and vistas.

There are, of course, several trails that stand head and shoulders above the rest for everything from their overall quality to the payoff at the end of the hike. So how does one choose which hikes to tackle, whether you’re just visiting or you’re a local who’s never taken advantage of them? Well, you can start right here with our collection of the 12 best hikes in all of San Diego.

Borrego Palm Canyon

Way out on the east side of San Diego County, you’ll find Anza Borrego – a little slice of desert paradise dotted with both palm trees and cacti. And tucked into one of the canyons that creeps into the foothills of the State Park, there’s a short-but-sweet canyon loop hike known as the Borrego Palm Canyon trail. It’s a relatively short and simple walk that culminates in a serene and shady pond oasis – though it’s perhaps better for the spring or fall months, as the heat can be brutal (and dangerous) in the summer. Still, this is a must-hike for anyone willing to make the drive out of the city.

Length: 2.9 Miles
Elevation Gain: 515 Feet
Difficulty: Leisurely
Type: Loop

Cabrillo Monument

At the very tip of Point Loma – west of downtown and south of Ocean Beach – lies one of San Diego’s greatest gems, the Cabrillo National Monument. And while you can certainly visit the museum and lighthouse, there are also a number of rather easy-going out-and-back hikes that begin there, most notably of which are the Bayside trail and the much shorter trek down to the costal tide pools on the ocean side of the peninsula. It does get exceedingly busy, especially in nice weather, so we suggest hitting as many of these trails as you can if you’re going to spend the time trying to get out to the monument.

Length: 2+ Miles
Elevation Gain: 328 Feet
Difficulty: Leisurely
Type: Out & Back

Cedar Creek Falls

Way out in east Ramona, one of the more rural parts of the county, there sits a lovely – if confusingly named – out-and-back trail. And while the Cedar Creek Falls trail is certainly one of the most difficult in all of San Diego, it is also one of the most rewarding – as, at the end of the 5+ mile path, you’ll come upon a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. Many travelers would have you believe that this swimming hole is known as the Devil’s Punchbowl, but they’d be wrong. It’s actually the Cedar Creek Falls. And the real Devil’s Punchbowl is on private property further east and is, therefore, unreachable. Don’t let that deter you, however, as this hike is worth it all the same. Just remember to wear comfortable shoes, bring plenty of water, and get a US Forest Service permit before you begin.

Length:5.2 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,102 Feet
Difficulty: Advanced
Type: Out & Back

Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain, a part of the greater Mission Trails (though it certainly warrants separate consideration), is one of the best value proposition hikes in all of San Diego. It’s short, but still moderately difficult as a result of its steep incline, and it offers some superb views of the southern part of the county and down to Mexico. Being that it is so quick and accessible, however, this is a heavily trafficked hike – so make sure you’re prepared to scramble for parking and don’t mind sharing the trails with loads of other hikers. This is also one of the more dog-friendly hikes and is definitely the best bang-for-your-buck if you’re short on time.

Length: 3 Miles
Elevation Gain: 918 Feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Type: Out & Back

El Cajon Mountain

Likely the least-traveled of all the hikes on our list and almost certainly the most difficult, El Cajon Mountain is not for the faint of heart and will definitely require that you bring along some supplies and about 3 liters of water (at the very least). And while the over-10-mile hike is challenging for even folks in excellent shape, the sense of accomplishment and vistas you get to enjoy once you make it to the top are more than worth the hardship. Like all hikes in San Diego, however, you’ll want to avoid this one during the hotter summer months. And, because of its length, you’ll probably want to dedicate an entire day to finishing this one – and definitely don’t even think about starting it unless you get up early.

Length: 11.1 Miles
Elevation Gain: 3,766 Feet
Difficulty: Advanced
Type: Out & Back

Iron Mountain

About as accessible as Cowles, but a little bit longer and in North County, Iron Mountain is a good half-day hike that’s perfect for the casual hiker, but not so easy that more athletic folks would find it boring. Pair that with the fact that the peak of the hill offers up one of the most gorgeous panoramic views of all of San Diego County (literally from the ocean, down to Mexico, and way out to the desert). Also similar to Cowles, this is one of the most frequented hikes in all of the county, so don’t expect quiet solitude if you’re hoping to hit the trails.

