16 Best San Diego Hikes For Every Level (By A Local!) 2024

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Looking For The Best San Diego Hikes For Every Level?

We asked California local Tiff from Follow Tiff’s Journey to give us her top picks.

San Diego, California has beautiful weather all year round which makes it a great place to get outdoors and explore a variety of hikes for every level.

From slot canyons to beach hikes to mountain peaks, San Diego has hikes for every level and we’ve selected our top picks for you to discover.

16 Best San Diego Hikes

San Diego is a coastal city but the hikes nearby offer varied trails perfect for anyone visiting sunny Southern California.

1. Annie’s Canyon Trail

Annie’s Canyon is arguably one of the best hikes in San Diego and a must-do to add to your San Diego bucket list.

Annie’s Canyon is only a 0.25-mile loop that passes through a short slot canyon, mushroom cave, and then tops out with a view of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve.

Tiff standing in the crevice on a hike at Annie's Canyon in San Diego.

The entire hike that connects to Annie’s Canyon can vary in distance depending on which trailhead you start at.

This hike is very popular for locals and tourists so avoid going on weekends and during weekday sunsets if possible.

Quick Facts

  • Slot canyon hike close to San Diego
  • See a mushroom cave
  • Short, easy and fun

2. Potato Chip Rock Hike

Potato Chip Rock is a popular hike just outside of San Diego in Poway but it beckons locals and tourists from all over.

The iconic rock is aptly named due to its shape but the size is definitely deceiving in photos. It’s a bit small so keep an eye out for it near the summit!

There are two main trail options, one starting from Mt Woodson Trail West and Mt Woodson Trail East.

Mt Woodson Trail West is the popular trail up to Potato Chip Rock as you only gain 1,700 ft of elevation in 3.75 miles one way. This is a dirt trail for most of the hike.

Tiff sitting atop a rock formation at Potato Chip Rock in San Diego.

Mt Woodson Trail East gains 1,000 ft of elevation in 2 miles one way, and it’s a paved road for most of the hike.

💡Pro Tip: Don’t skip hiking to Mt Woodson summit, just a couple of minutes from the rock if you are coming from the west. If you are coming from the East, you will pass the summit first.

While the Potato Chip Rock presents a fun photo opportunity, the hike to it offers amazing views of lakes, mountains, and even the ocean on a clear day!

Quick Facts

  • Iconic San Diego hike
  • West TH is recommended for those looking for a moderate hike
  • East TH is recommended for those looking for a strenuous workout
  • Moderately challenging

3. Eagle Rock Hike

There are a few Eagle Rock hikes in California and this one near San Diego resembles an eagle-shape the most.

The hike to Eagle Rock in San Diego can be accessed on the famous Pacific Crest Trail from Warner Springs and takes just over 3 miles to reach it.

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    The trail starts through a well-shaded area with lots of trees before it opens up to wide expansive terrain.

    💡Pro Tip: The creek that runs along the trail rises high in the winter and early spring after the rain. Don’t take this trail right after the rain as it gets very muddy.

    You should plan for 2.5 – 3.5 hours depending on your hiking pace and aim to go early to avoid the crowds.

    Quick Facts

    • Hike to a rock shaped like an eagle
    • Easy-moderate level with only 900 ft of elevation gain in 3.15 miles
    • About 1.5 hours from San Diego in Warner Springs

    4. Cedar Creek Falls Trail

    Cedar Creek Falls is a gem in Cleveland National Forest. This hike goes to a deep swimming hole and a waterfall, which can often be dry depending on the time of year you go.

    💡Pro Tip: This is a backward hike, meaning you hike down to the waterfall and have to hike upwards on the way out so save some energy and water for the return!

    The hike is about 5 miles out and back with 1,000 ft of elevation gain. This means you are hiking 1,000 ft up back to your car after you visit the waterfall.

    A rock face at Cedar Creek baking in the sun with a pool of water at the base.

    This hike can be challenging for many and there is no shade so avoid hiking here when it’s hot.

    There were water snakes in the pool when I went swimming so be mindful of that.

    Quick Facts

    • Hike to a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole
    • Backwards hike
    • Moderately strenuous – avoid hiking on a hot day

    5. Three Sisters Falls

    This hike covers a bit over 4 miles total, with an elevation gain of over 980 feet.

    Brace yourself for a bit of rock scrambling, but the reward of three stunning waterfalls forming Three Sisters Falls is worth it.

    Due to its popularity, it’s wise to arrive early and carry plenty of water to stay hydrated, especially as it can get hot.

    A white waterfall drapes down a rock face at Three Sisters Waterfall.

    The journey begins on a flat trail, descending for a stretch before gradually steepening until you reach the falls. Don’t forget to bring hiking poles and sturdy shoes for a more comfortable and secure experience.

    Quick Facts

    • Moderately challenging
    • Three waterfalls that create Three Sisters Falls
    • Steep descent on the way to the falls and a steep ascent on the way back

    6. Cowles Mountain

    Cowles Mountain is the tallest point in San Diego city with an elevation of 1,591 ft. It’s a great spot for a quick urban training hike located in Mission Trails Regional Park and there are multiple trailheads but the most popular trail starts from Cowles Mountain Staging area.

