18 Best Hikes in San Diego (According to a Backpacking Guide)

Flowing waterfalls, deep canyons, rugged mountain peaks, and serene coastal walks are some of the beautiful environments you can explore when hiking in San Diego.
Best Hikes in San Diego

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There are plentiful opportunities to enjoy the unique and varying landscapes throughout San Diego County. Whether you’re an experienced hiker trying to bag some peaks or someone who likes a gentle stroll along the Pacific Ocean, there is a hike for you.

So lace up your hiking boots— these are the best hikes in San Diego!

When to Go Hiking in San Diego

As one of the sunniest cities in the U.S., and because of its proximity to Mexico, San Diego has fairly moderate temperatures for most of the year; the high is usually between 60 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the city. Year-round hiking opportunities are plentiful in this beautiful Southern California city.

Spring

The spring is a great time to go hiking in the San Diego area. In the early spring, temperatures are very comfortable in the 60s – 70s Fahrenheit throughout the day and trails are less crowded during the shoulder season from March to May.

Wildflowers and blooming yuccas are also beautiful sites to see in the springtime. Also, to see the highest water flow in creeks, streams, and waterfalls, spring is a great time to hike!

Summer

Summer is the hottest time to go hiking in San Diego. Temperatures consistently reach over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and are sometimes hotter when you’re hiking inland or in a canyon.

If you plan to hike during the summer in San Diego, I’d recommend hitting the trails very early before the heat of the day sets in. This will also give you a bit more time to explore the trails before the crowds wake up.

The heat in the summer is the most dangerous factor on many of the San Diego hikes. Plan accordingly and pack a lot of water; more than you’d think. If you’re going to be out for 3 hours, bring at least 2 liters of water. There are very few to no spots to filter water depending on the hike you choose.

Fall

Along with spring, fall is another great time to go hiking in San Diego. Temperatures are moderate, averaging in the 70s, and September to October is the shoulder season and less crowded.

Cooler temperatures in the fall bring beautiful fall colors to some of the higher peaks like Cuyamaca Peak or El Cajon Mountain. Coastal hikes are still a great option because as the Pacific Ocean is warms throughout summer, it sends soothing breezy temperatures across the area.

Winter

Even in the winter there are plenty of hiking options in San Diego. The beautiful city is filled with sunshine and the moderate winter daily high temperatures average around 60 degrees Farenheit.

While you’ll probably have to pack some layers when hiking along the coast with the cool ocean breeze, any of the hikes more inland are usually pretty comfortable throughout the winter. Just remember to pack a headlamp because the sun sets pretty early in the heart of winter!

San Diego Hikes Difficulty

The hiking trails in San Diego are all varying difficulties and length isn’t the only factor when assessing difficulty. Other factors include rocky or unstable terrain, elevation gain, and sun exposure.

When hiking in San Diego’s desert, environmental heat is one of the most dangerous factors. So plan to hike early during the hot season and pack plenty of water!

The hikes are ranked as so:

  • Easy: The trail is primarily flat, most likely paved, and suitable for strollers, wheelchairs, and all visitors.
  • Moderate: There is some elevation gain on these trails or it might be a long hike but it’s still doable by many visitors, including if you don’t hike often.
  • Moderately Strenuous: More elevation gain, rocky terrain, the hike will last at least a few hours. Hiking experience is recommended.
  • Strenuous: There is significant elevation gain, the terrain can be rough, the hike is long, and it is difficult. You should have previous hiking experience.
  • Very Strenuous: The hike is very challenging. There is a lot of elevation gain and it is hard. You should definitely be an experienced hiker.

So…ready to get hiking?

Short Hikes in San Diego

There are plenty of beautiful short hikes in San Diego. Some of the best hikes in San Diego are located along the coast where you can see plentiful land and marine wildlife. There are also other short hikes worth exploring for the beautiful desert flora and fauna.

1. Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop

  • Distance: 2.3 miles
  • Time: 1 – 1.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 360-foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy
Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop
Image Credit: XeresNelro

Check out one of the famous coastal San Diego trails, the Torrey Pines Beach Loop Trail located in Torrey Pines State Park. Considered one of the best hikes in San Diego, this loop trail offers impressive views of the ocean, plentiful cacti, yucca plants, and rugged steep dunes.

