The Best Hikes in San Diego

About one year ago, I posted this blog to showcase what I think are the best hikes in San Diego. Since then, I’ve experienced more and changed my mind a few times, thus necessitating some updates. This updated version features ten more hikes, ranked in a purely subjective way. You may consider this a resource should you be looking to explore San Diego more thoroughly. Each title will link to the blog that describes the hike, in addition to a picture and a briefer description.

I hope you enjoy exploring San Diego County as much as I have.

Note: I’m not including Anza-Borrego Desert. There are a number of fine hikes there, but I haven’t really explored it. I’m not particularly comfortable being out there alone.

Also note: I haven’t included Cedar Creek Falls. I haven’t included it because I haven’t done it. I haven’t done it because I hear that a lot of people have problems on it – dehydration, injuries – and therefore I don’t think it needs any encouragement. People always seem to hurt themselves around waterfalls.

25. Mt. Gower

This one makes the list based on a great stretch of climbing/hiking/scrambling up to the summit of Mt. Gower. The reserve itself is fine, and it showcases the usual shrubs-n-boulders routine common throughout central San Diego County. However, Mt. Gower itself features a gorgeous wonderland of exposed granite slabs, complete with a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. Be warned that the trek up to the summit is via use trails and requires scrambling and a good sense of balance. Not for casual hikers, but rewarding for those who are willing to go out of their way. 

24. Guatay Mountain

There are countless boulder-strewn, chaparral-covered peaks in San Diego. While they are all fun to climb and offer great views, few of them are particularly distinctive, at least enough to be counted amongst the best options. Guatay Mountain feature all of those things. However, it also features one of the last remaining stands of Tecate Cypress, which is one of the rarest trees in Southern California. This bushy relative of the Juniper and the Cedar tree takes a bit of work to find, but if you have an amateur naturalist streak, the effort will be worth it.

23. Batiquitos Lagoon

In older times, much of coastal San Diego and Los Angeles featured marshlands and lagoons. Years of development have eliminated all but about 5% of what was originally there. However, the Batiquitos Lagoon remains as one of the best-preserved examples of these wetlands. Sure, there’s still a lot of development around the area, and some of the native vegetation has been replaced by invasive non-native species, but this is still a beautiful (and convenient) hike that just about anybody can enjoy.

22. Blue Sky Ecological Reserve and Lake Poway

Two of the most important ingredients for a pleasant hike include water and views, and this hike has them both. The trail through Blue Sky travels along an intermittent stream that supports lush riparian vegetation. Beyond this portion of the trail lies Lake Poway, which supports a number of different recreational activities in addition to hiking. From here, Woodson Mountain is also available, but the inclusion of Woodson in this hike is probably excessive. This is a great late afternoon hike that allows you to enjoy great sunsets and light playing on water.

21. Black Mountain (Ramona Edition)

Click here for directions
This is not the more well-known Black Mountain in Rancho Penasquitos. The Black Mountain that towers over Ramona and Pamo Valleys sits at just a hair over 4,000 feet and offers up great views of the peninsular ranges. What makes this hike so great, aside from the views, is that the topography, while being classic Southern California chaparral, remains interesting from start to finish. Below you lies a beautiful, oak-studded valley, and above you sits Palomar Mountain, which sits in view at an angle that people rarely see. It also offers a tough workout of 14.2 miles and over 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Add in the planted pine forest on top, a concrete platform that was once part of a fire lookout, and a garden of periwinkle flowers surrounding said platform, and you’ve got a lovely mountaintop destination that is just begging for a picnic.

20. Stonewall Peak

Amidst the dramatic, coastal-facing peaks of Cuyamaca and the desert-facing peaks of the Laguna Mountains stands Stonewall Peak. This granite-studded mountain rises up from the rolling plains of Cuyamaca like a pyramid and seems to beg to be climbed. The views from the top include the entirety of the Laguna Mountains (of which Cuyamaca is a part). Furthermore, it’s an easy way to bag a legit peak without expending a ton of energy. This 5,700′ peak demands only 700′ of climbing.

19. Monument Peak

Monument Peak is not really as monumental as its names implies. It doesn’t feature much prominence, and it gains its elevation merely from being on the eastern escarpment of the Laguna Mountains. Furthermore, its summit is dotted with communication towers. So, what makes it so special? The view, which includes nearly the entirety of Anza-Borrego desert, down into Mexico, north to the Transverse Ranges, and, when it’s clear enough, all the way out to Arizona. 

