20 Best Hiking Trails in San Diego

Explore top hiking trails in San Diego for all skill levels. From scenic coastal treks to rugged mountain peaks, find your next outdoor adventure in this guide.

Alex Frick
July 5, 2024
Explore top hiking trails in San Diego for all skill levels. From scenic coastal treks to rugged mountain peaks, find your next outdoor adventure in this guide.

San Diego is referred to as "America's Finest City" and it stands for good reason. With its mild year-round climate, astonishing beaches, and thriving social scene, San Diego is a city that attracts travelers from all walks of life and curious adventurers from around the globe.

Surrounded by breathtaking lush mountains, craggy and rigid ocean cliffs, and cracked lands of the arid California desert, San Diego's landscape is set with some of the most unique and diverse hiking opportunities worldwide.

San Diego's Most Iconic Hiking Trails

1. Cowles Mountain

Credit: Bradford Tennyson / Flickr

From San Carlos, head south on Jackson Drive for 0.6 miles and take a left on Navajo Road. After 0.4 miles, the trailhead parking lot for the Cowles Mountain Trail will be on your left.

As one of the most popular and centrally located hikes in the city, the path to Cowles Mountain leads you to a beautiful overlook from the tallest point in San Diego, sitting at 1,593 feet. From the overlook, you can see as far as Orange County to the north, but as far as Mexico to your south. The hike is mild and moderate, comfortable for hikers of all skill levels. This trail is extremely popular, so try to get there early and beat the crowds.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 3.0 Miles

Elevation Gain: 908 Feet

2. The Five Peak Challenge in Mission Trails Regional Park

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From San Carlos, head south on Jackson Drive for 0.6 miles and take a left on Navajo Road. After 0.4 miles, the trailhead parking lot for the Cowles Mountain Trail will be on your left.

The Five Peaks Challenge is a bold and daunting challenge through the length of Mission Trails Regional Park. The goal? Hike over the five peaks throughout the park – Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay, South Fortuna, and North Fortuna is a single day.

The hike is long and extremely exposed, but for the experienced hiker, the challenge is achievable, and completing the journey is an accomplishment worth the effort. Be prepared with plenty of water, food, and most importantly, lots of bug spray.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance: 15.8 Miles

Elevation Gain: 4249 Feet

Related Read: Best Time to Visit San Diego

3. "The Slot" in Anza-Borrego State Park (Fee Area)

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From San Diego, take I-8 E for 38.6 miles and make a left on CA-79 N. Continue down CA-79 N for 22 miles and make right CA-78 E for 30 miles until finding the sign for the Slot Canyon Trail and make a left. The trailhead parking area will appear where the road ends, another 0.5 miles.

“The Slot” is the headline attraction and most popular hike in Anza Borrego State Park. The slot canyon is a natural narrow canyon with 40-foot walls of towering pink siltstone. Like Antelope Canyon in Arizona, the path through the canyon is very tight, hikers will sometimes have to squeeze through the walls that are closing in. The hike is best visited in Spring and Fall, as the summer heat can become dangerously overwhelming.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 2.3 Miles

Elevation Gain: 301 Feet

4. Three Sisters Falls Trail

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From San Diego, follow I-8 E for 38.6 Miles and turn left on CA-79 N. Shortly after the turn, there will be a fork, take the left fork on Boulder Creek and follow for the next 17.3 miles, where you will find the trailhead for this hike.

The Three Sisters Falls Trail is a beautifully remote hike tucked away in the middle of Cleveland National Forest. “Three Sisters Falls” refers to the culmination of the hike, with the waters of Boulder Creek cascading down into a three-tiered waterfall, crashing down into several crystal-clear freshwater pools – so do not forget your swimsuit!

The trail conditions can be rough and rocky, bringing trekking poles will help manage the conditions. The return hike is entirely uphill – be sure to ration supplies where possible.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 4.1 Miles

Elevation Gain: 984 Feet

5. Cedar Creek Falls (permit required)

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From San Diego, drive northeast on I-8 E for 20.2 miles. Make a right on Willow Rd and after one mile, turn left on Wildcat Canyon Road. Continue on Wildcat Canyon Road for 12.2 miles and turn right on San Vicente Road. Continue for 2.6 miles and turn left on Ramona Oaks Road. Stay on Ramona Oaks Road for 2.9 miles and turn right on Thornbush Rd, the trailhead will be on your left after 0.4 miles.

The Cedar Creek Falls Trail is arguably the most popular waterfall hike in San Diego. The waterfall plummets from a spectacular height of 80 feet, tumbling into a beautifully clear pool of water from Cedar Creek.

