Touch Grass on the Best Hikes in San Diego

From waterfall walks to desert treks, here are the best hikes in San Diego to get you in touch with nature.

Wildflowers in Anza Borrego Desert, California
Anza Borrego Desert, California | Sumiko Scott/Moment/Getty Images
Anza Borrego Desert, California | Sumiko Scott/Moment/Getty Images

It’s hard not to be smug about living in San Diego—not only are we blessed with the most beautiful coastline and beaches, but we also have miles and miles of trails that snake all over the county, along rivers and streams, over boulders and rock walls and through pine and oak forests. From urban bridges to rocky waterfalls to rugged desert trails, we’ve gathered the best hikes in San Diego into one handy list that has something for every skill level. So grab some water and sunscreen and hit the trails.

Point Loma
Distance: ~2 miles
How lucky are we to have a National Park right in the city? Bayside Trail has wide, gently sloping trails and an array of accessibility options that make it easier for everyone to enjoy the stunning 360-degree views of the skyline and water. There are a couple of steeper spots to negotiate along the out-and-back route, but numerous benches along the way ensure plenty of places to relax and unwind. Once you’ve completed the loop, head down to the Point Loma Tidepools and Bluffs Trail for an additional easy, one-mile hike down to the famous tidepools. Be sure to check the tides before heading down—there’s no cell service or wifi access in the coastal area. A tide of 0.7 should be low enough to expose the tide pools. And remember, no touching the animals you might see, but photos are fine as long as the critter isn’t disturbed in any way.

Solana Beach
Distance: 2.2 miles
Conveniently accessible from I–5 at the Lomas Santa Fe exit, Annie’s Canyon is a popular hike that packs a lot into a short couple of miles. Traverse past towering walls and uphill through a short slot canyon, complete with a small, graffiti-covered cave, before emerging at a scenic vista outlook point with views of the San Elijo Lagoon, the Pacific Ocean, and the canyon you’ve just climbed through. From there, it loops through a series of fairly well-groomed switchbacks to return to the trailhead. It can get busy on weekends when you can expect a bottleneck at the slot canyon, so arrive early to avoid the crowds. There’s even a cool little video so you know what to expect.

The Slot
The Slot | Bryan Brazil/Shutterstock

Borrego Springs
Distance: 2.3 miles
There’s no need to traipse all the way to Arizona or Utah for a slot canyon experience—we have one of our own just east of San Diego in Anza-Borrego State Park. The trail marker for The Slot can be tricky to find, so you’ll want to download an offline trail map first. Once there, you can wind your way through this narrow loop canyon that was carved into the desert by rushing water. The walls can reach 100 feet, and you’ll sometimes need to walk sideways. Near the end of the slot is a beautiful natural rock bridge high above you. Note that you’ll need $10 cash for parking/entrance and plan to arrive early, especially on weekends. It’s not uncommon for the entrance to be closed when the parking lot is full.

Rancho Peñasquitos
Distance: 2.5 miles
Miners Ridge Short Loop Trail is one of a dozen trails of varying length and difficulty in Black Mountain Open Space and packs a decent workout in a short couple of miles, with the bonus of some shade from the manzanita trees along the way. In years with enough rainfall, the wildflowers are abundant and varied; you can see yarrow, mustard, red penstemon, and black sage. Add the Black Mountain leg for an additional two miles and ~350 feet in elevation gain. This is a kid-and dog-friendly trail; just ensure you keep your pooch leashed while roaming.

Distance: 3.4 miles
You’ll think you're in the backcountry without enduring a three-hour drive at the Stonewall Peak Trail, which offers spectacular vistas and ever-changing vegetation along its 3.4-mile out-and-back course. Thanks to a series of gentle switchbacks up, a mere 830-foot elevation gain, and plenty of shade from the beautiful forest setting, hikers of almost any skill level can hit the summit for 360-degree views of Lake Cuyamaca and the park. Note that Stonewall Peak Trail is in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and has an entrance fee.