18. San Onofre State Beach

Famous for breast-shaped nuclear power plants, San Onofre is often synonymous for being “almost to San Diego” for Angelenos driving to San Diego. It also indicates Camp Pendleton, which preserve one of the last remaining swaths of coastal sage-scrub. However, the great parts of San Onofre are not visible from the freeway; the best parts lie along miles of unspoiled coastline that represent the Southern California Coast at its most primitive. Forgive the $15 parking fee and come here for a long, rambling beach walk and stay well up until sunset.

17. Agua Tibia Mountain

Agua Tibia Mountain sits in the heart of one of the larger wilderness areas in San Diego. Lying on the north end of the Palomar Mountain Range, Agua Tibia is a wild and untamed landscape that feature spectacular views of the bigger ranges to the north as well as the coast to the west. There are no easy hikes here, with the most straight-forward being the 14 mile Dripping Springs Trail, which gains 3,100′. Take it a step (or several thousand) further, and you can shoot for the entire 21 mile loop through the wilderness by joining with the Wild Horse Trail. Just don’t do it during the summer: it often hits triple digits on the desert-facing side of the mountain.

16. Observatory Trail

The Observatory Trail connects the Observatory Campground with the world-famous Palomar Observatory. While this trail doesn’t have the same lush forest as the state park, it is also a wonderful place to experience fall color when the black oaks turn golden. You can enjoy views of Mendenhall Valley (pictured above), as well as explore the observatory once you’ve made it halfway through the hike. The most enjoyable way of enjoying this trail is to camp out at Observatory, wake up around dawn, and take the hike in the cool of the morning while enjoying the golden sunrise light.

15. Mt. Woodson

Click here for directions to the Lake Poway trailhead

The ever popular Woodson Mountain dominates the topography around Poway and for miles in either direction. This relatively tall coastal peak features commanding views, as well as an array of granite boulders that includes the popular Potato Chip Rock. While it’s up to you if you want to wait around to get your picture snapped on a sliver of granite, you will enjoy great views in all directions regadless of what you came for. Be warned: this trail is steep, and it is almost always hot, even when it’s looks like it will be an otherwise cool day.

14. Cuyamaca Peak

Click here for directions.

Cuyamaca Peak is the highest accessible peak in San Diego County. Climbing Cuyamaca is both and exhilarating and depressing at the same time. On one hand, there are tremendous views of San Diego County, encompassing northern Mexico, the coast, the city of San Diego, the desert to the east, the Peninsular Ranges, and the Transverse Ranges in Los Angeles. The views are so good that they are enough of a reason to visit. However, the trek to the summit is taken almost entirely on asphalt – never too enjoyable, and the trail passes through a ghost forest that is all that remains of the once vibrant forest incinerated in 2003 during the Cedar Fire. In spite of its flaws those, this hike and this peak are memorable experiences, particularly if you love an expansive view.

13. Boden Canyon

Boden Canyon is one of the best-kept secrets of San Diego Hiking. Located about 15 minutes past Escondido, this unspoiled canyon preserves gorgeous oak woodlands that seem to stretch on forever. Better yet, the canyon offers 11 miles of mostly flat hiking that can make for a quick workout or a long, leisurely, all-day exploration full of picnics and naps. The oak woodland is classic Southern California, and this particular section is exceptional, remote, and always quiet and peaceful.

12. Santa Margarita River

Click here for directions.

The Santa Margarita River drains the eastern Santa Ana Mountains above Temecula, and it only skirts the top portion of San Diego County, passing just north of Fallbrook and draining out to the sea at the southern end of Camp Pendleton. The isolation doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go; in fact, it’s all the more reason for you to go. The isolation, and the chance to lounge around a river that hasn’t been dammed, diverted, or paved in Southern California is nearly unique. You can explore a 6 mile stretch of this river and pass through vegetation so thick that it looks like you’ve wandered into a Hawaiian rainforst. Wild grape vines grow in profusion here, draping the oaks and sycamores and covering every spare bit of ground. This lushness gives this hike a unique character that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Southern California.

