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, hikers, and pets who use these California gems. For this, we turn to Instagram.
Balboa Park Trails
Balboa Park is home to 19 hiking and biking trails span 65 miles and offer varying degrees of difficulty. These are often considered some of the best hikes in San Diego. One of the more popular hikes in Balboa Park is a 6.5-mile loop called the Seven Bridge Walk.
Another is the Florida Canyon Trail, a 2.1-mile trail that leads you through beautiful wildflowers. Balboa Parks Gardens Loop, Morley Field Trail, and Balboa Park Loop are three other stunning trails for those who want to stop and smell the California wildflowers. You can download a PDF map of the trails.
Location: Balboa Park, San Diego
Batiquitos Lagoon (Carlsbad)
Enjoy the beautifully preserved coastal 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. There are also guided walks that teach you about the conservation efforts being made to protect bird, plant, insect and animal habitats. This is a great option for those looking to learn a thing or two while hiking in San Diego. Apart from beautiful views of the lake, you’ll also be able to keep a lookout for California wildlife while you’re on the move.
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. Take it all in on this trail while hiking near San Diego. You’ll need to purchase an Adventure Pass to park at certain trailheads.
Length: 10-mile loop
Difficulty: Moderate to 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 biking trails that wind through chaparral-covered canyons, native grasslands, and creekside areas. There is a 360-degree view of San Diego from the summit of Black Mountain for those who enjoy a more strenuous hike.
While walking San Diego trails, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for movement, as there are plenty of animals to be spotted. Mule deer, desert woodrats, and bobcats are among the most commonly spotted animals in the area.
Difficulty: Easy to 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.
This is one of those easy hikes in San Diego. Although it may be short, don’t underestimate it as it can be a little bit of a steep walk at times. The coastal views make it a popular place to take photos, especially if you’re heading there during golden hour (sunrise or sunset).
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 it is still considered a San Diego hidden gem. It’s necessary to have a permit to hike this trail.
Note that Cedar Creek Falls is less robust in the summertime so the pool at its base (Devil’s Punchbowl) gets a little funky with algae. Be sure to bring at least a gallon of water per person.
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, the beginning of the trail will be on your left.
Cowles Mountain (Mission Trails Regional Park)
The Cowles Mountain Trail leads to the highest summit in San Diego where you can see Mexico and even Orange County. It is particularly spectacular at sunrise or sunset. You’ll definitely want to have your camera with you for this as it’s one of the best hikes in San Diego with breathtaking panoramic views.
I recommend packing a lightweight, durable camera like the GoPro Hero 8, for quality view footage and images, without the hassle of lugging around a heavy camera and multiple lenses.
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 the parking lot.
Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail (Descanso)
The Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail offers spectacular views of mountains and valleys. In fact, this could be considered one of the best hikes near San Diego for those who appreciate a good view. On a clear day, you can expect to see pretty Southern Californa vistas and even to as far as Mexico and over the ocean to the Channel Islands.
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 ocean and inland. This is one of the top hikes in San Diego as it boasts a variety of possible activities. Hiking, backpacking, and even horseback riding are permitted. Leashed dogs are also welcome to join their owners on the trail.
You can also drive to the peak of the trail where there is a lovely spot with picnic benches if you’re looking for an exquisite view without all the hard work.
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. The trails are mainly used for hiking, biking, nature trips, and horseback riding. Leashed dogs also are welcome, and hiking poles are recommended. This is because the trails are often strenuous and steep. Having a helping hand (or pole), never hurts.
There’s very little shade on this mountain, so pack a hiking hat that can keep your face out of the sun.
Length: 10.9 miles
Directions: I-8 E from San Diego to Hwy 67 N to Willow Eastbound to Wildcat Canyon road north-bound. In 3.2 miles, there will be a parking lot on the corner of Blue Sky Ranch Road. Parking is available.
Guajome Regional Park (Oceanside)
The beautiful loop trail at Guajome Regional Park is suitable for all levels. There is also a campground and old adobe house here.
The trail will lead you through wetlands, grasslands, and woodlands, so your environment is constantly changing throughout the walk. Hiking in San Diego doesn’t get more varied than this. Unfortunately, there is very little signage along the trail, so downloading an app like AllTrails before you take on the challenge is a great way to ensure your safety.
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 County. It’s a great place to see wildflowers in season and provides more than just one activity.
Apart from being home to some of the best hiking in San Diego, running, biking, and ice-climbing are also great fun. There are a few ways to get to the summit, but the main trail is 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 human-made reservoir (you may not swim in it) which has an almost 2-mile loop trail around it, but there are four other miles of trails here for walks, mountain biking, and leashed dogs. It’s a unique spot with 17 native vegetation communities and pretty views.
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 section near Lake Hodges is particularly lovely and has excellent views of mountains and birds. The trail is okay for mountain biking, leashed dogs, and horseback riding. The great variety makes this one of the best San Diego hikes in the area.
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 (Potato Chip Rock – Poway)
Snap a photo on top of the “potato chip” rock hovering over the Earth. Potato Chip Rock is one of the most iconic features of San Diego hiking trails. The trail can be narrow and steep in parts, but the views are worth it.
You can download a trail map before you go.