I’ve also been lucky enough to see whale spouts while hiking along this trail! So, look out for ocean wildlife while hiking.

This trail offers impressive views of the ocean from the top of the reserve and after a semi-steep descent you’ll end up on the sandy beach with large waves crashing on the shore.

This trail is just under two and a half miles and while the elevation gain is fairly easy, the uneven sandy and rocky terrain calls for careful footing, so wear shoes with good traction.

If you want to avoid the parking struggle at the trailhead or are traveling via public transportation check out Rome2Rio to find the most efficient way to visit Torrey Pines State Park. Bus line 101 takes you to the park and different city bus and tram lines connect to bus line 101. 

2. Razor Point Trail

  • Distance: 1.3 miles
  • Time: 30 mins – 1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 180 gain
  • Difficulty: easy
Razor Point Trail
Image Credit: XeresNelro

The Razor Point Trail is another beautiful coastal trail and a favorite among San Diego hikers. Also located in Torrey Pines State Park, this easy hike features beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and coastal plants.

I love hiking this trail in the spring because I’ve found yucca flowers in bloom at Yucca Point Overlook! The trail also features unique sandstone formations and sculptures created by erosion.

The Razor Point Trail takes less than an hour to hike and while it is not a paved trail, you’ll find it very easy to follow and with the moderate elevation gain, it’s a preferred hike when visiting San Diego.

3. Sunset Cliffs Trail

  • Distance: 2.4 miles
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 80-foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate
Sunset Cliffs Trail

The Sunset Cliffs Trail is a stunning 2.4-mile out-and-back trail located right along the ocean in Sunset Cliffs Nature Park. It’s the perfect place to take an evening stroll along the ocean while watching the sunset over the waves that crash on the sandy shore.

The trail is a partly paved and a partly well-maintained flat trail so it’s both family-friendly and wheelchair accessible.

Along the walk, you’ll have beautiful views of the unique coastal rock formations including a large naturally formed arch carved out by the ocean water. From the shoreline watch surfers and kayakers in the ocean and always look out for wildlife as sometimes you can see whale spouts in the distance!

4. Oak Canyon Trail

  • Distance: 3.3 miles
  • Time: 1 – 2 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 250 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate

The Oak Canyon Trail is another one of the best hikes in San Diego featuring giant California live oaks and even a little waterfall if you hike the trail in the winter or spring!

The Oak Canyon trail is located in Mission Trails Regional Park northeast of downtown San Diego. The trail starts at the Old Mission Dam Parking Lot.  It’s a great option for hiking, birding, and running since it’s easily accessible year-round. The Oak Canyon Trail is a great option when visiting San Diego.

After parking walk past the Old Mission Dam. From there the trail is only going to get rockier as you climb the steep slopes. Along the way, you’ll hike along the San Diego River and encounter several creek crossings when water is flowing so wear some waterproof shoes!

If you’re looking to extend the hike to make it a bit more difficult, continue up the Fortuna Summit Trail to reach high mountain views looking down on San Diego County.

5. Guy Fleming Trail

  • Distance: 0.8 miles
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Elevation Gain: 50-foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy
Guy Fleming Trail
Image Credit: Rickbramhall

The Guy Fleming Trail is a beautiful and scenic hiking trail in Torrey Pines State Park. This easy loop trail is conveniently located on the coast of San Diego and is less than a mile in length. Unlike the other Torrey Pines State Park Trails, this trail has minimal erosion and is one of the easiest trails to follow whether you’re hiking in flip-flops or sneakers.

Enjoy the panoramic vistas of the ocean as well as the diverse habitat that lives in this reserve. I love visiting the Guy Fleming Trail because of the dense species of ferns, cacti, wildflowers, and the famous twisted Torrey pines. From this trail, you can also enjoy views of Del Mar, La Jolla, and Peñasquitos Marsh.

The trail is very exposed like all hiking trails at Torrey Pines State Park so I’d avoid going at the hottest time of the day in the summer. It’s also a great hiking trail in the winter because the vegetation still grows and offers beautiful sites!

