15 Best Hikes in San Diego County for 2023 (By a Local)
A hike is the best way to enjoy the San Diego sunshine and beautiful landscape!
San Diego is Southern California’s coastal desert gem that boasts some surprisingly high elevation mountains to boot. As a celebration of this unique landscape, the county has done a great job of preserving plenty of land for hiking and recreation which means it’s time to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails!
Here are some of the best hikes in San Diego, listed from easiest to hardest.
Table of Contents
- 15 Best Hikes In San Diego County
- Annie’s Canyon
- Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve
- Tijuana Estuary
- Oak Canyon Trail
- Eagle Rock
- Santa Ysabel Preserve West Trail
- Three Sisters Falls Trail
- Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson Trail
- Cowles Mountain
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve – Broken Hill Trail Loop
- Santa Margarita River Trail
- Cedar Creek Falls Trail
- Iron Mountain
- Palomar Mountain Loop
- Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail
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15 Best Hikes In San Diego County
Easy | 1.5 miles | Google Maps | 30 minutes from San Diego | Cost: free
Annie’s Canyon trail is one of San Diego’s most unique hikes! The short and easy loop leads through the beautiful wetlands of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve to the highlight – a narrow sandstone slot canyon, complete with a ladder and sheer walls. The canyon trail can be accessed from a few different trailheads, including North Rios, Solana Hills, and La Orilla.
This is not only one of the best hikes around San Diego, but also makes my list of the best things to do outdoors in San Diego!
👉 My Favorite Gear: Because of the lagoon, mosquitos come out when the weather gets warm. Keep them away with my favorite bug spray from Ranger Ready!
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve
Easy | 6.8 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 25 minutes from San Diego | Cost: $3 for parking
The Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is a favorite amongst San Diego hikers because it’s accessible to all skill levels and is a short drive from the city. Plus, it features a waterfall, small cliffs (aka peñasquitos), shade, and is relatively flat, making it a great option for families with young kids. Stick to the main trail or venture off on the many small offshoots to explore.
Easy | 4.5 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from San Diego | Cost: free!
This out-and-back trail meanders through the Tijuana Estuary of southern San Diego, and is flat and easy, making it handicap-accessible and kid-friendly.
The wetlands are home to over 370 species of birds, making it one of the best spots for bird watching in the county! Get there early in the morning or at dusk to see the greatest number of birds and bring a hat or sunscreen as there’s little shade on the trail.
👉 My Favorite Gear: Nocs are my go-to binoculars for wildlife spotting on hikes because they’re small and lightweight!
Oak Canyon Trail
Easy/Moderate | 3.3 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 20 minutes from San Diego | Cost: free
This mostly flat, family-friendly trail leads through rolling hills of southern California scrub, past the Old Mission Dam and a giant sprawling oak tree, and over the San Diego River. Oak Canyon is a favorite hike for so many because it showcases the beauty of Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, without the steep climbs.
👉 Pro Tip: Park in the Mission Dam parking lot for easy access to the trailhead.
Easy/Moderate | 6.2 miles | Google Maps | 1.5 hours from San Diego | Cost: free
Eagle Rock is… you guessed it! a rock shaped like an eagle. The formation can be found via an easy, though lengthy, section of the Pacific Crest Trail surrounded by rocky terrain.
While Potato Chip is the more famous San Diego rock formation, Eagle Rock is equally impressive and less trafficked.
Santa Ysabel Preserve West Trail
Moderate | 5.6 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 1 hour from San Diego | Cost: free
This serene loop trail challenges hikers with its repetitive, often steep ascents and descents. Besides a great workout, there’s beautiful scenery along the trail, including giant California live oaks and special appearances by resident cows! There are also plenty of picnic benches at regular intervals to stop and take a break.
👉 Love Exploring California’s Nature? Check out McKenna’s list of the best hikes in California!
Three Sisters Falls Trail
Moderate | 4.1 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 1 hour 20 minutes from San Diego | Cost: free
If you’re like me, you love hikes that have include some body of water to jump into! This hike winds down to meet a small stream with a modest waterfall. Hike upstream and you’ll discover the other two sisters – two more falls, one of which has a pool to cool off in.
This hike, though moderate has limited shade and can get extremely hot midday in summer. Go in spring or early in the morning to avoid heatstroke.
Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson Trail
Moderate | 7.3 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 35 minutes from San Diego | Cost: $10 for parking on weekends & holidays
Potato Chip Rock is named for a sliver of rock that just out into the air and is probably the most photographed natural feature in San Diego.
This is one of the most popular hikes in the county, so for the best experience, beat the crowds and hit the trail at sunrise to sit atop the iconic rock sliver and take in uninterrupted views of the pacific ocean. On a weekend, be prepared to wait in line to get your photo on the rock.
