10 Best Hikes in San Diego

categories: Southern California

Known for its stunning scenery, San Diego has some of America’s most diverse geography, including mountains, tranquil beaches, and an arid desert. Unsurprisingly, San Diego is ranked among the best U.S. cities for hiking, with over 130 breathtaking trails throughout the area. So, we researched and found the ten best day hikes in San Diego County.

We based our findings on beauty, uniqueness, difficulty, and trail access. Some of these factors are subjective, so we also read local trail reviews to ensure we captured the full scope of hiker opinions. We include hikes that all members of your family can enjoy, including dog-friendly trails and flat trails ideal for wheelchairs.

10 Best Hikes in San Diego

 Photo by Alfonso Cerezo from Pixabay

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Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve sign

photo by RightCowLeftCoast, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail

Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail is a 6.8-mile loop of majestic scenery between Rancho Peñasquitos and Sorrento Hills that leads to a volcanic rock waterfall. It’s a popular spot for hikers and mountain bikers, with scenery including year-round streams, massive live oak trees, and historical sites like Eichar’s Grave.

It’s a tranquil trail appropriate for hikers of all ages and physical abilities –– but wear proper shoes. There are many creeks, so the ground gets muddy, especially after rain. You can stay on the main trail or go off the beaten path to its many side trails. Options include a boardwalk and several creek crossings.

You may see military planes fly overhead because the park is close to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Also, be on the lookout for Californian wildlife, such as Pacific tree frogs, aquatic birds, bobcats, and coyotes.

  • Length: 6.8 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Approximate time: Just over 2 hours
  • Location: Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, San Diego, CA

10 Best Hikes in San Diego #hikes #sandiego #california #outside #travel #vacation #trip #holiday2. Cowles Mountain Trail

Known for its spectacular views, the Cowles Mountain Trail leads to San Diego’s highest point. With an elevation of 1,593 feet, hikers marvel at the panoramic views of San Diego, Orange County, and Mexico. It’s one of the county’s most popular trails, so show up early to avoid massive crowds. Parking gets scarce at peak times.

The hike is short (3 miles round trip) but moderately difficult, so expect a good workout. Because there isn’t much shade, it gets hot; bring plenty of water. If your four-legged friends can handle the steep rocky inclines, bring them too. Just be sure to clean up after them and keep your dog on a leash.

  • Length: 3 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Approximate time: Just under 2 hours
  • Location: Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA
Top of Cuyamaca Peak

photo by RightCowLeftCoast, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Cuyamaca Peak Loop

If you want to go higher than Cowles Mountain, you’ll have to leave the San Diego city limits and explore the mountains of San Diego County. With an elevation of 6,512 feet, Cuyamaca Peak is the second-highest point in the county, sitting just 20 feet below the highest peak, Hot Springs Mountain. However, because Cuyamaca Peak is in the middle of the county, it offers the best views.

Located in a sparsely populated town, the park provides a more remote hiking experience. The hike features dusty tracks, dainty bridges, and hilly terrain as far as the eyes can see. As you approach Cuyamaca Peak, you may also notice the remnants of the 2003 Cedar Fire that burned many local trees.

Once you reach the top, the views are breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see up to 100 miles away, including grassy hills, mountains, and valleys. The hike is hot, moderately challenging, and sometimes muddy. Wear proper shoes and bring plenty of water.

  • Length: 7.4 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Approximate time: Just over 4 hours
  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Julian, CA
Sunset Cliffs, San Diego

photo by Roman Eugeniusz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Sunset Cliffs Coastal Trail

For a quick and easy hike with ocean views, consider the Sunset Cliffs Coastal Trail. It’s a low-stress 2.97-mile round-trip journey that’s fun for visitors of all ages, and dogs are welcome too. Most areas require a leash, but dogs may roam free in some places. In addition to hikers, the trail is popular with bike riders and runners.

While on the trail, you hear the tranquil sound of crashing waves, smell the salty air, and view the California seascape. Vegetation includes palm trees, cacti, and coastal sage. However, there isn’t a lot of shade, and despite the sea breeze, it gets hot. Make sure you stay hydrated.

  • Length: 2.97 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Approximate time: Less than 1 hour
  • Location: Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, San Diego, CA
Old Mission Dam

photo by Nehrams2020, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Oak Canyon Trail

The Oak Canyon Trail features a diverse mix of natural sites and historical landmarks popular with hikers and runners. The 3.3-mile round-trip trail goes past giant live oaks, two raging waterfalls, and the Old Mission Dam which was built by Spanish missionaries in 1803. Oak Canyon is part of the Fortuna Mountain Trail Loop in the Mission Trails Regional Park.

Although moderately challenging, it’s a great family hike with a natural playground of climbing trees, river rocks, and elevated terrain. However, watch your kids closely at the waterfalls because the cliffs are very high, and the rocks are slippery when wet. The waterfalls tend to be dry in the summer, so we recommend this hike during the wet season.

Bring plenty of water, at least 1-2 liters per person, and a walking stick will ease your way through the steep rocky terrain. Additional scenery includes native wildflowers, quaint bridges, and a variety of native wildlife.

  • Length: 3.3 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Approximate time: 1.5 hours
  • Location: Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA
Tenaja Falls

photo by Seauton, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

6. Three Sisters Falls

Consider hiking to the Three Sisters Falls if you’re an experienced hiker looking for a moderate to challenging hike. This all-day scenic trail leads to three large waterfalls, making it a favorite for waterfall chasers and mountain climbers.

However, be aware that the area is vulnerable to sweltering heat, and large quantities of water are required. The trail sometimes closes during extreme heat waves due to safety concerns. The best time to plan your hike is during the cooler wet season, December through March. You may bring your dogs, as long as they’re on a leash.

