As one of the most visited destinations in the US, San Diego’s incredible geography has something to offer to all nature enthusiasts whether they love the sea or they prefer the mountains. The unique variety of trails available makes America’s Finest City a particularly attractive destination.
If you’re not quite sure which trail to set foot on first, you’re in luck: We compiled a list of some of the best trails around the city of San Diego that combine the uniqueness of the scenery and the different levels of hike difficulty to help you find your next hiking adventure.
1. Mission Trails Regional Park Trails – Cowles Mountain
Located northeast of downtown San Diego, Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the most famous recreation areas around the city. The 65-mile trail system spread out on the 7,220-acre preserve offers a much-needed nature retreat for San Diego residents and visitors alike.
The Cowles Mountain is the highest point in San Diego and climbing up to the top of it allows you to get a sneak view of Mexico. It takes a moderately difficult three-mile hike to get to the peak but watching the sunrise from this spot is nothing short of spectacular.
A typical trail trajectory begins in the San Carlos neighborhood and leads hikers to the summit at the end of a 950-foot climb. Once at the top, you can freely enjoy the panoramic view of the city and you can peer beyond to Mexico on a clear day. Unfortunately, camping is not allowed on Friday and Saturday evenings, but you can find other camping options near San Diego.
It takes about 30 minutes of driving out of San Diego to get there, but it will be well worth your while!
2. Cuyamaca Peak
It is no surprise that Cumayaca Peak’s plateau offer hikers some of the best views in town, as it is the second highest peak in San Diego County. There are 37 trails in the state park. You will want to start from the Paso Picacho Campground taking hikers to the 6,500-foot Cumayaca Peak, which enchants tourists with its breathtaking valley scenery. Provided that the day is clear, you can actually see the ocean from here.
Another trail you could follow is the Azalea Glen Loop. It’s a more challenging 7-mile route for the seasoned hiker which will also lead you to the Cumayaca Peak. If winter is more to your liking, you’ll be able to see snow-capped trees if you hike here during the colder months of the year.
3. Cedar Creek Falls to the Devil’s Punch Bowl
With a catchy name, the Cedar Creek Falls Trails lead hikers to a pool located at the base of the trail and it attracts many nature enthusiasts each year. If you plan on swimming there, the best time to come is in the spring. While cooling off on a hot day seems appealing, summertime is not your best bet: The waterfall doesn’t flow in the summer and the remaining stagnant water is not swimming friendly.
There are two routes that will lead you to the unique pool: You can either follow the San Diego River Gorge Trail beginning in a residential area in Ramona or you can start in Julian off of Eagle Peak Road. For this hike, you will need a US Forest Service permit in order to enter the area. You can get it by visiting recreation.gov or by scanning the QR code posted at the trailhead. Remember to bring plenty of water and protein snacks and to avoid the afternoon sun if you’re hiking in the summer as temperatures can get up to 100°F.
4. Mount Woodson Trail – Potato Chip Rock
One of San Diego’s most photographed spots, the Potato Chip Rock draws its name from its resemblance to the iconic snack. Balanced on the edge of a cliff, the thin rock resides along the Mt. Woodson Trail. The round-trip hike is about 7 miles and it will take a 2,000-foot ascension before you reach the Potato Chip Rock. Continue your hike past the famous landmark in order to enjoy the breathtaking views of Lake Poway and the entire area.
To get there, you will need to drive 30 miles north of downtown San Diego. The Mt. Woodson Trailhead is located in the Lake Poway Recreation Area on the western side of the lake. There is a parking fee on weekends and holidays for non-residents.
5. Corte Madera Mountain Trails
Getting to the Corte Madera Mountain will reward hikers with a truly backcountry atmosphere. It takes about 7 miles back and forth in order to complete the hike. As you progress, the trail becomes gradually steeper, which means you might need to catch a break halfway through. The scenery is rich with oaks, manzanita and granite slabs along the way. Enjoying all this wilderness culminates with the amazing sight of Corte Madera Mountain – called the Half Dome of San Diego.
As the trail is located in the Cleveland National Forest, you will need to drive an hour and a half to get there. The trip will be well worth it, though, especially if you enjoy a more challenging hike and the beauty of secluded nature.
6. Torrey Pines State Reserve Razor Point and Beach Loop
The Torrey Pines State Reserve is one the wildest coasts in Southern California. As its name suggests, the reserve is home to the Torrey Pines, one of the rarest pine species in the US. Razor Point and Beach Loop make up one of the most popular hikes, allowing you to enjoy the park.