11. Volcan Mountain

Click here for directions

This relatively brief hike to the summit of Volcan Mountain, just north of Julian, offers a little bit of everything for which the San Diego mountain ranges are known. There are lovely stretches of oak and conifer woodland, far-ranging views toward the ocean and of the desert, and a fair amount of huff-and-puff. This hike is at its best in Spring and Fall when the black oaks are either newly dressed or about to shed their leaves. At the top, you have gorgeous views of the desert to the east, Julian and the Cuyamaca Mountains to the south, Ramona and Santa Ysabel Valleys, plus all of the mountain and hills of central San Diego county, and more mountains directly north. There are also some old structures up on top, including a site that was considered for an observatory before ultimately being constructed at Palomar, as well as an old airplane beacon.

10. East Mesa Loop, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Click here for directions

This trail features one of the few major areas of unburned landscape in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Most of the park was thoroughly incinerated during the 2003 Cedar Fire, and most of the trees that once blanketed the slopes of Cuyamaca, Japacha, and Middle Peak are now ghostly, blackened pillars. However, on East Mesa, Jeffrey pines and black oaks line wide-open green meadows that play host to a parade of deer, coyotes, wild turkeys, and an assortment of other critters. Be warned that the full loop would take you through Harper Canyon, which is chronically overgrown, and therefore difficult to navigate. A better alternative would be to pass through Dyar Springs and Juaquapin Creek in a truncated loop. It’s also possible to tack on Oakzanita Peak for a longer and more inclusive hiking experience.

9. Torrey Pines Reserve, Extension, and Beach

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Add coastal bluffs, pristine beaches, ocean views, and the rarest pine tree in North America, and your sum will be one of the most popular natural areas in San Diego. This State Park protects two or the last three natural stands of Torrey Pines, but all three aspects of the park – reserve, beach, and extension – offer much more. The Beach, from the main entrance to Black’s Beach, offers pristine and natural oceanfront that recalls what Southern California was hundreds of years ago (minus naked men doing jumping jacks). The reserve features the famous bluffs and trees. The extension is removed from the main portion, but it offers quiet and peace in contrast to the always crowded main reserves.

8. Engelmann Oak Loop, Daley Ranch

Click here for directions

The Engelmann Oak Loop, which swings around Burnt Mountain and includes a rare Engelmann Oak woodland, is the highlight of Daley Ranch in Escondido. Gnarled, weeping Engelmanns drape their long branches over the trail. Grass carpets the rolling hillside while all manners of birds sing in the trees or screech through the sky. Wildflowers burst forth in profusion during the Spring months, and sage spices the air with its musky fragrance. Take a side trip down the Bobcat Trail, and you’ll walk through a riparian section so dense that it’s more of a forest. No signs of the outside world remain, and yet the whole loop is an easy 5.1 miles.

7. Kanaka Flat, Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve

Click here for directions

Kanaka Flat in the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve is a beautiful example of what makes the California hill and oak regions so beautiful. Each hill curves softly downward to a creek bed. There you find a watercourse lined with gnarled, weeping live oaks and tall, reaching sycamores. Granite boulders sit in a picturesque sea of grass, which ripples and bends with the wind. Wildflowers of every shade dot the slopes, the edges of the trail, and the shady places beneath the trees. Come here during April and early May, and you will see a pastoral landscape that typifies this classic image of California. Once you climb up to the Flat, the landscape opens up to a vast, rolling meadow that is rimmed by Coulter pines. One word of warning, however. The cows in the big herd that grazes here can get a little ornery, and if it wasn’t for the need to constantly get out of their way by cutting or looping around large sections of trail, thus exposing yourself to snakes in the warmer months, this trail would get a higher ranking.

6. Lake Cuyamaca

This hike came as a surprise to me. I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much. Sure, there’s abundant water, which seems to be a requisite for an enjoyable hike. It’s probably the combination of water, mountain views, pine-oak forest, parading wildlife, wide-open meadows, and trickling streams that make it so great. It’s possible to find all of these things in many places in San Diego, but this is the only places where it happens all together. It’s a short hike, which may be the only knock in my book, but for those who aren’t as serious about hiking as I am, this is an ideal place to fall in love with hiking.

