An Instagram Tour of 30 Best San Diego Hikes
Chase waterfalls, find the tallest point in San Diego and more
Ditch the flip flops for laces and head out on one of these best San Diego hikes that will take you along coastal trails, out to waterfalls and even to a potato-chip-shaped rock.
And who better to show you what these outdoor adventures are like than the people, mountain bikers and pets who use them. For this, we turn to Instagram.
Table of Contents
- Balboa Park Trails
- Batiquitos Lagoon (Carlsbad)
- Big Laguna Trail (Mount Laguna)
- Black Mountain Open Space Park (Rancho Peñasquitos)
- Cardiff Beach to Swami’s
- Cedar Creek Falls and Devil’s Punchbowl (Ramona)
- Cowles Mountain (Mission Trails Regional Park)
- Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail (Descanso)
- Double Peak Trail (San Marcos)
- El Cajon Mountain
- Guajome Regional Park (Oceanside)
- Iron Mountain Trail (Poway)
- Lake Calavera Trails (Carlsbad)
- Lake Hodges: Coast to Crest Trail (Escondido)
- Lake Poway to Mount Woodson (Poway)
- Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
- Moonlight Beach to Beacons Beach
- Mission Trails Regional Park: Oak Canyon Trail (San Diego)
- Pacific Crest Trail: Penny Pines to Garnet Peak (Pine Valley)
- Rancho Carrillo Trails (Carlsbad)
- San Elijo Lagoon (Encinitas)
- San Luis Rey River Trail (Oceanside)
- Santa Margarita River Trail (Fallbrook)
- The Slot (Borrego Springs)
- Stonewall Peak Trail
- Three Sisters Falls (Pine Valley)
- Torrey Pines State Park (La Jolla)
- Upper Otay Reservoir (Chula Vista)
- Vista Conservancy Trail
- Volcan Mountain Trail (Julian)
- Tips for Heading Out to Best San Diego Hikes
Balboa Park Trails
Balboa Park’s 19 hiking and biking trails span 65 miles and offer varying degrees of difficulty. You can download a PDF map of the trails.
Location: Balboa Park, San Diego
Batiquitos Lagoon (Carlsbad)
Enjoy the beautifully preserved wetlands of Batiquitos Lagoon. The trail is wide and flat which means that wheelchairs and strollers can be used here. Leashed dogs are welcome. You can also check the calendar for guided public walks like bird watching.
Length: 3.2 miles
Directions: 7380 Gabbiano Ln, Carlsbad
Big Laguna Trail (Mount Laguna)
The Big Laguna Trail (often referred to as the BLT trail) has numerous trailheads through pine, oak, and a lake with expansive meadows. The wildflowers are amazing here when in season. You’ll need to purchase an Adventure Pass ($5) to park at certain trailheads.
Length: 10 mile loop
Difficulty: moderate – difficult
Directions: Take Sunrise Highway from I-8 (near Pine Valley) and drive north 13.5 miles to just past the second cattle guard on the highway. Access to the Big Laguna trail is via the Nobel Canyon trail departing the western turnout, marked by a small sign. Follow the Nobel Canyon trail about 100 yards to reach the Big Laguna trail junction.
Black Mountain Open Space Park (Rancho Peñasquitos)
Black Mountain Open Space Park has several hiking and/or biking trails that wind through chaparral covered canyons, native grasslands and creekside areas. There is a 360-degree view of San Diego from the top of Black Mountain for those who enjoy a challenging hike.
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Difficulty: easy – difficult
Directions: From Interstates 5 or 15, take state Route 56 to Black Mountain Road and head north.
Cardiff Beach to Swami’s
Many walkers, runners and cyclists enjoy gorgeous views from this paved cliffside path from Cardiff State Beach up to Swami’s Beach. You can access the beach from the stairs at Swami’s.
Length: 1.7 miles each way
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Cedar Creek Falls and Devil’s Punchbowl (Ramona)
This popular trail is for those of you who like to chase waterfalls and is still considered a San Diego hidden gem. It’s necessary to have a permit to hike this trail ($6 for 5 people). Note that Cedar Creek Falls is less robust in summer time which means the pool at its base (Devil’s Punchbowl) gets a little funky with algae. It is recommended that you bring at least a gallon of water per person for this hike as it is usually very hot here.
Length: 5.2 miles (8.5 miles if you hike to the top of the falls) round trip
Directions: 15531 Thornbush Road, Ramona. Once you get to the end of Thornbush Road. Beginning of the trail will be on your left.
Cowles Mountain (Mission Trails Regional Park)
The Cowles Mountain Trail leads to the highest point in San Diego where you can see Mexico and even Orange County. It is particularly spectacular at sunrise or sunset.
Length: 3 miles out and back
Directions: Take Interstate 8 to the College Avenue exit. Proceed north on College Avenue to Navajo Road. Turn right and proceed on Navajo Road to Golfcrest Drive. Turn left on Golfcrest Drive to enter parking lot.
Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail (Descanso)
The Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail offers spectacular views of mountains and valleys. It’s the second highest peak in the county and, yes, it does snow here in winter. It’s a state park but dogs are welcome.
Length: 6.7 miles round trip
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Directions: From I-805S, take I-8W and exit CA-79N/ Japatul Valley Rd toward Julian. Continue on CA-79N and park at the Paso Picacho Campground (daily parking fees apply).
Double Peak Trail (San Marcos)
The Double Peak Trail boasts views to the coast and inland. Leashed dogs and horses are welcome to use it. You can actually drive to the top of the trail where there is a nice spot with picnic benches.
Length: 4.1 mile loop
Directions: Start at Lakeview Park off Foxhall in Discovery Hills. Cross the spillway bridge and the Discovery Lake Dam, and proceed up the paved road that winds up the hill.
El Cajon Mountain
El Cajon Mountain has steeply inclined trails with panoramic views. Leashed dogs are welcome and hiking poles are recommended.
Length: 10.9 miles
Directions: I-8 E from San Diego to Hwy 67 N to Willow East-bound to Wildcat canyon road north-bound. 3.2 miles will be a parking lot on the corner of Blue sky ranch road. Parking available.
Guajome Regional Park (Oceanside)
The beautiful loop trail at Guajome Regional Park is good for all levels. There is also a campground and old adobe house here.
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Length: 4.5 mile loop
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Location: 3000 Guajome Lake Rd
Iron Mountain Trail (Poway)
The Iron Mountain Trail* offers magnificent views of Coastal San Diego. There are a few ways to get to the top, but the main trail is obviously the most popular and busy on weekends.
Length: 5.6 mile loop
Directions: From I-15, exit and travel east on Poway Road. After passing through the city of Poway, Poway Road will dead-end at Highway 67. The trailhead will be on the opposite side of Highway 67.
Lake Calavera Trails (Carlsbad)
Did you know that Mount Calavera is one of three volcanic plugs in Southern California? Yes, it is an extinct volcano. Lake Calavera is a manmade reservoir (you may not swim in it) which has an almost 2-mile loop trail around it but there are 4 other miles of trails here for walks, mountain biking and leashed dogs. It’s a unique spot with 17 native vegetation communities.
Length: 6 miles
Location: Look at the trail map to determine where you’d like to start. On-street parking and parking lots are indicated.
Lake Hodges: Coast to Crest Trail (Escondido)
The Coast to Crest Trail is part of a restoration project that will eventually reach 70 miles from Del Mar beach to Volcan Mountain. The part near Lake Hodges is particularly lovely and has great views of mountains and birds. The trail is O.K. for mountain biking, leashed dogs and horseback riding.
Length: 7.5 miles out and back
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Directions: Escondido Fwy & E Via Rancho Pkwy & I-15, Escondido, CA 92025
Lake Poway to Mount Woodson (Poway)
Snap a photo on top of the “potato chip” rock hovering over the Earth. The trail can be narrow and steep in parts but the views are worth it. You can download a trail map.
Length: 6.4 miles round trip
Directions: From Espola Road, go to the Lake Poway entrance. Daily parking fees apply.
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
The Los Pensasquitos Canyon Trail is good for all ages and skills sets because it’s relatively flat. Enjoy waterfalls and creeks in addition to 500 species of plants and 175 different birds. You can get on and off the trail at different points.
Length: 4.7 miles
Directions: Exit the 15 Freeway on Mira Mesa Blvd. Head west and turn right on Black Mountain Rd. – head north and turn left on Canyonside Rd. Parking is available here. Check the trail map for other parking spots.
Moonlight Beach to Beacons Beach
Walk along cliffs and past lovely homes between Moonlight Beaches and Beacon’s Beach in South Carlsbad. Beacon’s Beach has a windy trail down to the sand but this is an easy walk otherwise.
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Length: 1.4 miles each way
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Mission Trails Regional Park: Oak Canyon Trail (San Diego)
At Mission Trails Regional Park, hike along a babbling stream that flows deep into the canyon. It’s called the Oak Canyon Trail and though less famous than Cowles Mountain, it’s very pretty and you can cross the stream at certain points.
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Directions: The trail head is accessible from the Old Mission Dam parking lot. Walk down the pathway to the San Diego River and cross the bridge.
Pacific Crest Trail: Penny Pines to Garnet Peak (Pine Valley)
The section of the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail offers spectacular views of North County. You will need an Adventure Pass to park as this section is located in the Cleveland National Forest. If you intend to hike long distances on the Pacific Crest Trail (it spans from Mexico to Canada), you’ll need a different permit.
Length: 2.3 miles out and back
Directions: Take I-8 E and exit at Sunrise Highway. Start at the Penny Pines Trailhead about 27 miles up Sunrise Highway. Follow the Pacific Crest Trail to Garnet Peak through Laguna Recreation Area.