It only takes 1.9 miles to complete the hike following the beach trail which leads you to the eroding cliffs, before reaching the Torrey Pines Beach where you can enjoy the shore. Overnight camping is not allowed at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, but you can find a camping spot north of the reserve at the San Elijo State Beach.
To get there, you should drive 16 miles north of San Diego and take the I-5. The Razor Point Trail begins near the Visitor Center parking area. The reserve is open 365 days a year, so it’s probably easier to take in the sights during the weekdays, when there are less people hiking.
7. Balboa Park Trails
San Diego’s Balboa Park houses an impressive 17 museums, the city’s zoo and a lot of trails spanning 65 miles. It is one of the most diverse areas of the city, guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser. At only 1.5 miles, the Balboa Park Trail is short and not quite so popular with tourists. But if a short run or workout is what you’re looking for, then this is perfect for you!
8. William Heise County Park – Canyon Oak Trail
A serene nature park in the Laguna Mountains, the William Heise County Park is only a 90-minute drive away from San Diego. Within the park, hikers can access the Canyon Oak Trail through a canopy of oak and pine trees offering an enchanting view of the high desert region. The 1.25-mile trail is family-friendly, but if you’re looking for a challenge, then the 2.25-mile Desert View Trail is there for you, looping back to the trailhead through the Canyon Oak Trail.
Getting there couldn’t be easier: If you follow the main road through the William Heise Campground to a small parking area you will see on your right a sign indicating the way to the trail.
9. Sunset Cliffs
Part of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, and spanning 68 acres, the Sunset Cliffs trail has attracted San Diego residents as well as Americans from all across the country and international visitors with its breathtaking ocean views and iconic cliffs. This spot is popular with ocean-gazers, surfers and with anyone who enjoys a stroll down Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Just coming here to watch a sunset or listen to the waves will not leave you disappointed. You might even spot a pod of California gray whales as they migrate to Baja California.
If this San Diego corner of nature has captured your imagination, all you have to do is head south of the OB Pier, along Sunset Cliffs Blvd and you will eventually get to your destination.
10. Big Laguna
If a relaxed and relatively accessible trail is more to your liking, you will be excited to get to Big Laguna. Located in a rarely visited area, this low-incline trail passes through the pine forests and the open meadows of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area before it connects to a part of the Pacific Crest Trail, providing an outstanding view of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the distance. If you choose this second trail, you will notice that as the elevation progresses, the hike becomes more strenuous with occasional rocky terrain. The contrasting biodiversity of the desert vegetation and the pine forest will sweep you off your feet.
You can get to the Big Laguna Trail if you take the Sunrise highway. All you have to do is drive 60 miles east of downtown San Diego.
Don’t Forget About Storing Your Gear
Now that you’ve become more knowledgeable on the topic of great hiking trails in America’s Finest City, you should also consider renting a self storage unit in San Diego to keep all your hiking gear safe when you’re not outside in the middle of nature.
Best Types of Unit for Your Gear
When browsing for a self storage unit, make sure to pick the right size for your hiking needs. Some self storage companies list their unit sizes as “small,” “medium” and “large.”
Most probably, you will benefit most from renting a small unit –one with dimensions of either 5×5 or 5×10. Pick the right unit size according to how much gear you own.
Best Neighborhoods for Storage in San Diego
If you live close to Midway, you can rent a small self storage unit starting at $29 with Pacific Highway Storage at 4350 Pacific Hwy San Diego, CA. And if you’re planning on storing sensitive gear, you should consider climate control when browsing for self storage. For instance, in this neighborhood, you can rent a 5×5 climate-controlled self storage unit starting at $83/month with the same company.
In Sorrento Valley there are multiple storage facilities that you can choose from. If you choose to use self storage in this neighborhood, you could pay anywhere from $79/month for a standard 5×5 unit, which is the price at the Extra Space Storage facility at 3808 Cedar Street San Diego, CA. If a climate-controlled unit better suits your needs, consider looking for one in Otay Mesa where you might end up paying $94/month or more for a 5×5 unit if you rent with Otay Mesa Self Storage at 6630 Camino Maquiladora San Diego, CA.
Did we help you find your next hiking adventure? Let us know in the comments section below if there’s anything else that you would like to know about the San Diego trails.