5. Los Penasquitos Canyon

Click here for directions to the west trailhead

Click here for directions to the east trailhead

Penasquitos Canyon features a year-round creek that supports lush riparian habitats before it drains into the Pacific Ocean just north of Torrey Pines. The western half of this trail is more open, featuring hillsides, grasses, and the occasional plunge into the riparian wilderness.A waterfall that tumbles over a rocky section of the canyon bisects the canyon about halfway through the trail. The western segment is enjoyable in itself, but it is the eastern half of this trail that becomes magical. Not long after the waterfall heading east, you come to a point where you can choose the well-developed and well-traveled fire road, or you can choose the single track trail that plunges into the trees along the creek. If you walk onto the single track trail (forbidden to mountain bikers), you will soon find yourself on a three mile stretch of trail that is dense, lush, and gorgeous. At times, you get the sense of being so deeply enmeshed in another world that you forget that you are sitting in the heart of central San Diego county. You’re surrounded by the rich, earthy smells of wet earth, drying grasses, wildflowers, oak and sycamore leaves, and the dampness created by the creek. It’s a magical place.

4. Full Loop, Palomar Mountain State Park

Click here for directions

There are numerous ways to enjoy Palomar due to an extensive network of trails built into the relatively diminutive park. While any number of smaller loops are rewarding, a full loop around Palomar State Park, which includes Boucher Hill, the Baptist Trail, Upper and Lower Doane Valley, French Valley, Doane Pond, Thunder Spring, Chimney Flat, and the Silvercrest Trail, might be one of the most satisfying and varied hikes in San Diego. This loop takes into account nearly all of Palomar State Park, giving you a comprehensive Palomar State Park experience.

3. Eagle Crag/Cutca Valley

This hike is remote, requiring a half an hour on a bumpy dirt road, which is already way out in the middle of nowhere (Aguanga). It’s 18 miles from start to finish, and the last mile is all uphill. So what makes it so great? Everything else. Take your pick: densely forested canyon, epics views of San Diego, rolling meadows and oak woodlands, equally epic views of the high country of Riverside and San Bernadino, and perfect backcountry campsites. Yes, this is an epic trek, and were it not for lack of accessibility and degree of difficulty, this would be the best hike in San Diego.

2. Big Laguna Trail

Click here for directions (Note that these directions take you to the trailhead that will lead directly to the PCT. I recommend starting on the PCT, particularly if you’re doing this in the morning.)

This hike is the crown jewel in the San Diego hiking system. It features a stretch of the PCT that overlooks the Anza-Borrego desert. It travels through beautiful Jeffery pine forests (sniff the trees; they smell like vanilla cake), past huge meadows, long lakes, and even by a planted stand of giant Sequoias (not so giant down here, though). This is beautiful country, and it’s unlike anything else you’ll find in San Diego county. It’s easy to find oak trees and creeks. It’s more difficult to find conifers, but not impossible. There are a few man-made lakes, but little that occurs naturally. And there are desert views. However, none of those aspects come together quite so compellingly as on the BLT. Plus, you can call it the BLT. Even this vegetarian can get behind that.

1. Upper and Lower Doane Valley Loop, Palomar Mountain State Park

Click here for directions.

The previous Palomar hike included this hike (the stretch from Doane Pond to Thunder Spring). However, this is an example of the maxim “less is more.” This hike through both of the Doane Valleys, which can also include French Valley and the Weir Trail, is serene, tranquil, loaded with wildlife, and easy to boot. It includes the finest coniferous forest in San Diego, creeks, a pond, and lush, rolling meadows. I almost always see some form of wildlife here, and this hike never fails to please the senses. While this is all a matter of my own opinion, I believe that hikers would be hard-pressed to find a place more lovely than the Doane Valleys anywhere in San Diego, or even Southern California for that matter.

5 Replies to “The Best Hikes in San Diego”

  1. First off, thank you for being such an amazing source for hiking; I'm choosing my next hike for this Saturday and am now torn between 4 of these on this site!

    That's why I'm following up with information I think you'd want to know about. The Santa Margarita Valley trails in Fallbrook (San Diego County) are being sold. As of now, there has been no official writing or documentation to say that these trails (popular for hiking and horseback riding!) will be continue to be open and maintained for the public.

    Local citizens started a petition to make sure that the Santa Margarita Valley trail system would continue to be open and maintained for public use. You can learn more at the actual petition:

    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-public-use-of-santa-margarita-trails

    As a pair that supports California hikes and trails, would you be open to sharing this?

    Cheers!

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