Length: 6.4 miles round trip
Directions: From Espola Road, go to the Lake Poway entrance. Daily parking fees apply.
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail
The Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail is suitable for all ages and skillsets because it’s a relatively flat hike. Enjoy waterfalls and creeks in addition to 500 species of plants and 175 different birds.
You can start on and get off the trail at various points which makes it easy to tailor-make the hike to your particular fitness level.
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 Beach in Encinitas and Beacon’s Beach in Leucadia. Beacon’s Beach has a windy trail down to the sand, but this is an easy walk otherwise.
Enjoy stunning views of the coastline and breathe in the salty ocean air as you go. If you’re looking for one of the most relaxing places to hike in San Diego County, this is sure to be it. The picturesque layout of the shoreline makes it also a great place to take some travel photos.
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 beautiful, and you can cross the stream at specific points.
No matter what time of year you decide to go hiking along this trail, you’ll get the opportunity to see old oak trees that have been growing in this San Diego area for years.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Directions: The trailhead 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)
This section of the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail offers spectacular views of North County. You will need an Adventure Pass to park as it’s located in the Cleveland National Forest.
If you intend to hike long distances on the Pacific Crest Trail (it spans from Mexico to Canada, through California), you’ll need a different permit and to check other information requirements.
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)
You’re sure to see plenty of wildflowers and massive cactus plants along the way. This San Diego hike shows you suburbia and nature in equal proportions, so get ready for a healthy dose of variety on this popular hiking trail.
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 the 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 San Diego hiking tours.
The trail will lead you through saltwater and freshwater marsh, as well as coastal scrubs. Along the way, you’ll see plenty of shorebirds and ducks that absolutely thrive in the marshlands. This makes it one of the best hiking places in San Diego for families.
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 multiuse trail that hikers, runners, rollerbladers, cyclists, and dogs on leashes can enjoy.
It starts near the beach and then heads inland giving you a variety of beach and neighborhood views along the way. The trail is smooth most of the way, so feel free to take a set of wheels with you for when you get tired.
Length: 7.2 miles one way
Directions: You can access it from multiple points. Check the trail map to see where you would like to start.
Santa Margarita River Trail (Fallbrook)
Fallbrook’s best-kept secret offers swimming holes and oak woodlands. The Santa Margarita River Trail is suitable for all hiking levels. Horseback riding and mountain biking are also allowed.
There is a wonderful variety of photo opportunities along the way, so be sure to pack a camera. You’ll get some epic California hike shots for Instagram and gain some serious likes with all of the appropriate travel hashtags.
Length: 5.2 miles out and back
Directions: I-15 N to Fallbrook exit. Take Mission Rd. 5 miles east; turn north onto Pico Ave. (becomes De Luz Rd.). Continue 2.4 mi.; go right at the fork onto Sandia Creek Dr. North. The parking area is at 1 mi. (just before the bridge); the trailhead is east of the lot.
The Slot (Borrego Springs)
The Slot, a narrow siltstone canyon trail at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is one of the unique hikes in all of San Diego County. You’ll make your way through a narrow passage in the canyon which can make for a great photo.
If you’re up for a little adventure without the strain of taking on a really long hike, this is the trail for you. The trailhead is not marked and not near most visitor traffic, so you need to ask where to start (get a map) or check out these very detailed directions.
Length: 2 miles out and back
Location: Borrego Mountain Wash, Borrego Springs, (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park)
Stonewall Peak Trail
The Stonewall Peak Trail has a great forest setting with a variety of terrain. The beginning of the trail is lined with oak trees making for a truly picturesque setting.
Hike to the summit for a 360-degree view of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park through to the last section which is an exposed ridge with steps and a handrail. You’ll enjoy spectacular Southern California views of Anza Borrego, the Laguna Mountains, as well as the Salton Sea.
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 waterfall, but it is strenuous, to say the least.
But if you’re up for the challenge, the stunning San Diego area views are well worth the effort. Especially when the waterfall is cascading at full force.
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 Natural Reserve (La Jolla)
Centrally located on the coast, the trails of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in La Jolla 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.
There are many different trails that snake themselves through the area, so you’re sure to get a good dose of variety and some beautiful views. Meet at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Visitor Center for information and free public guided walks for families and small groups on weekends and holidays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and on Fridays at 10 a.m. (summer only) when the trails are open.
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. A number of dead trees rise up out of the lake and make the perfect perch for the birds that frequent the area. This makes it the perfect trail for bird watching. Leashed dogs are also welcome, so feel free to bring your furry friend to hike along this San Diego County hiking trail.
The gates to the reservoir are only open from February through to October due to extreme weather conditions. However, pedestrians are allowed on the trail all year-round.
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 to preserve creek beds and other parts of the otherwise dwindling natural environment.
Snaking its way through the leafy suburbs, this is one of those San Diego trails that will give you a local experience not quite like many others.
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. California wildflowers are particularly beautiful here when in season.
The trail follows an old mining road up into the mountains and provides spectacular vistas along the way. If you’d like a more tailored experience, you can 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 the Best San Diego Hikes
Wherever you plan 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 County trails that it is tough to narrow a list. If you have a favorite that isn’t mentioned here, please leave a comment!