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Best Hikes in San Diego County

Best Hikes in San Diego County

From sandstone cliffs overlooking the Pacific to desert landscapes in full bloom, experience this region’s natural beauty by way of an unforgettable hike

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San Diego may conjure images of sandy beaches and curling surf, but the sprawling county also boasts unmatched biodiversity. Venture outside the city center to find deserts marked by otherworldly badlands, coniferous forests, and 259 named mountainsstretching thousands of feet into the sky. The best way to experience these natural wonders? On foot, of course.

Whether you’re searching for a challenging all-day trek or a gentle stroll, consider these outdoor hiking adventures in San Diego County.

Best Hikes for an Epic View in San Diego

The views are worth the climb at Cowles Mountain. Located in Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego proper, the hike is a moderate 3-mile round-trip with 900 feet of elevation gain. Go on a clear day and you’ll be able to see all the way to Mexico.

San Diego’s second-highest point, Cuyamaca Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (50 miles outside of the city), makes you work a bit harder to reach the summit. The 7.7-mile loop trail starts in Paso Picacho Campground before ascending 1,800 feet. Along the way, you might spot mule deer and wild turkey. Views from the top stretch for nearly 100 miles in all directions. Another popular peak, Mount Woodson, delivers beautiful vistas along with one of the area’s most famous Instagram spots during its 7.3-mile out-and-back hike. Stand on so-called “Potato Chip Rock,” a seemingly sliver-thin slab jutting out into the sky, for a mind-bending photo op. (Note: Be careful when getting onto the “chip”—it does require a slightly precarious jump from one boulder to another. Lines can get long to take a picture on the rock, so go early in the morning or on weekdays to avoid crowds.)

Best Waterfall Hikes Near San Diego

San Diego will never be confused with Yosemite, but you can still find rushing water if you know where to look. Head to Ramona for one of the county’s most impressive cataracts, Cedar Creek Falls. Secure a permit in advance to embark on the 5.6-mile out-and-back trail through Cleveland National Forest. At the turnaround point sits an 80-foot-high waterfall that plunges into a deep pool where hot hikers are welcome to take a dip.

For a short and sweet trip, try the 0.4-mile trail to Green Valley Falls in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Bring a picnic to spread on a flat rock next to the gentle falls. Maidenhair Falls in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park comes to life after rainfall. Wait for a wet day—typically October through May—to head out on the 5.1-mile hike to a palm canyon and oasis-like waterfall in the middle of the desert.

Best Dog-Friendly Hikes in the San Diego Area

Let your pup roam free at Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve in Escondido. Furry friends who respond to voice commands are welcome to walk with their owners off-leash at the top of the Way Up Trail, a 2.2-mile trek dotted with creek crossings. Hike with your dog and enjoy the serene marshy trails on the 3.4-mile, flat-as-a-pancake Batiquitos Lagoon Trail in Carlsbad, the strenuous 11-mile El Cajon Mountain Trail in Lakeside, and the gently rolling 7-mile Sunset Trail to Laguna Meadows Loop in Cleveland National Forest near the base of Laguna Mountain.

Easy Hikes in San Diego

Located just blocks from downtown San Diego, Balboa Park is home to several easily accessible hikes that are also family-friendly. Enjoy the perfectly manicured Japanese Friendship Garden on a 0.8-mile stroll, take in the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden and the Botanical Building on the 1.6-mile Gardens Loop, or encircle the entire public greenspace with the mellow 4.5-mile Balboa Park Loop. Bonus for families: There are plenty of public bathrooms and snack spots along the way.

At Cabrillo National Monument, find two options for short-but-beautiful hikes: the partially paved 2.5-mile Bayside Trail, featuring a gentle climb and panoramic views, or the 1-mile flat and sandy Coastal Trail along the Point Loma Tide Pools (a favorite for both curious kids and adults). Venture 25 miles north of downtown to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, where the 3-mile La Orilla Trail weaves through the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Preserve on a flat, single-track path.

Best Hikes to Avoid the Crowds in San Diego

Find sweet serenity near the U.S.-Mexico border at Mother Miguel Mountain in Chula Vista. The 3.2-mile trail climbs roughly 950 feet and serves up the same sweeping views of downtown San Diego and Tijuana as Cowles Mountain provides—but without all the foot traffic.

For a more remote adventure, head west to the wild Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where you can explore dozens of trails. For a casual sunset hike, try the 1.2-mile William Kenyon Overlook, which snakes along a hillside of weathered granite. For a more challenging adventure, plan a day to tackle the 16.6-mile Laguna Mountain Ridge Trail, which follows the Pacific Crest Trail with beautiful desert views. In the summer, hike with caution and plenty of water as temperatures can be extreme. In the late winter and early spring, you might be lucky enough to catch a super bloom when the desert floor comes alive with a blanket of colorful wildflowers.

Best Hikes on San Diego Beaches

San Diego beaches aren’t just for surfing and sunbathing—there are also several trails along the water. Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop in Del Mar is one of the area’s most popular hikes—and for good reason. The 2.5-mile trek cuts along the sand, climbs the massive sea cliffs, and takes hikers through groves of the famous Dr. Seuss–esque Torrey pines. The equally impressive 1-mile Sunset Cliffs Park Trail in San Diego’s Ocean Beach neighborhood is mostly flat and a must-see at (you guessed it) sunset. For an accessible paved path, try the 2.3-mile La Jolla Beach Trail, which follows the swirling waters of La Jolla Cove, passing South Casa Beach and Children’s Pool with plenty of opportunities for seal and sea lion viewings along the way.

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