Rancho Carrillo Trails (Carlsbad)
The Rancho Carrillo Trails are great for beginners, families and mountain bikers. You can walk around the Leo Carrillo Ranch and see its peacocks, too.
Length: 4 miles (two loop system)
Directions: Take Palomar Airport Road east to Melrose Drive. Right on Melrose Drive south to Poinsettia Lane. Right on Poinsettia Lane, continue west to stop sign (Carrillo Elementary School will be on the left).
Left into Carrillo Elementary School parking lot drive then immediately on the right is paved parking lot at trailhead.
San Elijo Lagoon (Encinitas)
The San Elijo Lagoon trails range from easy to difficult and wind around a very diverse coastal wetland. Check the Conservancy’s calendar for family-friendly educational workshops, events and guided tours.
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Difficulty: easy to moderate
Location: The lagoon is on Cardiff Beach to Swami’s lake, Encinitas
San Luis Rey River Trail (Oceanside)
The San Luis Rey River Trail is a family-friendly multi-use trail that hikers, runners, rollerbladers, cyclists and dogs on leashes can enjoy.
Length: 7.2 miles one way
Directions: You can access is from multiple points. Check the trail map to see where you would like to enter.
Santa Margarita River Trail (Fallbrook)
Fallbrook’s best-kept secret offers swimming holes and oak woodlands. The Santa Margarita River Trail is good for all hiking levels. Horseback riding and mountain biking is also allowed.
Length: 5.2 miles out and back
Directions: I-15 N to Fallbrook exit. Take Mission Rd. 5 mi. E; turn N onto Pico Ave. (becomes De Luz Rd.). Continue 2.4 mi.; go R @ fork onto Sandia Creek Dr. N. Parking area is in 1 mi. (just before bridge); trailhead is E of lot.
The Slot (Borrego Springs)
The Slot, a narrow siltstone canyon trail at Anza-Borrego State Park, is one of the most unique hikes in all of San Diego County. It is not marked and not near most visitor traffic so you definitely need to ask where to go (get a map).
Length: 2 miles out and back
Location: Borrego Mountain Wash, Borrego Springs, (Anza-Borrego State Park)
Stonewall Peak Trail
The Stonewall Peak Trail has a great forest setting with a variety of terrain. Hike to the top for a 360-degree view of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park though the last section is exposed ridge with steps and a handrail.
Length: 3.8 miles
Directions: It’s located across highway 79 from Paso Picacho campground. The trailhead is located on the opposite side of Paso Picacho across CA-79.
Three Sisters Falls (Pine Valley)
Steep inclines and rocky terrain make Three Sisters Falls* suitable for experienced hikers. You can hike to the top of the water fall but it is strenuous to say the least.
Length: 3.5 miles out and back
Difficulty: extremely hard
Directions: The trailhead is located on Boulder Creek Road where Cedar Creek road intersects. You can park at this intersection, and follow the trail west along a ridge until you see another trail intersect to the south.
Torrey Pines State Park (La Jolla)
Centrally-located on the coast, the trails of Torrey Pines State Park are popular with families. In addition to finding rare Torrey Pines trees, it’s possible to spot dolphins and even whales during their seasonal migrations.
Length: 3.3 miles spread out over multiple trails
Directions: Lots are located at the South Beach entrance and at North Beach. Two small lots are on the mesa near the Lodge.
Upper Otay Reservoir (Chula Vista)
The Upper Otay Reservoir trail is a usually-quiet loop that wraps around the Upper Otay Lake. Leashed dogs are welcome.
Length: 2.1 mile loop
Directions: 12151-12159 Otay Lakes Rd, Chula Vista
Vista Conservancy Trail
The ever-expanding Vista Conservancy Trail takes hikers past Native American grinding stones and native oaks. This network of trails was created in partnership with the City of Vista in order to preserve creek beds and other part of the otherwise dwindling natural environment.
Directions: You can enter at the backside of Wildwood Park near the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe. You may also enter at 751 E. Vista Way, and at Brengle Terrace Park.
Volcan Mountain Trail (Julian)
There’s nothing quite like a warm weather hike along the Volcan Mountain Trail with spectacular views of the Salton Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Wildflowers are particularly beautiful when in season. You may even take a hike led by a docent or County ranger.
Length: 5 miles round-trip
Directions: From Julian, go north from town on Farmer Road about 2.2 miles. Turn right on Wynola Road for about 100 yards, then turn left, back onto the continuation of Farmer Road. Proceed 100 yards more and park on the shoulder of the paved road by the preserve sign on the right.
Tips for Heading Out to Best San Diego Hikes
Wherever you plant to hike, it is always a good idea to check for trail closures due to weather and trail rehabilitation.
And, there are so, so many San Diego trails that it is tough to narrow a list. If you have a favorite that isn’t mentioned here, please leave a comment!
*Asteriks indicate affiliate links to TripAdvisor, a partner of this site.