Length: 5.6 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,184 Feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Type: Loop

Los Penasquitos Canyon

Though it is certainly the most leisurely trail in regards to elevation gained and lost – it’s virtually flat from start to finish – the walk can be deceptively tough because of the distance traveled on this canyon loop in North County. It is also one of the more landmark-laden paths in the area, with a century-old graveyard, cowboy ranch house, and a waterfall at the far corner. While the difficulty can be upped quite a bit on warmer days of the year, this path is still one of the best value propositions if you want gorgeous scenery, but aren’t looking to sweat through your clothes.

Length: 7 Miles
Elevation Gain: 187 Feet
Difficulty: Leisurely
Type: Loop

Mission Trails

Less a single trail and more of a sprawling series of routes, Mission Trails is a massive chunk of land with walkways that wind all around its entirety. And there’s not just hiking, either – you can reserve a campsite there for an overnight trip, do some bouldering along with local expert rock climbers, or even fish at Lake Kumeyaay. The biggest benefit to this area, however, is probably the fact that, with so very many possible paths, you can make your hike as long or as short as you want it to be.

Length: Varying
Elevation Gain: Varying
Difficulty: Leisurely To Advanced
Type: Loop, Out & Back

Mount Woodson

Ever seen those photos on social media of people standing on top of a potato chip-shaped rock? That’s this hike. Unfortunately, what you never see from those photos is how great the rest of the trail is – starting at Lake Poway and running all the way up to overlook the whole surrounding area. And while it’s all well and good to pose on top of the iconic rock outcropping, we definitely encourage people to take a little time to appreciate all of the other wonderful scenery to be had.

Length: 7.5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 2,335 Feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Type: Out & Back

Palomar Mountain

Like Mission Trails, this is less a single trail and more like a spiderweb of paths, with a number of different paths of varying length and difficulty. What is surprising, however, is just how little the scenery looks like Southern California. Due to the elevation of Palomar Mountain – which has an excellent observatory at the top, should you also be into stargazing – this hike is a little more reminiscent of the northwest, with pine trees, sometimes a thick fog, and a much more lush green to the plants (as opposed to San Diego’s more common sand brown colored ones). If you’re looking to hike from base to peak, however, remember that this is absolutely one of the most difficult climbs in the whole county, so you’ll want to bring plenty of water and some food to refuel.

Length: Varying
Elevation Gain: Varying
Difficulty: Leisurely To Advanced
Type: Loop, Out & Back

Three Sisters Falls

Another difficult out-and-back trail, Three Sisters is nonetheless a very popular hiking destination thanks to its payoff – a swimming hole with a beautiful waterfall at the end of the path. And don’t be fooled by the brevity of the distance traveled, as the 3.5-mile path is deceptive thanks to an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet over the course of it. If you’re a bit more experienced and you’re looking for a challenging adventure, this hike at the edge of the county is an excellent option.

Length: 3.5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,099 Feet
Difficulty: Advanced
Type: Out & Back

Torrey Pines

How many places in the world can you take a cliffside hike that overlooks the Pacific Ocean? Very few, we imagine. And that is probably a big part of what makes Torrey Pines such a popular venue for locals and visitors alike. After all, these are the very same cliffs where they put a world-famous golf course. One of the best parts of this hike – apart from the obvious beauty – is that it is fairly short and easily accessible. So, if you don’t have a whole day to dedicate, but you still want to get a good walk in, this is one of your best options.

Length: Varying
Elevation Gain: Varying
Difficulty: Moderate
Type: Loop, Out & Back

Best Day Hikes In America

Even if you’re nowhere close to California, you can still find some killer hiking trails wherever you are in the States – just check out our list of the best day hikes in America.

Get The Goods

HiCONSUMPTION'S DAILY NEWSLETTER

Sign up for HiConsumption The Goods

© HiConsumption | DMCA

Back To Top