San Diego county is one of the largest counties in California. It’s the second most populous county in the state and the fifth-most in the United States. It extends to the southern borders of Orange County and Riverside all the way north to Mexico and further east to Imperial County. You can easily drive as far as two hours and still be in San Diego county.
With 4,526 mi² coverage, it’s no wonder there are a plethora of places to hike in San Diego. And while San Diego has no shortage of hikes, if you’re an avid hiker or here just for a quick trip, it’s nice to know where are the best places to hike. Look no further because we will lay out the 9 best places in San Diego to hike so you can plan your next weekend jaunt outdoors accordingly.
1. Mission Trails Regional Park
Just a short, 20-minute drive from downtown San Diego will take you to Mission Trails Regional Park, a 7,220-acre park consisted of rugged canyons and steep hills. It houses the most popular hike up to the summit of Cowles Mountain, a moderate 3-mile hike tourists and locals alike flock to on weekends. It’s also home to 4 other notable peaks including: Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay, North Fortuna, and South Fortuna.
In addition to the abundance of peaks to bag here, there are also several trails that run through creeks and canyons here. In the spring, the Oak Canyon Trail provides easy access to a seasonal waterfall, an incredible sight to see at any age. With over 60 miles of trails up to peaks, around lakes, and alongside streams of water, Mission Trails Regional Park is an enjoyable location for just about everyone.
2. Laguna Mountains
If you have an ample amount of time to explore over the weekend, Laguna Mountain is the place for you. Just an hour drive from San Diego, Laguna Mountain will leave you feeling as though you are in Northern California with its dense pine forest and vast expanse of grasslands. Additionally, this is one of the few areas of San Diego that routinely receives snowfall each year due to its higher altitude. Many come here in winter to snowshoe and sled down the hills in the area.
The 10-mile Big Laguna Trail is a good opportunity to experience some of the best sights Laguna Mountain has to offer. I would also recommend the short trek to Garnet Peak for comprehensive views of Anza Borrego in the distance or Monument Peak for the best views of the mountain.
3. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
You could spend a whole weekend in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and still not be able to hit all of the spots that need to be seen. At over 2 hours away from downtown San Diego, a trip to Anza Borrego requires dedication and patience, which is ultimately rewarded upon arrival. There are a plethora of fascinating destinations to explore here, from old calcite mines to narrow sandstone slot canyons to an desolate oasis of palm trees.
We can’t talk about Anza Borrego without mentioning the stunning Maidenhair Falls, a 5-mile hike to a seasonal waterfall and grotto. There are so many places worth exploring in Anza Borrego I’d recommend taking several trips out here if you are a Southern Californian to make sure you have the opportunity to take in all this state park has to offer.
4. Palomar Mountain State Park
1,862 acres of forest, a large pond, campsites, and scenic views is what you’ll find when visiting Palomar Mountain State Park. An hour and a half drive from downtown San Diego will take you up the one-lane freeway to the top of Palomar Mountain. In addition to miles of hiking trails, it is also known for the Palomar Observatory and Hale Telescope, the world’s largest telescope from 1949 until 1992. Perhaps the best part of visiting Palomar Mountain State Park is its unique biodiversity unlike most parts of San Diego. It’s densely wooded with oak and conifer tree species and also has as an abundance of ferns.
A good introductory trail for this area is the Lower Doane/French Valley Loop Trail, a nearly four-mile trail which takes you through a beautiful meadow with minimal elevation gain. You can also extend this hike to see a historic weir, built to measure water flow. From the Lower Doane Trail, you can also extend your hike even further to hike the Upper Doane Valley Trail which circles the stunning Doane Pond.
5. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
There are few places in San Diego as visually stunning as Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Pure bliss can be found hiking the 8-miles of trails here with the feel crisp ocean-air brushing across your face, sound of waves lapping gently in the distance, and seeing the deep blue Pacific Ocean down below. It’s no wonder it’s one of the top tourist destinations and a location many locals take visitors to see. You don’t need a visitor or to be a tourist to hike here though.
Take a sunset stroll along the Beach Trail and wind your way down to the beach to watch the sun sink beneath the horizon. Or you can hike along the Razor Point Trail with a view of ravines and badlands overlooking the ocean. Torrey Pines is conveniently located about 20-minutes from downtown San Diego.
Julian is more than just a fun fall-destination that has some of the best apple pie San Diego county has to offer. It’s also an ideal location for hiking. Visit the 400-acre Volcan Mountain for some of the most impressive views of Julian and the desert. The 5-mile round-trip hike to Volcan Summit takes visitors through an artistic gateway designed by James Hubbell, and up through a dense woodlands to reveal impressive 360-degree views.
William Heise County Park is also a notable spot for hiking in Julian, with cabin, campsites, and miles of trails through a pine and oak forest. If history is more your cup of tea you can also hike along the nearby Banner Toll Road Trail to see Warlock Mine, one of the most prosperous gold mines during the Gold Rush.
A small suburban town boasts some of the best hiking trails in all of San Diego. Poway is not only home to one of the most popular hikes in all of San Diego, but also features a number of other prime hiking trails for all ages and athletic abilities. Without a doubt the strenuous trek up Mount Woodson to the infamous “Potato Chip Rock” is the most popular hike in the area but there are several others that deserve attention.
The Double Peak Trail next to Silverset Park offers the most impressive views of the lines of suburban Poway housing below. For the best views of Lake Hodges Dam, take the Lake Hodges Loop trail right next to the Mount Woodson Trail. The hike is about half the length and far less difficult for novice hikers.
8. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Some of the best trails in all of San Diego county can be accessed by visiting Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego’s closest state park. At just an hour and fifteen minute drive, this expansive state park features over 100 miles of trails for hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. There are also two large campgrounds, Green Valley and Paso Picacho as well as environmental campsites for those looking for a more rugged experience. Additionally, one of the most prosperous gold mines in all of San Diego is located here and can be seen on the Stonewall Mine Trail.
For the best views, I would recommend hiking the 6-mile Cuyamaca Peak Trail or the 4-mile Stonewall Peak Trail. Both offer sweeping views of San Diego and beyond and are relatively moderate to tackle. Come in the spring for blossoms, fall for foliage, winter for snow, or summer for reasonably warm San Diego temperatures.
9. Downtown/Hillcrest/Mission Hills
You don’t need to drive over an hour to find unique hiking trails in San Diego. In fact, some of them are closer than you might think. Balboa Park, for example, is centrally located near downtown and offers so much more than impressive museums. It also offers a whole trail system, including five numbered trails that range from 1.5 miles to 6.6 miles in length. All make a loop allowing local residents and tourists alike to capitalize on their time spent at Balboa Park, showcasing its magnificent architecture and design.
Balboa Park isn’t the only location downtown worth exploring. There are also developed and remote trails that explore the seven bridges found within the Hillcrest/Banker’s Hill neighborhood that are both interesting to look at and are an integral part of San Diego’s history. The Seven Bridge Trail coincidentally begins at Balboa Park, yet this 5-mile loop extends well beyond to cross both a suspension bridge and a over century old wooden trestle bridge.