If you would like to know the best walking trails in San Diego, you have come to the right place. I mean, who can resist hiking if there is sun, shade, water, and plenty of hiking trails?
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San Diego is an incredible county in the Gold State, with good weather all year round. It has many natural features and landscapes, everything that an outdoor enthusiast lives for.
This county has so many walking trails in state parks, wonderful features to see and for the daring, there is the Anza Borezo Desert.
The hiking trails in San Diego differ in difficulty rating. They are good for everyone from kids, beginners to professional hikers.
The best walking trails in San Diego
Pack some snacks in your hiking backpack too. If you are bringing your kids, pack enough snacks, water and sweet drinks for everyone. You need to keep your energy levels up all the time.
Before you engage in hiking, try some warm up exercises. This is very important especially if it has been some time since you last hiked. Stretching is good enough. It helps your muscles anticipate the task ahead.
Here are some of the most popular and scenic trails in San Diego:
Cedar Creek Falls Trail
Cedar Creek Falls trail is one of the best walking trails in San Diego. However, it is best for people who have mastered the art of hiking. This walking trail can be quite strenuous but at the end, you getting stunning views of an 80-foot waterfall that go into a deep swimming hole.
This swim hole is called the Devil’s Punchbowl. This trail goes through the eastern San Diego Chaparral Hills.
When preparing to take on the Cedar Creek Falls trail, it is important to consider the heat regardless of the season. In fact, for safety reasons, this walking trail San Diego is closed on the hottest days. Temperatures sometimes exceed 115° F/46° C. You will literary feel a 10 to 15 degree rise in temperature as you go down the valley.
This trail has elevation gain of 600 feet. It is a loop trail with a total distance of 6.6 miles.
The trail begins at the Cedar Creek Falls Creek trailhead. Take 15519, Thornbush Road, Ramona. All hikers should show an active hiking permit. For those with cars, a car park is provided.
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
The Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is a tranquil walking route. This great walking trail is suitable for hikers of all ages. (hiking with kids)
The trail is 6.8 miles and it has some impressive sights. There are year-round streams, waterfalls and creeks crossing throughout the trail. Make sure your eyes are wide open and that you are aware of your surroundings because you might just see a deer or two.
The Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail can be classified as an easy trail as it does not have a lot of elevation gain. You should find it good for your kids too.
To get to the trail, on Mira Mesa Blvd, exit the 15 Freeway then head west and turn right on the Black Mountain Road. Follow the road to the north and on Canyonside Road, take a left.
There is available parking where you can leave your car or your motorbike. For people who love cycling, the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is bike friendly.
Iron Mountain Trail
The Iron Mountain Trail is a moderate to difficult loop trail that is 5.2 miles roundtrip. The name of the trail should not intimidate you because this trail is manageable by almost all hikers. It is quite popular on weekends.
The Iron Mountain Trail’s granite formations make it the best trail for bouldering lovers and for rock climbers. At the top, you will get a 360-degree view of San Vicente Reservoir and the other surrounding hills.
You can walk your dog on this hike, there is mountain biking and you can ride your horse. Iron Mountain Trail takes you to the second highest summit in Poway.On this summit you are able to get awesome views of Northern San Diego County.
This trail also has beautiful wild flowers and on clear days, hikers can be able to see Catalina Islands as well as Mt. Woodson. This hiking trail has no shade, which means you should bring lots of sunscreen and drinking water.
Iron Mountain Trail is accessible south of the Poway road and CA-67 roads intersection. The hike starts just west of Boulder Oaks Preserve at the Iron Mountain Trailhead.
Lake Poway to Mount Woodson Trail
Lake Poway to Mount Woodson is one of the best walking trails in San Diego. The “Potato Chip Rock” on Mount Woodson brings hordes of hikers who just want to take a picture on the granite rock.
This hike should commence early in the day because it can be quite strenuous to cover the 7.6 miles trail on hot days. Bring enough water because it is usually hot and there are no shades.
The hike begins at Lake Poway. Ducks and coots populate the path around the lake, so bird lovers have something to look forward to.
The lake views are to die for when going up or down the trail. One can either bike or walk to the peak because the trail is quite friendly. If you love a cute little picnic, there are picnic tables at certain places and one can have their snacks while enjoying the views.