The area is remote and has the reputation for being a popular “hot spot” for young adults to cut loose and let their hair down under the sun. The trail requires permits to limit shenanigans, so do not get caught without one!

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance: 5.6 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1049 Feet

Related Read: 25 Romantic Getaways in San Diego

6. Potato Chip Rock ($10 Parking Fee)

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From downtown San Diego, drive north on I-15 N for 23.8 miles and take exit 24 towards Rancho Bernardo Road. Take a right on Rancho Bernardo Road for 3.8 miles and turn left onto Lake Poway Road and the trailhead will be on your left.

The difficult hike to the peak of Mount Woodson rewards you with the photo opportunity of a lifetime. Emerging from the top of the mountain is Potato Chip Rock, one of the most peculiar natural features on the planet.

The thin rock formation extends about 5 feet from the peak, and depending on the perspective, strikingly resembles a large potato chip. The hike is difficult but extremely popular. Try leaving early in the morning to avoid the long lines waiting for their chance for an iconic photo op.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 7.3 Miles

Elevation Gain: 2,119 Feet

7. Iron Mountain

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From downtown San Diego, drive north on I-15 N for 14.4 miles and take exit 14 towards Pomerado Road. Use the right two lanes to turn onto Pomerado Road and drive for 4.9 miles and turn right on Scripps Poway Pkwy. Continue for 5.6 miles and turn left on CA-67 N. Stay on CA-67 N for 1.7 miles and turn on Poway Rd, the parking area for this trail.

The hike to the peak of Iron Mountain is a trail that is exceptionally popular and can have more than 100 cars at the trailhead at any given time – for good reason. The hike is a steady climb through comfortable trail conditions until approaching the summit.

The approach is an absolute thigh burner, with alternating switchbacks and rock scrambles that lead you to the top. The summit is a stunning panoramic view of the desert mountains and the blue and vast Pacific Ocean.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 5.9 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,125 Feet

8. El Cajon Mountain

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From San Diego, drive north on I-8 E for 13 miles. Take exit 17B onto CA-67 N and continue driving for another 5.8 miles. Turn right on Willow Road and drive for 0.9 miles until reaching Wildcat Canyon Road. Take a left here and drive the final 3.3 miles until you reach the parking area.

This epic hike is widely known as the hardest hike in all of San Diego County. The spectacular views in the charming California wilderness are a challenge worth accepting. The rugged landscape and unrelenting switchbacks will make you earn the ultimate payoff, the panoramic views atop El Cajon Mountain.

The approach leads you up a large and round granite rock formation that scrambles to the summit, a complete and smooth vertigo-inducing drop-off that is equally beautiful and terrifying.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance: 11.0 Miles

Elevation Gain: 3,579 Feet

9. Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop

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From downtown San Diego, drive north on I-5 N for 12.7 miles and take exit 29 towards Genesee Avenue. Take a left of Genesee Avenue for 0.9 miles where it changes to N Torrey Pines Road. Continue for 2.9 miles until you reach the Torrey Pines Beach Parking Lot.

The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a haven for ecological and geological wonders – and a world-famous golf course. From its unique rock formations to one of the few places to find the endangered and rare torrey pine trees, the hike through the park is truly a one-of-kind experience.

The hike treks along the beach and slowly traverses back up and along the old Pacific Coast Highway. From above, you will be hiking along ocean cliffs that look across the Pacific Ocean all while journeying through a unique and protected natural habitat.

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 2.3 Miles

Elevation Gain: 364 Feet

Related Read: 20 Best San Diego Beaches

10. Big Laguna Trail

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From La Mesa, drive east on I-8 E for 29 miles and take exit 47 towards Old Highway 80. Continue on Hwy 80/Sunrise Hwy for 11.4 miles and the parking area will be on your right.

The Big Laguna Trail is unique in its diversity. 13 miles in length, it is on the longer end of day hikes, but along the trail through Cleveland National Forest, you will find yourself walking through meadows of blooming wildflowers, resting in shaded oak and pine forests, and taking in beautiful panoramic views atop unobstructed mountains.

Depending on when during the season, you will have the opportunity to cross paths with Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers either just beginning their northbound journey or hikers completing their long journey to Mexico.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 13.3 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,240 Feet

11. Palm Canyon Loop

Credit: Balboa Park

From downtown San Diego, head north on Third Avenue for 0.9 miles and make a left on Sixth Avenue, and drive for 1.0 miles and park in the Alcazar Garden Parking Lot.

Hidden in Balboa Park in the middle of metropolitan San Diego lies a suburban oasis. The hike through Palm Canyon is home to 450 palm trees and 58 unique species of tropical palms within just two acres.