Three Sisters Falls Trail
Three Sisters Falls Trail | Jimmy W/Shutterstock

Distance: 4.1 miles
This challenging out-and-back hike begins with a two-mile, 980-foot descent that includes bouldering, climbing, and traversing before you reach the sparkling falls and pools. The polished rock walls and boulders are smooth and slippery, so climb up to the top of the falls or scramble on the boulders and rock faces either before you go for a swim or after you dry off. Fuel up after you take a dip, and save plenty of water and time for the uphill version of all that bouldering, climbing, and traversing on your return trip.

Distance: 4.8 Miles
The Volcan Mountain Trail is an out-and-back trail, part of the Volcan Wilderness Preserve, and includes the Five Oaks Trail, which you can easily access via a set of stone steps about half a mile in for an additional 2.8-mile trek. There’s no parking lot, so you must park along the wide berm near the trailhead. As long as you don’t block someone’s driveway, you’ll be fine. The trail was built on an old road, so it’s mostly wide and smooth. Check out the James Hubbell Gateway sculpture just past the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve sign. It was created by local artist James Hubbell, with ironwork made by his son, Brennan, and additional wood carvings from Mirko Mrakajic. The trail is primarily unshaded, but you will pass through a lovely grove of oaks. Keep your eyes peeled for a stone chimney on your right—it’s the last remnant of the Volcan Mountain Astronomy Outpost, and just beyond it is a viewfinder where you can identify various peaks using the convenient display board. Springtime brings majestic flower blooms, including California poppies, San Felipe Monardella, manzanita, and native milkweed, which are essential food sources for monarch butterflies and their larva.

Distance: 5.2 miles
It can be hard to find a hike in San Diego County that’s consistently water-adjacent, but the out-and-back Santa Margarita River Trail near Fallbrook takes you along the winding river, where you’ll see lizards and turtles sunning themselves on the rocks. Trek through shady forests and past moss-covered outcroppings. Sycamore and cottonwood trees give you pockets of cool shade, and you can take a dip in one of the enticing swimming holes before you head back.

Cerro de la Calavera
Cerro de la Calavera | Preserve Calavera

Distance: 5.4 miles
Did you know that there’s an extinct volcano in San Diego County? Cerro de la Calavera last erupted 15 million years ago, but the remains of the plug dome volcano are still visible from the Cerra de la Calavera Loop trail. It’s part of the Carlsbad Highland Ecological Reserve and the Lake Calavera Preserve and is considered moderately challenging. There's a good variety of terrain, including wide, well-maintained pathways, scrub brush, rolling hills, spectacular views of Calavera Lake and the volcano, and a little scrambling up and down to the summit. The unmarked offshoot trails can be confusing; experienced hikers recommend downloading the map before you head out.

​​​​​​The Goat Canyon Railroad Trestle

Anza Borrego State Park
Distance: ~5.8 miles
Hidden back in the desert mountains of Anza-Borrego State Park east of San Diego is the largest wooden railroad trestle in the world. This trek is definitely for experienced hikers and will undoubtedly take the entire day as it is more realistically an 8- to 9-mile trek. The trail is not marked or maintained, so you must navigate independently. If you don’t have a GPS unit or know how to use a map and a compass, don’t even think about marching off into the desert without first downloading an offline map. The terrain is intense and involves rugged trails, bouldering, navigating through brush, and possibly encountering snakes, glowing orbs, or the Borrego Sandman. Some of the tunnels you’ll see along the way have collapsed, but the workaround should be obvious, and here is where your offline map will come in handy. So bring a lot of water, a headlamp or flashlight for the tunnels, use your common sense, and be prepared for anything. Once you reach the trestle, it will all be worth it. Note that the road to the trailhead requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, and leave your dog at home—they aren’t allowed on the trail.

