Mt. Woodson

Lake Poway Trail – Mt. Woodson Trail

Distance: 7.6 Miles
Elevation Gain: 2,800′
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Critters: Coots!

– Fairly challenging workout
– Good views of San Diego County
– Boulders, boulders everywhere!

– Very crowded
– Full sun exposure from start to finish\
– Hot, even when it’s cool out.


Mt. Woodson looms pretty large over central San Diego County. It is a landmark from every angle, whether you’re looking from Carmel Valley or from Palomar Mountain. It is notable for the large clusters of granitic boulders adorning the flanks and summit of the mountain.

On this late February day, the flower bloom was beginning to hit full swing. I don’t expect a lot of blooming because of the poor rain season, but on this particular trail, flowers, especially lilac, paintbrush, and sumac, were blooming with a ton of enthusiasm.

It is also surprisingly challenging for a mountain that is sitting on the edge of a massive metro area. Most hills in the area offer a fair amount of huff-and-puff, but Mt. Woodson has a fairly bad attitude, and it wants you to do some work before you can enjoy the fine views from the top.

The trail starts out at Lake Poway park, which is on the eastern edge of the city of Poway. Poway supports some pretty decent hiking trails with the nearby Iron Mountain trail system, several offshoots on the Mt. Woodson Trail, the trails around the lake, and Blue Sky Ecological Preserve. Mt. Woodson, however, is the most popular, and on a Sunday afternoon, the trail was packed with day-hikers trudging their way up to the top. I didn’t mind the day-hikers so much today since I’ve done this trail before, and I was just looking to get some miles in.

The trail winds around the south end of Lake Poway, then rises and falls to a junction where you can either circumnavigate the lake or turn right to follow the mountain trail. After a mile or so, the trail again junctions with the little-used Warren Canyon trail spurring to the right.

Once the Mt. Woodson trail turns left, it switchbacks sharply through a wilderness of massive granite boulders, many of which take on fantastic shapes. These boulders are definitely a highlight on this trail, with the views  coming in at a tie. Each one has been polished by years of rain and wind, and many of the boulders have split along faults, creating eye-catching shapes and rocks that looked as if they’ve been cracked by a giant.

About halfway up, you come to a live oak tree that seems as if it was planted specifically for you to sit and take a break. This is a good spot to look around at the view, gauge your progress, drink some water, and eat a snack. 

From there, you continue winding up ever-higher through a maze of boulders and chaparral until you approach the summit, which is covered in communications and broadcast antennae and some planted Coulter pines. At this point, you can find the semi-famous (at least in this part of the county) “potato chip rock,” a large flake of granite that remains hanging in mid-air after a huge chunk split from an underlying fault. This is a popular place for people to climb around and have their picture taken. Although, it’s only a matter of time before the rock comes crashing down, hopefully without some poor soul standing on top of it.

It’s a good, enjoyable workout, and there are views for days. If you want to get a good hill in and enjoy the sunshine, this is as good a hike as any in San Diego.

February: 94.7
Year-to-Date: 224.7

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