Moderate | 3 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 25 minutes from San Diego | Cost: free
Cowles Mountain is a popular hike for San Diegans wanting a nearby hike with rewarding 360º views reaching all the way to Downtown San Diego. In Spring, the mountain and surrounding Mission Trails Regional Park blooms with wildflowers, bringing a pop of color to a normally all-brown landscape.
Because of its popularity, the trail and summit can both get pretty crowded midday so start your hike early to avoid the traffic.
👉 Read Next: Where to Stay in San Diego (By a Local)
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve – Broken Hill Trail Loop
Moderate | 3.3 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 25 minutes from San Diego | Cost: $15-$25 for parking
Torrey Pines State Reserve is a protected area that contains a collection of coastal hikes that showcase San Diego’s stunning beaches. The most popular hikes are Guy Fleming Trail (for its easy access) and Razor Point Trail (for beautiful views).
But my favorite of the Torrey Pines hiking trails is Broken Hill Trail Loop which offers breathtaking clifftop views of the ocean and leads to Torrey Pines State Beach (which is one of the top beaches in San Diego).
👉 Pro Tip: The parking fee allows you to park at the base of the hill or up top which allows easier access to the trails. But you can avoid the fee altogether by parking along the beach outside the kiosk.
Santa Margarita River Trail
Moderate | 5.2 miles | Google Maps | 1 hour from San Diego | Cost: free
This trail stands out from other San Diego hikes because it follows the wooded shores of the Santa Margarita River, one of the last undiverted, free flowing rivers in Southern California. Because of the flowing water, the trail is shaded (an uncommon luxury on hikes in the area) by the large, twisted oak tree branches, making it a favorite for hikers and horseback riders.
👉 Pro Tip: This area is popular not only with people, but also with rattlesnakes. Read up on rattlesnake safety here.
Cedar Creek Falls Trail
Difficult | 5.6 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 50 minutes from San Diego | Cost: $6 for a permit
This strenuous hike, buried in Cleveland National Forest, is one of San Diego’s most popular, mainly because there’s a reward at the end! Cedar Creek Falls pours into a pool enclosed on either side by sheer rock faces, forming a secluded swimming pool. And take it from me, you’ll want a refreshing dip after this unshaded and difficult hike.
Note that you must reserve a permit in advance (not available for purchase on-site) to do this hike.
👉 My Favorite Gear: I’ve found I stay way more hydrated when I bring a hydration backpack rather than a water bottle, and this is the best one I’ve tried so far.
Hard | 5.9 miles | Google Maps | 35 minutes from San Diego | Cost: free
Iron Mountain Peak is a lightly trafficked trail that allows for a peaceful trek through Southern California’s native shrubs and oaks with panoramic views as a well-earned reward.
A loop trail is formed by the Iron Mountain Trail and Ellie Lane Trail, but another shorter and less difficult option is to instead just do the Iron Mountain section as an out-and-back.
👉 Pro Tip: Either start early in the morning or the afternoon or avoid hot days to stay safe from dehydration and heatstroke.
Palomar Mountain Loop
Difficult | 10.1 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | Drive Time from Name | Cost: free/$X for parking/entrance $X
Palomar Mountain State Park is home to the Palomar Observatory, beautiful pine forests, the 6,142 ft hough Palomar Mountain, and many gorgeous hiking trails. The most challenging of these is the Boucher Trail to the lookout tower and Palomar Mountian Loop combination, but there are plenty of other easy and moderate trails to enjoy. This is one of my favorite areas to explore because it feels like the Sierras but is right here in eastern San Diego!
Be sure not to skip the Boucher Hill Fire Lookout Towers which offer spectacular views of the state park and beyond.
📚 Related Reading: Palomar has some great camping options to allow you more time to explore! Check out my article for more fun weekend trips from San Diego.
Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail
Difficult | 5.5 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 55 minutes from San Diego | Day Use Fee: $10 per vehicle
Rising to an elevation of 6,515 feet elevation, Cuyamaca is the second highest peak in San Diego. Its elevation, combined with its location in the center of the county, offers hikers unbeatable panoramic views from Cuyamaca Rancho State Park all the way to the beach.
Despite the elevation gain, the hike isn’t overly technical or challenging, making it accessible even for ambitious beginner hikers. The most accessible trailhead is in the Paso Picacho Campground.
👉 Pro Tip: Avoid this hike during the heat of summer! And be sure to bring LOTS of water no matter the season.
From beaches to deserts to mountain forests, San Diego county has incredibly diverse landscape that’s best appreciated with a good hike! For more ideas on how to enjoy America’s Finest City, check out my article 47 Things to do in San Diego.
And be sure to check out all of Travel Lemming’s guides to the best hikes around the US:
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Hi! Great list! Which trail is the main image from? It’s gorgeous!
Thanks Gem! That image is from Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve. I’m not sure what exact trail that was on, but any of the trails throughout the park will offer equally stunning views, especially at sunset!