Rock and boulder lovers are spoilt for choice because worn boulders are littered all over the trail. His is the kind of trail where nature photographers would have a field day. The best thing about this route is that there are signs and directions all over so there is no chance of getting lost. Besides, there will always be other hikers on the trail.
Leashed dogs are allowed, the route is bike friendly and there are bathrooms, concessionaire and water at Lake Poway. As for permits and fees, Non-Poway residents should pay $10 parking fee on holidays and on weekends.
For directions: from I-15, use the Rancho Bernardo road exit and head east towards Espola road. From Espola Road, turn left to Lake Poway Road and follow the route up to Lake Poway recreation area.
Mission Trails – South and North Fortuna Mountains
Mission Trails Regional Park is popular for hiking. It is one of the best walking trails in San Diego. Cowle’s Mountain Trail is the most renowned trail, which means it gets quite many hikers. However, there are other less crowded walking trails.
This trail is dog and bike friendly but dogs must be leashed at all times. It has quite a lot to offer especially for rock lovers because the trail has rock walls all over the place.
For bird watchers or lovers, this walking trail has you covered because the bushes and the plants get thicker along trail. They provide a nice haven for quite a number of birds’ species.
A river crosses the path but it becomes impassable during the rainy season. However, there is a cement berm and a fabricated rock where hikers can loop around to go back to the path when the river is impassable. This river has turtles, stay alert and you may catch sight of a few.
When you get to the top of South Fortuna Summit, you will enjoy great views of the rather hazy Pacific Ocean, Point Loma, San Diego River, Cowle’s mountain antenna topped peak and Mt. Trails Regional Park’s other side.
From South Fortuna summit, head down and then branch off to the right and the trail leads you to Fortuna Saddle, a small dip between the South and North Fortuna summits.
Under the power lines, there is the Fortuna trail junction. You can take the North Fortuna trail, which leads to the summit from where you can see the ocean and San Diego downtown.
Trekking poles are important especially when going down because there is loose gravel.
Ramona Grassland Preserve
Ramona Grassland Preserve is the newest addition to San Diego’s county parks. Initially it was under Nature Conservancy but it was later handed to the County.
Other than hiking, this preserve can be used by horseback riders and by mountain bikers. Leashed dogs are allowed too.
This is an easy trail loop and is only 3.1 miles long with an elevation gain of less than 250 feet. The best time to go hiking during winter because large birds like hawks come here. You may also visit in spring when the weather is still a bit cool. This hikes in this preserve are easy. The wide plains, rolling hills, oak trees and boulders make quite a picturesque setting.
The Ramona Grassland Preserve measures about 3500 acres. The trail loop was created to help ease movement of the endangered Stephen’s kangaroo rats.
There are only two trails – Meadow Loop and the Wildflower Loop. The Wildflower Loop is the most used route but you can use either route. There is signage too, which makes it easy to navigate.
Carry a lot of water since it gets quite warm even when you start the trek early enough. There is a pit toilet in the parking lot but it has no water. It is free to use the toilet.
For directions, use Highway 67 North and take the Archie Moore road. Take a left turn just past Mount Woodson’s Trailhead. Follow the Archie Moore Road and turn to Highland Valley Road.
Bernardo Mountain Trail
There is a popular destination for mountain bikers and hikers, offering them about 7.5 miles of nice trail. Climbing up the Bernardo Mountain trail loop presents awesome views while giving you a good workout. This is one of the best walking trails in San Diego.
In some places you, will pass through people’s homes and freeways. The mountain is however far enough to offer you peace and solitude. The total distance to get to the top is 7.5 miles with a 1400-foot elevation change. You had better wear a good pair of hiking shoes with good traction.
This trek offers you views of flowering buckwheat, trees and a dry lakebed, which gets water during the rainy season. You will see deer. The longest ribbon bridge in the entire world is found across Lake Hodges, which is one of the attractions on this walking trail.
The difficulty rating of the Bernardo Mountain Trail is moderate. You can hike all year round. It is also dog friendly but the dogs have to be on a leash.
For directions, use I-15 through Rancho Parkway’s exit then via 1 block. Go to Sunset Drive and turn left. Drive on to where the road dead-ends and park your car there. You may park on the street if you do not find a space in the parking lot.
There is a pit toilet about 1 mile into the trail but it has no water. No parking fees or permits will be required of you.