6. Seven Bridge Walk

  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Time: 2 – 2.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 350-foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy

If you’re looking for an urban hike with a unique twist, the Seven Bridge Walk through downtown San Diego is the hike for you. Starting in one of the most iconic parks of the city, Balboa Park, then passing through a few neighborhoods and other areas in the city, this loop trail is a fun way to explore the city highlights.

Not only that but you cross 7 bridges if you complete the whole loop including a suspension bridge- a trail highlight! All of the bridges are constructed very differently with interesting architecture and historical significance.

The Seven Bridge Walk is a great way to dive into San Diego and see different parts of the city while getting a little workout in.

Half-Day Hikes in San Diego

If you’re looking for a half-day hike between three to five hours, the San Diego area has plenty of hiking options for you! Wander through rugged canyons, hike up a mountain peak for incredible vistas, or check out a waterfall and go for a swim.

Spend half your day hiking then visit a famous local brewery or relax at Balboa Park for a classic San Diego experience. 

7. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail

  • Distance: 6.8 miles
  • Time: 2 – 3 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 160 foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
Image Credit: RightCowLeftCoast

If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail, located in San Diego’s Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, is a great option. Just 30 minutes from downtown San Diego the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is a popular option for hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.

This canyon is especially unique not only because it’s naturally beautiful but it is also historically significant because the first Mexican Land Grant in San Diego County was found here. The canyon also features giant California live oaks, plentiful sycamore trees, and volcanic rock with a waterfall flowing through.

The 6.8-mile loop features a waterfall, plentiful biodiversity, some shady spots under the trees, and wildlife including mule deer, coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and over 175 types of birds.

8. Potato Chip Rock

  • Distance: 7.3 miles
  • Time: 4 – 5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 2,100 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous
Potato Chip Rock
Image Credit: RightCowLeftCoast

If you’re looking for the most Instagram-worthy hike in San Diego then Potato Chip Rock is the hike for you. Sit on edge of Potato Chip Rock and angle your camera right and you’ll look like you’re sitting high in the sky on the edge of a rock that could break at any moment.

This 7-mile hike is moderately strenuous gaining over 2,000 feet in elevation but for its uniqueness, even non-hikers seek out this famous San Diego hiking trail. Along the trail, you’ll also see other unique boulder formations, dense coastal desert vegetation, and impressive summit views looking around San Diego County.

Pro tip: Hike to Potato Chip Rock early or on a weekday to avoid the crowds! On crowded weekends you might wait in line with over 100 people for your crazy photo!

9. Fortuna Mountain Trail

  • Distance: 6.2 miles
  • Time: 3 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,350 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous
Fortuna Mountain Trail
Image Credit: michaelwm25

Fortuna Mountain Trail is one of the best hikes in San Diego for hikers looking to get out in nature while still in the city. Fortuna Mountain Trail is located in Mission Trails Regional Park, just outside of downtown San Diego. It’s one of the best outdoor recreation parks in the San Diego area alongside Mission Bay Park and Balboa Park.

The 6.2-mile loop trail is a moderate hike that offers a good workout but about three-quarters of the way into the hike prepare yourself for the never-ending stairs, sometimes called the “stairs from hell”. These thigh-burning rocky stairs are tough but worth it for the summit views. This trail is especially cool because you’ll tackle 2 peaks, both North Fortuna and South Fortuna.

10. Cedar Creek Falls

  • Distance: 5.6 miles
  • Time: 2.5 – 3.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,050 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous

Famous for its unique waterfall plunging 80 feet into a large pool, Cedar Creek Falls is one of the best hikes in San Diego, and for good reason. Cedar Creek Falls is a 5.6-mile trail and is considered moderately strenuous for its uneven terrain and very hot temperatures. If you properly prepare and hike early, it’s a great time!

Cedar Creek Falls is a classic outdoor landmark in San Diego. Here you can enjoy some beautiful hiking through a canyon and end your hike swimming in the waterfall-fed pool. It’s the perfect summer hiking trail! But it’s not all easy. There are long, windy switchbacks that last 2 miles on your way in and out. Carry lots of water!

Cedar Creek Falls is located in Cleveland National Forest, one of the most beautiful national forests in San Diego County. Permits are required in advance to hike this trail. Rangers regularly check permits at the trailhead.