    Tiff sits on a rock with her arms in the air at the top of Cowles Mountain with a clear view of San Diego below.

    Don’t underestimate this hike. While it is only 1.35 miles to the top, it gains 913 ft of elevation and there is no shade on this trail.

    So while the hike is short, be prepared with plenty of water as it feels like walking up nature’s stairmaster. The dirt path is lined with wooden railings but the ground can still be loose so wear hiking shoes with good grip.

    The parking lot gets crowded but there is plenty of street parking available.

    Quick Facts

    • San Diego City high point
    • Great for post-work sunset hike
    • Strenuous: short but steep

    7. Iron Mountain

    Iron Mountain in Poway is one of the most popular hikes for San Diego locals.

    The Iron Mountain Peak Trail is 5.8 miles out and back with an elevation gain of 1057 ft. While the hike is beautiful all year round, there is no shade so start early and avoid hiking on a hot summer day.

    💡Pro Tip: There are many Iron Mountains and this should not be confused with the extremely strenuous Iron Mountain hike in Angeles National Forest.

    The trail starts flat and easy with a path heading straight, but once you turn south (right) and start trending towards the peak, the trail gets steeper and rockier and finishes with a series of switchbacks to gain the summit.

    On a clear day, you can see the ocean and views of the surrounding mountains and if you prefer a longer route, you can start at Ellie Lane for a 9 mile loop.

    Quick Facts

    • Second highest peak in Poway 2,657 ft
    • Picnic table at the summit
    • Short side trail to the old Iron Mine
    • Moderate-strenuous (plan for 2-3 hours)

    8. South Clevenger Trail

    This interesting and quirky trail is well-known for its pair of lawn chairs that sit on a boulder, providing fantastic views of the canyon and Cleveland National Forest.

    Covering a bit over 4 miles round trip, it involves a climb of over 1,100 feet in elevation. Keep in mind, some parts of the trail might be a bit overgrown, so it’s a good call to wear long pants.

    Quick Facts

    • Moderately challenging
    • Canyon views
    • Quirky lawn chairs perched on a boulder at the top

    9. Stonewall Peak

    Stonewall Peak is one of the most popular hikes in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The views from the top, like many others in San Diego, offer a 360-view of the surrounding mountains and lakes.

    Tiff walks down the path at Stonewall Peak with dry desert land stretched out ahead of her.

    But this particular trail has carved-out steps and a rail along the summit ridge to ensure your safety.

    For those with a slight fear of heights, the end of this hike can be a little thrilling!

    Quick Facts

    • Moderate hike
    • Exposed ridge to summit with a natural staircase and metal railing
    • California State Park entrance fee: $10 per vehicle for day use

    10. Lawson Peak Trail

    Lawson Peak is a hidden gem for hikers looking for a little mix of adventure in Cleveland National Forest.

    The hike is 4.3 miles out and back and while the first 2 miles gradually ascend 1,145 ft, the final stretch provides a different level of excitement.

    A view of the rugged terrain of Lawson Peak with the rocky mountain ahead.

    You will scramble through large boulders and narrow paths (sometimes bushy) as you hike up the small hill that leads to Lawson Peak.

    The trail can be a little slippery with loose sand and dirt on the boulders so wear shoes with good grip and be mindful of your step.

    Quick Facts

    • Moderate-challenging
    • Fun little rock scrambling
    • Views of Barrett Lake

    Beach Hikes San Diego

    California is known for great beaches, and while Southern California has a variety of different hikes there’s something special about embarking on a beach hike in San Diego.

    Keep diving in below as I highlight some of my favorite hikes with incredible seaside views.

    11. Torrey Pines

    The Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop is a super popular coastal hike in San Diego, located in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. It’s a 2.3-mile loop with a 357-foot elevation gain, providing stunning views.

    Start your hike from the parking lot, passing by the trail signs. The path is easy to follow, with rails to keep you on track.

    As you walk, enjoy the awesome views of Red Butte, a cool rock formation, and different glimpses of the ocean. Take a few minutes to soak in the scenery from the Razor Point Overlook before you keep going down towards the beach.

    💡Pro Tip: It’s best to skip this trail on rainy days or a few days after a good rain because they might close the trail

    Be sure to check a tide chart before your hike because it can be risky during high tide as this loop takes you along the beach.

    Quick Facts

    • Hike to the beach
    • Moderately strenuous
    • Typically takes 1-2 hours
    • Check tide charts in advance

    12. Ho Chi Minh Trail

    The Ho Chi Minh Trail, also known as the Saigon Trail, is a tough but short hike in La Jolla.

    There’s street parking nearby, but be sure not to block driveways, and remember there’s a 2-hour limit.

    The round trip is a bit less than a mile and finding the trailhead between two fences can be hard, so keep an eye out.

    A view of the Pacific Ocean through a break in the dusty cliffs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail near San Diego.

    You’ll start by passing the signs for the trail and a short distance into the hike you’ll reach a fork where you need to head down towards the beach.

