13 Great San Diego Hikes to Go on This Fall and Winter
From urban hikes to river walks and waterfall treks, there are plenty of opportunities to get lost in nature.
San Diegans love to brag about our 70+ miles of spectacular coastlines and beaches, but we’re equally proud of our 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. Fall is one of the best times to hit the trails; the weather’s cooler and you might even get to peep some fall foliage here and there. Whether you crave a rugged, day-long adventure, a dog-friendly excursion, a quick jaunt to clear your head, or a gentle, sloping journey along the bay, we’ve gathered 13 of our favorite hikes into one handy list that has something for every skill level. So grab some water and sunscreen and hit the trails!
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 and trek through shady forests and past moss-covered outcroppings. Sycamore and cottonwood trees give you a glimpse of golden fall color, and you can take a dip in one of the enticing swimming holes before you head back.
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 can still be seen from the Cerra de la Calavera Loop trail. Part of the Carlsbad Highland Ecological Reserve and the Lake Calavera Preserve and considered moderately challenging, there’s a good mix 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. There’s a number of unmarked offshoot trails that can be confusing; experienced hikers recommend downloading the map before you head out.
Balboa Park isn’t just full of culture, it's also full of hiking trails. There are 19 trails with varying levels of difficulty that take you 65 miles through the park. Access the trails from one of five trailhead gateways, where you’ll find info on length, difficulty, and type of trail, and can download maps of specific areas or the entire park. When you don’t have time to drive off into the wilderness, but still want some exercise and fresh air, take advantage of San Diego’s crown jewel and try a little urban hiking.
Distance: 2.2 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 if you’d rather avoid the crowds. There’s even a cool little video so you know what to expect.
Distance: ~2 miles
How lucky are we to have a National Park right in the city, with 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’s 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 made it back to the top, head down to the Point Loma Tidepools and Bluffs Trail for an additional easy, one-mile hike down to the famous tidepools.
Distance: 4.1 miles
This challenging out-and-back hike begins with a two-mile, 980-foot descent that includes some 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 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 return trip.
Distance: 5.8 miles
The Walker Preserve Trail is a fairly high-trafficked 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. Perfect for when you need to get some steps in but don’t want a full-on hike.
Distance: 3.4 miles
You’ll think you're in the backcountry, sans the 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. Afterwards, you’re just a quick 14-minute drive into Julian where you can get a well-deserved slice or two of their famous apple pies.
Distance: ~Six 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. The trail is not marked or maintained at all, so you’ll have to do some navigating for this one. If you don’t have a GPS unit or at least know how to use a map and a compass, don’t even think about marching off into the desert like you’re Indiana Jones or something. This hike is intense and involves rugged terrain, bouldering, navigating through brush, and possibly an encounter with snakes, glowing orbs, or the Borrego Sandman. Some of the tunnels you’ll see along the way have collapsed, but the workaround will be obvious, and experienced hikers recommend downloading the trail maps in advance. 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.
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 tribe 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 and 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.
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 a trail map first. Once you’re there you can wind your way through this narrow loop canyon that was carved into the desert by rushing water. 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.
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 known as one of the most challenging hikes in SD, following an old mining road that’s a mix of uphill and downhill on the way up to the peak at 3,675 feet. That means you’ll be going up and down on the descent as well, so expect some burning quads. 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, since the parking lot gates are locked promptly at sunset. Experienced hikers recommend wearing hiking boots to manage the steep, slippery parts.
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 added bonus of some shade along the way. Add the Black Mountain leg for an additional two miles and ~350 feet in elevation gain. This is a dog-friendly trail, just make sure you keep your pooch leashed while you roam.