11. Iron Mountain Trail

  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Time: 3 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,125 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate

To hike one of the most popular hikes in San Diego, check out the Iron Mountain Trail. Iron Mountain is located in the popular Mission Trails Regional Park near the Lake Poway entrance.

The hike is 6 miles round trip and gains a bit over 1,000 feet so it’s a pretty good option for most hikers. This trail is especially beautiful at sunset so prepare to see many other hikers on the trail too.

The trail has some rocky sections but it is well maintained and easy to follow. Start the train from the main lot and continue through a beautiful oak tree tunnel. Then you’ll reach the exposed grassland and rolling hills. While this hike is fairly moderate prepare yourself for the numerous switchbacks before you reach the summit. These get pretty exhausting in the sun.

Because this trail is very sunny and warm an early start is the best way to enjoy this hike. Look out for wildflowers throughout the spring and early summer and don’t be surprised if you see a bunch of lizards!

12. Cowles Mountain

  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Time: 1.5 – 2 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 900 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate
Cowles Mountain
Image Credit: Pattymooney

Cowles Mountain is another one of the most popular hikes in San Diego County and is also located in Mission Trails Regional Park. Cowles Mountain is actually the highest point in the park standing 1,592 feet tall. From the summit, you’ll see views of the San Diego River flowing through the park.

This trail is equally as challenging as Iron Mountain Trail but it covers almost the same elevation gain in half the distance. The trail gets pretty rocky and steep near the summit climbing over steep hills on uneven rocky terrain.

When you make it to the summit of Cowles Mountain check out the signs pointing out the other nearby peaks so you can plan your next hiking adventure!

13. Stonewall Peak Trail

  • Distance: 4 miles
  • Time: 2 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 830 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate
Stonewall Peak Trail
Image Credit: montrose2

Stonewall Peak Trail is a 4-mile trail located in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in Eastern San Diego. The trailhead is located just across the street from Paso Picacho Campground. It’s known for its beautiful vistas of the surrounding desert, lakes, and high peaks.

The main trail starts in the shade with oak trees lining the trail but as you climb higher up the switchbacks you’re rewarded with incredible views of the landscapes in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

The rocks and plants that line the trail both have unique features. As you continue to climb up the switchbacks the forests change from black oaks and sycamores to coniferous trees.

Hike this trail on a clear day for the most rewarding views spanning as far as the Salton Sea, Laguna Mountains, Anza Borrego, and the Palomar Mountains.

14. Three Sisters Falls Trail

  • Distance: 4.1 miles
  • Time: 2 – 2.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,000 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous

If you enjoy waterfalls and swimming holes then head to Cleveland National Forest and check out the Three Sisters Falls Trail. This moderately strenuous hike is the perfect option to spend half of your day in the wilderness.

While this is a popular trail, the Three Sisters Falls Trail has some interesting rock scrambling and traversing that make this a challenging hike so I’d recommend this trail to experienced hikers.

The hike starts at the Three Sisters Falls Trailhead where Cedar Creek Road intersects Boulder Creek Road. 

Three Sisters Falls is truly rewarding despite the hard work. As you hike you’ll pass through multiple ecosystems before reaching the three large waterfalls that flow between some rocky mountains.

Luckily enough, in recent years, improvements have been made to the Three Sisters Falls Trail so it’s a little easier to access but make sure you wear sturdy hiking boots for safety while scrambling and rock traversing.

I wouldn’t recommend hiking to Three Sisters Falls in the summer and fall. Not only is it really hot but the waterfalls dry up and the water becomes stagnant and fills with algae.

Full-Day Hikes in San Diego

If you’re looking to get out for a full day of hiking in the San Diego area, these hikes are the option for you! Expect moderately strenuous to strenuous hikes. These trails often summit a mountain or pass through rugged uneven terrain. While these trails are tough, they’re worth the views!

15. Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail

  • Distance: 7.7 miles
  • Time: 4 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,830 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous
Cuyamaca Peak Trail

Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail is a beautiful hiking trail in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park located east of San Diego. The trail starts at Paso Picacho Campground. Cuyamaca Peak is one of the best hikes in San Diego because it’s actually the second highest peak in San Diego County standing 6,512 feet tall. 