Distance: 5.8 miles
The Walker Preserve Trail is a relatively high-trafficked out-and-back jaunt that meanders for nearly six miles along the San Diego River on a wide, well-maintained, decomposed granite trail. Gentle grades make this a fairly easy trek, and a beautiful redwood deck, complete with a bench, overlooks the water. It’s popular with walkers, runners, and cyclists and can accommodate most wheelchairs and strollers for the entire route. It’s perfect when you need to get some steps in but don’t want a full hike.

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail | Flickr/taylorro

Rancho Penasquitos
Distance: 6.8 miles
This laid-back hike takes you through the most beautiful parts of the Los Penasquitos Preserve, through stands of sycamores and California live oaks on a well-marked trail. Once past the trailhead, you’ll see Ranch House Crossing. Just a short distance from there, take a left where the trail forks to visit the grave of John Eichar, a Pennsylvanian of royal Bavarian descent who worked on the ranch as a cook. Once back on the trail, follow the wide path through the overhanging trees and along the creek. You’ll see numerous signs directing you to the waterfall; follow them until you reach it, and if the water’s not too high, you can cross over it and carefully climb around the rocks to get the best view. Then just go back the way you came. This trail doesn’t require any special clothing or equipment. Note that the preserve and the parking lot close at 5:30 pm, so you’ll want to pay attention to your pace so you don’t find your car locked up for the night.

Distance: 7.6 miles
Yes, it’s been done to death, but you still want to do Potato Chip Rock Trail at least once, as it’s practically a rite of passage for San Diego hikers to snag a photo of themselves standing on the iconic sliver of rock near the summit of Mount Woodson. The first part of the hike meanders around Lake Poway before heading up the ridge on a well-marked trail that’s steep enough to require occasional flights of stone steps. A half-mile past a cool boulder field is the payoff, a thin, brittle-looking slice you’ll have to scramble up to stand on. It looks a little intimidating in person, but you'll be fine if you don’t do anything reckless. As you can imagine, it can get packed on weekends, and the line for photos can get to more than 50 people long, so plan accordingly. Note that if you want to take a photo on the chip, it’s best to hike with another person—selfies just don’t work. Also, there’s no shade on the entire trek, so bring more water than you think you’ll need.

Warner Springs
Distance: 9.8 miles
You’ll conquer the highest point in San Diego County when you hike to the top of Hot Springs Mountain in the Los Coyotes Reservation. After destructive visitors forced the closure of the land to recreational use for years, the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians has reopened the area to the public for a $10 per person (not per car), cash-only, day-use fee. The trail starts at the Los Coyotes Campground and follows an old fire road as the hike takes you through a dense, shady conifer forest. Expect your quads to burn for the first two miles, some rock climbing and a ladder/rope assist to the top. Sitting atop the 6,553-foot peak, you’ll find the remains of an old fire lookout and beautiful views in every direction. Register for a day pass online in advance. You must be 18+ to book. Gates open at 8 am.

El Cajon Mountain Trail
El Cajon Mountain Trail | Flickr/mechanoid_dolly

Distance: 11.3 miles
If you’re looking for a great view and a good workout, El Cajon Mountain Trail is for you. It’s one of SD's most challenging hikes and follows a steep old mining road. It’s a mix of uphill and downhill on the way up to the peak at 3,675 feet, so expect some burning quads on your way to some of the most spectacular views of any hike. Be on the lookout for tiny San Diego Goldstar flowers along the trail—the only other place they grow is in Northern Baja. Occasionally, golden eagles are visible in their nesting spots. The trail is closed in August due to extreme summer temperatures, so bring plenty of water and snacks if you want to try this trail. Plan to spend the better part of the day on this hike and obey the signs that let you know when it’s time to turn back because the parking lot gates are locked promptly at sunset. Experienced hikers recommend wearing hiking boots to manage the steep, slippery parts.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting various vegetables and beverages, reading cookbooks, and traveling through Mexico. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.