The trail alternates between well-maintained surfaces and beautifully crafted boardwalks leading you through the lush and shady park. In addition to the variety of palm trees, Palm Canyon is home to unique and dense tropical flora within a deep woodland forest that is comfortable to travelers for all skill levels.

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 2.0 Miles

Elevation Gain: 295 Feet

12. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail ($3 Parking Fee)

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Head north I-5 N for 13.2 miles and take exit 30 Sorrento Valley Road. Take a right on Sorrento Valley Road and drive for 4.1 miles and take a quick left onto Camino Miranda and an immediate right onto Keisha Terrace, the parking lot for this hike.

The Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is an urban trail in northern San Diego but is also one of the most bio-diverse in all of California. Los Penasquitos stands for “little cliffs,” as the park is lined with sharp cliffs that separate hikers from the suburbs. The protected and biodiverse area is home to hundreds of birds and reptiles including the rare Long-Tailed Weasel.

This is an out-and-back path that ends at the highlight of the hike – a powerful cascading waterfall that fuels the creek alongside the trail. With little elevation and with clear signage, the hike through the canyon is suited for amateur and expert hikers alike.

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 6.8 Miles

Elevation Gain: 157 Feet

13. Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail

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From San Diego, drive east on I-8 E for 22.1 miles and take a left on exit 40 towards CA-79 N. Stay on CA-79 for 13 miles and turn left on Lookout Road, the trailhead parking area will be on the corner.

Sitting at 6,512 feet, Cuyamaca Peak is the second tallest peak in all of San Diego County, delivering unmatched views from the most recognizable landmark of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The moderate-to-difficult journey to the peak lends you views of Anza Borrego Desert State Park to the east and ocean views of the Pacific and the Channel Islands to the east.

The entirety of the hike is pavement, remember to bring trekking poles to relieve the stress from your knees for the downhill return trip.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 7.7 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,833 Feet

14. Stonewall Peak Trail ($8 Parking Pass)

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From San Diego, drive east on I-8 E for 22.1 miles and take a left on exit 40 towards CA-79 N. Stay on CA-79 for 13 miles. The trailhead parking area will be on your right.

It is not hard to see why Stonewall Peak is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego. The trail is moderate but very accessible in comparison to other peak hikes in the area, but Stonewall Peak rewards your efforts with an incredible and expansive mountain-top payoff.

The out-and-back trail is in the heart of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and is very manageable for hikers of all skill levels. The path is a smooth and unpaved walk until you approach the summit, where it transforms into mild switchbacks before you reach the stone-carved steps reaching the overlook atop Stonewall Peak.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 3.9 Miles

Elevation Gain: 830 Feet

15. Oak Canyon Trail

Credit: Michelle Reyes / All Trails

From San Diego, drive north on CA-52 E for 15.6 miles and take exit 13 towards Mast Blvd, take a left. After 0.2 miles, take a right on the second cross street onto W Hills Pkwy. Drive for another 0.7 miles and take a right onto Mission Gorge Road and then a slight right onto Father Junipero Serra Trail. This is where you will find the trailhead for the Kwaay Paay Peak Trailhead which is also the Oak Canyon Trailhead.

The Oak Canyon Trail in the middle of Mission Trails Regional Park is a stunning, green and lush hike that is paralleled by comfortably shaded sycamore trees. When leaving the parking area, be sure to stay on the north side of the road and walk towards the pathway crossing the dam, the south is a completely different trail.

Along the way, you will follow the San Diego River upstream and pass through stunning meadows of wildflowers and seasonal poppies and the occasional rocky, cascading waterfall. The turn-around point of this out-and-back hike is where the trail goes beneath the CA-52 freeway, just beyond a tall, multi-tier waterfall.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 3.3 Miles

Elevation Gain: 246 Feet

16. Lake Hodges Overlook

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From downtown, drive north on I-15 N for 17.6 miles and take exit 30 towards 9th Avenue. Make a left on 9th Avenue and take an immediate left on Del Dios Road. Drive for 0.5 miles until reaching Avenida Del Diablo and turn right. Continue for another 0.7 miles and take a slight left on Harmony Grove Road. Stay on Harmony Grove Road for 2.6 miles until you reach the trailhead on your left.

A local favorite, the hike to Lake Hodges Overlook is rich with both natural beauty and rich history. The path is believed to be a trading post trail where the local tribes would barter for local goods and services. As you trek up the moderate trail, you will make your way up to the Olivenhain Reservoir.