Cuyamaca stands for “place behind the clouds” and it’s common for clouds on the summit but hike the Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail on a clear day and you’ll see vistas as far as 100 miles ranging from the Coronado Islands to Table Top Mountain in Mexico!

The hike to the summit gains almost 2,000 feet on the ascent. It’s a moderately strenuous hike so it’s not recommended for beginners. And don’t forget to save some energy for the way down because careful footing is important!

16. El Cajon Mountain

  • Distance: 11 miles
  • Time: 7 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 3,600 foot gain
  • Difficulty: strenuous
El Cajon Mountain
Image Credit: Rsduhamel

El Cajon is a strenuous hiking trail located in El Capitan County Preserve. From the town of El Cajon, you’ll see El Cajon Mountain, a large granite block dominating the town skyline.

Prepare yourself for a full-day adventure when hiking El Cajon. The 11-mile trail gains about 3,600 feet in elevation and it sure is one of the most challenging hikes near San Diego. The trail starts with a gradual ascent on a paved road but it’s not long before it turns into steep inclines that will make your calves burn so this is a great hiking option for experienced hikers.

While it is a very lovely hike, there’s not a whole lot of shade so it gets very hot during the summertime. Also, bring extra water because there is nowhere to fill up along the way. Trekking poles are also very helpful to save your balance on your exhausted feet on the 6.5-mile descent.

Multi-Day Hikes in San Diego

There are not a whole lot of long overnight trails right in San Diego to go backpacking but there are a few options within an hour or two drive. These trails are strenuous and require previous backcountry experience and in most areas, you’ll need a fire permit and a trail permit to hike.

17. Secret Canyon Trail

  • Distance: 15 miles
  • Time: 2 days
  • Elevation Gain: 1,625 foot gain
  • Difficulty: strenuous 

Hike the Secret Canyon Trail in Cleveland National Forest to enjoy a perfect one-night backpacking trip near San Diego. I’d recommend hiking this trail in the winter to early spring to enjoy the reliable flow of water through Pine Creek.

This is a great first-time backpacking trip because it only gains 1,600 feet over the 15 miles however, there are some overgrown parts of the tail which makes it a bit strenuous. You should prepare for this trip by packing a map and bringing a GPS map like AllTrails to help you find your way.

While the trail has its challenges it passes through beautiful areas with diverse flora and fauna and unique grassland and rugged hilly landscapes.

I’d recommend only hiking this trail in the winter or early spring when water is plentiful. In the later season, you’d have to hike in all your drinking water for the two days and that gets pretty tough and the temperatures are far less comfortable

18. Pacific Crest Trail

  • Distance: 2,650 miles
  • Time: 5 – 6 months
  • Elevation Gain: 315,000 feet
  • Difficulty: very strenuous
Pacific Crest Trail
Image Credit: Stalbaum

The iconic Pacific Crest Trail starts at the California-Mexico border in the town of Campo, about one hour east of San Diego. For any avid hiker, this is a dream backpacking trip spanning 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada Border.

The Pacific Crest Trail doesn’t follow along the coast, rather it follows the mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of the US. It’s a very strenuous hike that takes between 5 – 6 months to complete on average.

While it’s no hike for the faint of heart, those who tackle this long thru-hike are awarded with striking views and a huge accomplishment. While the trail isn’t located right in San Diego, the city is a good option to fly into or out of at the beginning or end of your hike. And it’s a good place to reward yourself with a shower and beer!

Which San Diego Hike Will You Choose?

With so many beautiful San Diego hikes to choose from, there’s a trail for everyone who is looking to adventure throughout the Southern California area. And with the warm weather throughout the year, there’s always a great hiking option in San Diego.

Whether you want to stroll along a beach trail, up to a mountain summit, or out to some waterfalls and swimming holes there’s a hike for you.

Nicole Jordan
Nicole Jordan
Nicole Jordan is an adventure guide who leads backpacking, hiking, sea kayaking, and snowshoeing trips. She's on a lifelong pursuit to climb as many mountains as possible and sleep under the night sky in all of the National Parks. When she's not traveling internationally you can find her living out of her Subaru Forester, exploring the best of the United States.

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