  • Length: 4.5 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging
  • Approximate time: 4-6 hours
  • Location: Cleveland National Forest of Southern California, San Diego, CA
Information sign about the TIjuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve

photo by RightCowLeftCoast, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

7. Tijuana Estuary

Tijuana Estuary is a wheelchair-friendly hike the entire family, including four-legged members, can complete in less than 1.5 hours. It’s a hot spot for hikers, mountain bikers, and birdwatchers, with vast wetlands and over 370 bird species. You may even spot one of the following endangered birds:

  • Light-footed Ridgway’s rail
  • California least tern
  • Least Bell’s vireo
  • California Gnatcatcher
  • Western snowy plover

Located right along the California-Mexico border, its scenery includes a coastal salt marsh, an equestrian-friendly beach, and a colorful cornucopia of wildflowers. The trail is flat, well-maintained, and very easy to hike.

  • Length: 4.6 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Approximate time: 1.5 hours
  • Location: Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, Imperial Beach, CA
Annie's Canyon, San Eligo Lagoon

photo by Rickbramhall, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

8. Annie’s Canyon Trail

Annie’s Canyon Trail is a quick and easy route that contains some unique Southern California sites. On your way to the sandstone slot canyon, you’ll see breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and San Elijo Lagoon. There are benches and viewing platforms where you can stop to scope out birds, plants, and other scenic beauty.

Once you reach Annie’s Canyon, you’ll be mesmerized by its distinctive looks. The canyon gets very narrow and has ladders to help you explore. Make sure you climb to the top for spectacular ocean views.

  • Length: 2.3 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Approximate time: Just over an hour
  • Location: San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Cardiff, CA
Torrey Pines State Park Valley

User:Nauticashades., CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Broken Hill Trail Loop

The Broken Hill Trail is a family-friendly 3.3-mile loop that is moderately challenging and doesn’t allow dogs. It has an ocean view and is popular with hikers, runners, and bird watchers. While on the path, expect to see a vast assortment of wildflowers, beach bluffs, and birds.

Due to the beach’s popularity, parking fills up. You’ll have a better chance of finding a parking spot if you come early. However, consider staying until dusk because the trail is known for its incredible sunset sky.

  • Length: 3.3 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Approximate time: 1.5 hours
  • Location: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, La Jolla, CA

10. Sixth & Upas Gateway

Balboa Park is known for its exciting architecture, popular attractions, and beautiful landscape. It has five gateways leading to 65 miles of hiking trails. The Sixth and Upas gateway is one of the most popular starting points, and it breaks into five separate routes:

  • Trail #1: This 1.5-mile walkway is made of flat concrete, making it easy to hike, even in a wheelchair. The tree-lined trail is perfect for a relaxing low-impact stroll. It runs through West Mesa and takes about 25 minutes to complete.
  • Trail #2: It’s a 4.1-mile concrete walkway that is mostly level but has a few slopes making it moderately challenging. Trail #2 is one of the park’s most popular routes because it leads to a cluster of famous museums and gardens and ends at the entrance to the San Diego Zoo. Trail #2 takes about 1.25 hours to complete.
  • Trail #3: If you’re an experienced hiker up for a challenge, consider this 3.6-mile trail that is difficult to hike. Along its route, you’ll see a variety of vegetation, including cacti, palm trees, and native wildflowers. It crosses bridges and passes a rose garden, the Florida Canyon, and the Desert Garden. Most people complete the trail in about 1.5 hours.
  • Trail #4: This 5.4-mile trail is moderately difficult with many elevation changes. About half the path is a flat concrete walkway, and the other half runs along roadway shoulders. It passes interesting rocks, colorful wildflowers, and a few climbing trees, and it takes just under 2 hours to complete.
  • Trail #5: This 6.6-mile path is difficult to hike but leads to less visited natural park areas. It includes large trees, dirt roads, and a variety of vegetation. It takes most people at least 3 hours to complete.

You may even decide to complete more than one trail in a day, or you may want to detour to the trails’ various attractions. Either way, the Sixth and Upas Gateway provides scenic routes leading to some of San Diego’s most coveted attractions.

  • Length: 1.5 – 6.6 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy – Difficult
  • Approximate time: 25 minutes – 3 hours
  • Location: Balboa Park, San Diego, CA

Tips for Hiking in San Diego

If you’re planning to hike in San Diego, please keep the following in mind:

  • Waterfall season: The best time to visit San Diego’s waterfalls is during the rainy season, from December until March. Many waterfalls dry up in the summer.
  • Hydration: During the summer heat, expect each hiker to drink .5 to 1 liter of water per hour of hiking, and it’s better to have too much water than too little. I once underestimated the heat on a November hike and had to ration water. It was a rough experience for me and my entire family.
  • Hiking gear: Proper attire depends on the trail and the time of year, but you generally want to wear sunglasses or a hat, sunscreen, and comfortable hiking boots.
  • Poison oak: Be careful when touching unfamiliar plants. Poisonous species such as poison oak grow in San Diego’s natural areas.
  • Don’t push it: If your children, pets, or family members tire, take a break or call it a day. The experience should be fun for everyone, regardless of size or physical capability.

While you’re in town, try to squeeze in a visit to the world-renown San Diego Zoo, and when you get back from your day hike, get ready to explore San Diego’s vast nightlife. Travel to San Diego for an awe-inspiring adventure with a wide variety of scenic splendors and fun-filled activities.

 10 Best Hikes in San Diego #hikes #sandiego #california #outside #travel #vacation #trip #holiday

Michelle Selzer

by Michelle Selzer

Michelle Selzer is a web developer, technical writer, and Linux enthusiast from the hills of Tennessee. Her hobbies include collecting toys, hiking to waterfalls, and writing short fan-fiction stories.

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