    You’ll cross a wooden plank and go through a ravine as you navigate down the trail towards the beach. The trail gets pretty narrow, and you’ll need to continue your descent to reach the beach.

    Since it’s steep and narrow, it’s best to avoid this hike during or after heavy rain when it can get slippery.

    All in all, it’s a challenging yet stunning hike that takes you past numerous narrow yet beautiful rock formations, ultimately leading you to the gorgeous Black’s Beach.

    Quick Facts

    • Short but challenging
    • Cool rock formations along the way that’ll lead you to the beach

    13. Bayside Trail

    If you’re up for an easy hike with awesome views and a bit of history, this trail is spot on.

    It’s an out-and-back journey that treats you to fantastic bay views and takes you by the Cabrillo National Monument, honoring Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s historic landing in San Diego in 1542.

    The trail is also friendly for strollers and wheelchairs, covering a bit over 2 miles but, it’s important to know that it is mildly steep featuring about 340 feet of elevation gain.

    Quick Facts

    • Bay views
    • Takes you by Cabrillo National Monument
    • Pretty accessible for those with strollers or wheelchairs

    Easy San Diego Hikes

    If you’re new to hiking or just want a quick and easy trek in San Diego, I’ve got the perfect suggestions for you.

    14. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail

    This spot is a favorite among San Diego residents looking to escape the city and enjoy the outdoors. Just a quick 30-minute drive from downtown, it’s the perfect place for some easy trails.

    The hike itself is a 6.8-mile loop, but you can turn around whenever you feel like it.

    Along the way, you’ll come across a waterfall, amazing views, birdwatching, and wildflowers.

    It’s best to avoid visiting during or shortly after heavy rain, as the trail can get quite flooded.

    Quick Facts

    • Easy hike
    • Beautiful waterfall
    • Avoid after heavy rain

    15. Sunset Cliffs Trail

    This quick and breezy trail is perfect for catching ocean and cliff views. It’s a little over 2 miles round trip with minimal elevation gain, making it a great coastal walk.

    True to its name, it’s especially pretty at sunset, though it can get crowded, so arriving early is a good call for the best view.

    It’s also a fantastic spot to see wildflowers and, if you’re lucky, catch sight of whales or watch surfers riding waves from the trail.

    Quick Facts

    • Beautiful during sunset
    • Easy hike with ocean views

    16. Seven Bridge Walk

    The Seven Bridge Walk in Balboa Park offers a great opportunity for a casual hike or stroll.

    This urban walk forms a loop of just under 6 miles, but you can opt to turn back at any point. Along the way, you’ll encounter various cacti and cross several distinct bridges.

    The trail leads you around notable landmarks such as the San Diego Zoo, Spanish Village Art Center, Camp Balboa, and other attractions.

    Quick Facts

    • Urban walk
    • Goes around the San Diego Zoo
    • Start the trail in Balboa Park at the Park Avenue Bridge

    Best Time To Visit San Diego

    San Diego is awesome any time of year, but if you’re planning a visit, I recommend taking your trip between May and September. It’s the warmest, and you’re less likely to deal with rain, plus, it’s the best time to go hiking.

    If you’re looking to hit the trails, be sure to start early in the morning to avoid the heat and the crowds that gather later in the day.

    Where To Stay In San Diego

    I’ve picked out some of my favorite spots to stay when visiting San Diego.

    📍Budget Option: Hilton San Diego Bayfront is an excellent pick if you’re on a budget. It’s conveniently close to the San Diego Convention Center and Petco Park, and it’s praised for its attractive rooms, fitness center, and on-site restaurant.

    📍Mid-range Option: Paradise Point Resort & Spa is situated perfectly for a coastal retreat near Mission Bay. The rooms are tastefully decorated, the views are fantastic, and you’ll find five pools plus an incredible spa to enjoy.

    📍Luxury Option: The US Grant five-star hotel has got you covered for a fancy stay in San Diego. Known for its beautiful exterior, stylish interior, awesome location, amazing amenities, and friendly staff, it’s the perfect spot for a luxurious getaway.

    Hiking San Diego FAQs

    Keep reading below as I answer a few of the most commonly asked questions about hiking in San Diego.

    What is the most popular hike in San Diego?

    Cowles Mountain is the tallest peak in San Diego, making it one of the most popular hikes in the city.

    Does San Diego have good hiking trails?

    San Diego is a great place for hiking with various trails to choose from. If you’re in the mood for a slot canyon hike, try Annie’s Canyon Trail and if you’re looking for a fantastic coastal hike, try the Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop.

    Where can I hike to see the best view in San Diego?

    For the best overall view of San Diego, check out the Cowles Mountain Trail in Mission Trails Regional Park. It’s a bit more challenging but totally worth it for the 360-degree view at the top where you can see downtown, the Pacific Ocean, and even parts of Mexico on clear days.

    The Wrap-Up

    San Diego has a bunch of fantastic hikes for all kinds of nature lovers. Whether you’re into the coastal charm of the Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop or craving panoramic views from the Cowles Mountain Summit Trail, there’s a trail perfect for everyone to enjoy.

    When you’ve explore all the best hikes in San Diego, why not check out trails closer to Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains next?

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