Work your way around the sandy shores of the reservoir and you will discover the Lake Hodges Overlook – an excellent panoramic view of the San Diego mountains and the stunningly reflective Lake Hodges.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 7.3 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,423 Feet

17. Maidenhair Falls & Lower Hellhole Canyon

Credit: All Trails

From downtown San Diego, drive north on I-15 N for 25.9 miles and take exit 27 towards Via Rancho Pkwy. Use the two right lanes to turn onto Bear Valley Pkwy and drive for 5.8 miles. From here, use the two right lanes to turn on Valley Center Road and drive for another 10.1 miles. Look for the signs for Lower Hellhole Canyon and take a right down the service road for 0.4 miles, the trailhead for the hike.

Best visited after heavy rainfall, the trail through Hellhole Canyon to Maidenhair Falls is a wonderful desert hike down a dry, cactus-lined canyon. The trail is well-marked but becomes difficult to follow as you must pass through rock scrambles and wander through fields of delicate desert vegetation.

At the bottom of the out-and-back hike is Maidenhair Falls, a 20-foot waterfall that generates a clear pool of water, creating a refreshing and relatively private desert oasis. The return hike is almost entirely uphill, so try to ration your supplies accordingly.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 5.6 Miles

Elevation Gain: 971 Feet

18. Split Mountain Via Fish Creek Trail

Credit: Anza Borrego

From El Cajon, take I-8 E for 22.1 miles and take exit 40 towards CA-79 N. Stay on CA-79 N for 22.9 miles and turn right on CA-78 E. Continue for another 33.6 miles until you approach Split Mountain Road and drive for 8.1 miles. Look for signs for Fish Creek Primitive Campground and take a right. After 1.4 miles, the parking area will be on your right.

A geologist’s playground, the hike to Split Mountain is surrounded by odd-shaped rock formations that include both wind caves and mud hills. As you make your way through these fascinatingly bizarre sections of Anza Borrego State Park, take a second to look around and take note that you are standing in what used to be a large body of water - leaving behind a unique collection of geological wonders.

Much of the trail is through Fish Creek Wash, an old and dried-up river that formed this canyon millions of years before. The trail is moderate and comfortable for most skill levels.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 11.4 Miles

Elevation Gain: 600 Feet

Related Read: 35 Best Camping Spots in San Diego

19. Whale Peak

Credit: Robert O'Brien / All Trails

From El Cajon, take I-8 E for 22.1 miles and take exit 40 towards CA-79 N. Stay on CA-79 N for 22.9 miles and turn right on CA-78 E. Stay on CA-78 E for 11.3 miles and turn right onto Great Southern Overland Stage Route. Continue for 5.2 miles and turn on Little Blair Valley Road. Drive for 4.1 miles and turn left down Pictographs Trailhead Road, the road ends at the trailhead.

Whale Peak via the Pictograph trail is a moderate hike that climbs through dry river washes before reaching the peak. A mile into the hike, keep an eye out for a unique and rounded rock formation and look for ancient native petroglyphs carved into the smooth surface.

Follow the trail through Smuggler’s Canyon and continue following the wash up the mountain. Keep to the washes the best you can, as every rainfall eliminates hikers’ footprints, but most paths lead to Whale Peak, a panoramic view atop two giant boulders overlooking Anza Borrego State Park.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance: 8.8 Miles

Elevation Gain: 2,112 Feet

20. Corte Madera Mountain Via Espinosa Trail

Credit: Gregory Markow / All Trails

From San Diego, drive east on CA-94 E for 17.5 miles and turn left on Lyons Valley Road. Drive for 8.7 miles and turn left to stay on Lyons Valley Road. From here, make a right on Barrett Truck Trail and then an immediate left of Forest Route 16S04. There is no parking lot, but there is a turnout where you can park your car.

Corte Madera Mountain rests in the center of the Pine Creek Wilderness in Cleveland National Forest. This area of the forest is a sanctuary for birds of prey, such as golden eagles, hawks, and falcons.

Follow the trail signs for Corte Madera Mountain which you will recognize in the distance as the large rock formations with the steep and rocky cliffs that will immediately catch a rock climber’s eye. The trail is not well maintained, so pay close attention to where the trail leads and remember to continue to hike towards the mountain.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance: 6.8 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,509 Feet

Alex Frick
Article updated:
July 5, 2024 11:06 AM

Alex Frick is a Midwestern-born, RV-pulling, bike-touring, globetrotting freelance writer and journalism student at the University of Florida. Traveling full-time with his travel nurse wife and their famous hiking tabby, Rafiki, Alex specializes in outdoor adventure writing and sports coverage, drawing from his experiences living nomadically. With a passion for uncovering hidden gems and lesser-known destinations, Alex's work invites readers to experience the world through the eyes of a modern adventurer.

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