Hike Like a Local: 9 Spectacular Hiking Trails in San Diego

When people think of San Diego they think of sandy beaches, incredible surf, and a lively city, but what they don’t know is this is also a hiker’s paradise. Its unbelievably diverse backcountry is one of its best kept secrets where everything from a palm oasis to a mixed-conifer forest can be found. Whether you’re a novice hiker, experienced hiker, or somewhere in the middle, it’s easy to find a trail to challenge you and more often than not an incredible view awaits at the end. Below are our top 9 hiking trails in San Diego.

3 Essential San Diego Trails for Beginner Hikers

Borrego Palm Canyon

Borrego Palm Canyon is a 3.2-mile hiking trail within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park located at the foot of San Diego County. This relatively flat trail has hikers traveling through a desert oasis filled with bighorn sheep (Borrego), cactus gardens, and wildflowers in a magnificently isolated area that ends at the third biggest palm refuge in California. It is the ideal sunset hike due to the colorful beauty of the area and perfect for beginner hikers.

Trail Level: Easy

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Hikers can easily access these 1.5 miles of hiking trails at Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Ladera Street in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego. It is by far the most enchanting and relaxing hike in the city boasting extraordinary views while walking along the majestic sea cliffs in the cool ocean air, and the perfect spot to glimpse the elusive green flash. A sunset hike or evening stroll provides picturesque views and frequent seal and bottlenose dolphin spottings.

Trail Level: Easy

Balboa Park Trails

Balboa Park is known for its world renowned museums, botanical gardens, art exhibitions, and prominent cultural events. Very few realize this is 1,200-acre cultural oasis is also encircled by miles and miles of hiking trails perfect for any level. Their five trails range in length and difficulty, ensuring anyone can find a trail, and it’s easy to navigate. All trails are numbered, with Trail #1 being the easiest at 1.5 miles, to the most difficult Trail #5 at 6.6 miles.

Trail Levels: Easy to Difficult

3 Challenging San Diego Trails for Mid-Level Hikers

Palomar Mountain

Palomar Mountain is a demanding half day hike with a round trip total of 13 miles, and one of the highest peaks in San Diego County at just over 6,100 feet. It offers hikers a Sierra Nevada-like ambiance with cedar trees, massive Douglas firs, and stunning views of the San Jacinto peaks. Those who are ready to take on this challenging adventure should consider making the 4.5 mile hike to the Palomar Observatory where they can see the 200-inch reflecting telescope.

Trail Level: Moderate

Cowles Mountain

Any San Diego hiker will tell you that the hike up Cowles Mountain is the most popular in the city, and it has much to do with the awe-inspiring 360-degree views of the city from the top. It’s known for its steep switchbacks, but is still a relatively manageable hike for most novices and dogs sure seem to love it. This is most commonly a mid-day hike, sneaked in during a busy day. It’s just under 1,600 feet high, 1.5 miles to the top, making it the highest peak within the city limits.

Trail Level: Easy to Moderate

Torrey Pines State Reserve

The Torrey Pines State Reserve offers hikers diversity both in the geological terrain and trail systems that allow visitors to choose the intensity level that is best for their day. The rugged sea cliffs, pine trees, and native flowers showcase the one-of-a-kind beauty San Diego is known for with roughly eight miles of trails that end at stunning lookout points. Among the highlight trails are the Guy Fleming, Razor Point, and the Beach Trail that finishes on the sand allowing hikers to indulge in a leisurely stroll while watching a beach sunset.

Trail Level: Moderate to Difficult

3 Daring San Diego Trails for Experienced Hikers

Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain is a 6-mile hike located in Poway, a well maintained and clearly marked trail system that features the diverse beauty of California. It’s one of the more popular hikes among experienced hikers surrounded by sprawling hills, gigantic boulders, and covered with stunning purple lilacs. The hike itself doesn’t provide much cover from the sun so its recommended hikers begin their journey in the morning. This is a family-friendly trail and passing by a horseback rider or two along the way isn’t uncommon.

Trail Level: Difficult

Mount Woodson

Mount Woodson better known as Potato Chip Rock is a local favorite and photo opt hot spot for San Diegans and visitors alike, and most prominently known for this incredibly unique rock formation at the top. The 6.4 miles of twisting trail is lined with huge boulders as hikers make their way to the top of one of the county’s highest peaks; it ends with stunning views of Palomar Mountain and Lake Poway. While it is one of the most visually stunning hikes, it is also one of the most challenging and visitors are encouraged to bring along plenty of water as well as some protein-laden, energy-inducing snacks.

Trail Level: Difficult

El Cajon Mountain

El Cajon Mountain is by far the most strenuous and exhausting hikes on this list, but also the one that will make hikers feel the most accomplished. IRONMAN triathletes use this 11-mile hike for their training, so it is most assuredly not for novice hikers. The hike follows the route of an old mining trail and traverses up to an almost 3,700 foot peak giving its victors magnificent views of the mountainous range. It can get extremely hot on this trail and even closes during the month of August due to the heat, so hikers need to be careful and plan accordingly.

Trail Level: Extremely Difficult

These are our favorites, but we know there are many more out there we didn’t mention so what are some of yours? Any we’ve missed that you think deserve to be on the list? Let us know.