The Three Sisters Falls – Best walking trails in San Diego
The Three Sisters Falls Trails is one of the best walking trails in San Diego but it only became so after the improvements in the recent years.
There is now a parking lot at the start of the trailhead. The only bummer is that there are no shaded areas, which can make hiking a bit hard especially when it is hot. Bring enough water and leave your dog at home.
During the rainy season, the Three Sisters roars with water and the sound can be heard across the canyon all the way to the falls. It is best to go early in the morning to avoid too much heat as well as too many people. Hiking during summer is not recommended since it can get quite hot.
A word of caution though, the recent rains has had poison oak coming right up the trail; so be careful. The trail is 4 miles long and it is rated as moderately difficult.
Double Peak Trail
Double Peak Trail starts at Discovery Lake in San Marcos. As a loop trail, it combines a bit of moderate steepness and restful views.
The trail is 5 miles roundtrip and has a rating of moderately difficult. When one gets to 1644-foot summit, there is a 360-degree awesome view of North county area.
Unfortunately, fires have destroyed some parts of the trail so there is not much of a shade. The first mile or so is paved but the rest of the trail is rough. The best thing about this trail in San Diego is that dogs are allowed but they have to be on leash.
To get to the Double Peak Trail, you start at Lakeview Park just off the Foxhall in Discovery Hills and cross the spillway bridge at the Discovery Lake Dam. You can then go up the paved road that goes up the hill.
Palomar Mountain Trail
At almost 6200 feet high, Palomar Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in the county of San Diego. The Palomar Mountain trail is 13 miles round trip. It has a rating of difficulty but you can do the entire hike in a day. The cedar trees and the large Douglas firs combined with San Jacinto Peak views give Palomar Mountain a Sierra Nevada vibe.
The best time to go up the mountain is from noon so that you can have an evening adventure at the Palomar Observatory for stargazing. It is 4.5 miles up the trail and it has a 200-inch telescope.
Balboa Park Trails – Best walking trails in San Diego
Balboa Park Trails is one of the best walking trails in San Diego and it is home to art exhibits, renowned museums not to mention botanical gardens. There is quite a lot of sightseeing around the park such that people forget that it is a 1200-acre land with miles of hiking trails.
There are 5 trails to choose from, which range from 1.5 miles to 6.6 miles. Hikers of all ages can go up and down the canyon paths through pine covered hills and lush oak.
El Cajon Mountain Trail
El Cajon Mountain Trail is one of the best hiking trails in San Diego but it is also one of the most grueling trekking trails.
Mostly, triathletes use it for training. It is an 11-mile hike and it follows a mining trail up to the 3,675-foot peak. The trek is quite hot so one is advised to apply enough sunscreen and carry enough water.
The hiking trail is closed for the whole month of August so it is important to plan your hiking dates accordingly.
The hiking trail is known for steep trails both up and down the trail, but the sense of accomplishment and awesome views are all worth it.
Cowles Mountain Trail
Cowles Mountain is for those people who want a quick hike; it is the perfect lunchtime workout. Its highest peak is 1595 feet, which is within San Diego’s city limits.
Its steepness can turn into a high intensity race up the mountain. The Cowles Mountain Trail is convenient and it gives the hikers a 360-degree view of the city. This trail is dog friendly and it is suitable for everyone.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Trail
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is one of the most relaxing walking trails in San Diego. It is easily accessible via the Sunset Cliffs Blvd in Ocean Beach and Ladera St.
This hike can double up as a romantic date destination or picnic. Hikers are treated to majestic sea cliffs, ocean air, tide pools and the calming sounds of the ocean.
If one takes the cliffs hike in the evening, there is a chance they will see a lot of seals and bottlenose dolphins playing and splashing around the rocks.
Borego Palm Canyon
Borego Palm Canyon is a quintessential adventure park. It looks a bit desolate since it has a desert vibe but it is breathtaking with wild flowers, ripe cactus and bighorn sheep.
This walking trail is 3.2 miles and it is mostly flat. The trail ends at the largest palm in the state of California.
This walking trail in San Diego is the only one that gives hikers deep colors that only desert sunsets provide. Dogs are allowed with a leash and of course, hikers are advised to carry lots of water to keep dehydration at bay.
As you have seen here, there are many beautiful walking trails in San Diego. So, gear up this summer and put on your hiking shoes. This is no time to be indoors while so much beauty is waiting for you outside.