San Diego offers hiking trails along oceanside cliffs, through mountain backcountry, up the peaks towering above the San Diego River bed, and in the rolling foothills of the eastern part of the county. When you visit San Diego, you can plan both gentle, scenic walks and more strenuous hikes. If you’re looking for an adventure that takes an entire morning or afternoon, plan for one of the longer hikes. And with few rainy days and moderate temperatures all year, San Diego is the perfect place to spend time outdoors.
Here are great options for more in-depth exploring out in nature. Pack a lunch and stop for a picnic. Sit on a rock and rest while you take in the views. And if these trails appeal to you, they are all doable in a shorter time if you go partway and turn back to your car whenever you need to.
1. Enjoy Panoramic Views At Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
If you have time for only one hike in San Diego, make it to the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This gem of San Diego hikes will take your breath away with panoramic views of the ocean from paths that wind along lacy sandstone cliffs high above the beach.
Torrey Pines hiking options include five trails, from easy to more challenging. You can even hike from the cliffs down to the water using a stairway. Check out the trails before you arrive and figure out which to go on in the time you have. You can easily pick two or three, as they connect at different points.
The flattest is The Guy Fleming Trail. This loop just off the parking lot is only two-thirds of a mile and features two scenic overlooks. Wildflowers, ferns, and Torrey pines line the trail.
The Parry Grove Trail covers a half-mile. It’s steep and has more than 100 stone steps to navigate. High Point Trail is also steep and has steps. The view from this trail is stunning.
To reach ocean overlooks, take the Razor Point Trail or the Beach Trail, both a bit under a mile long. If you’re looking for the stairs down the sand, these are part of the Beach Trail.
The Broken Hill Trail is the longest at 1.3 miles south or 1.4 miles north. Wind through chaparral and sagebrush, and you will reach an overlook. From here, you can clearly see the beautiful eroding sandstone cliffs.
As you hike, look for the Torrey Pines dotting the area. These short, scrubby pines grow only two places in the world: Here in La Jolla and on Santa Rosa Island. The trees are an endangered species and are protected so they will continue to thrive in Torrey Pines. Stay on the paths and respect this treasure of nature as you hike.
Pro Tip: You can drive up from the beach to the hiking area and park in lots at the top of the hill. If you want a more strenuous hike, park at the beach and walk up the steep road for about 20 minutes of cardio.
2. Savor The Views From The Point Loma Bayside Trail
Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma is famous for the historic lighthouse perched on the hill overlooking San Diego Bay. Many visitors miss the fun hiking trail from the bluff down to the shoreline. The Point Loma Bayside Trail winds down the hill from the lighthouse. Round trip, after you turn around and head back up, is 2.5 miles.
The entire hike gives you panoramic views of the water with sailboats gliding gracefully along. Ballast Point is on the tip of land where explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in 1542. You can also gaze upon downtown San Diego, Coronado Island, and Tijuana, Mexico.
As you trace the path bordered by sandstone cliffs, watch for park signs that tell about the vegetation and animal life in the area. Plant enthusiasts will appreciate that this is one of the few places in the world where Coastal Sage Scrub flourishes.
This area served as a lookout point during World Wars I and II, when an invasion was feared. During the World Wars, cannons, mortars, and observation bunkers were built here to protect the harbor. The searchlight shelter and power plant used in those tense years still stand along the trail.
Begin your hike near the old lighthouse at the Bayside Trail sign. The paved road soon turns to a gravel and dirt path. When you reach Ballast Point, you will turn around and start back. First, notice the military defense installations. Nuclear-powered submarines sit below Ballast Point, while across the water, you can clearly see North Island Naval Air Station. You may be entertained by planes and helicopters taking off and landing.
The hike is easy and suitable for all fitness levels, though coming back up the bluff means a 340-foot elevation gain. Benches along the way allow you to rest while the lovely view spreads before you.
Allow 1 to 2 hours for this hike. Dogs are not allowed.
Pro Tip: For World War II buffs, be sure to find the concrete bunker at the top on the ocean side of the land. And if you have time, include a tour of the inside of the historic lighthouse while you are here.
3. Walk Wide Open Spaces At Santa Ysabel Reserve
The Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve sprawls on rolling land just outside the mountain town of Julian. Reached by a 45-minute drive from San Diego, the Julian area features a miners' settlement built in the 1800s. Surrounding the small town are acres of oak woodlands, native grasslands, and, in springtime, fields of wildflowers.
The Preserve is a nature sanctuary that covers more than 4,600 of these lovely acres. Fifteen miles of trails crisscross the land, open to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. Gentle hills rise around the meadows, and a creek runs through the woods. Wildlife you may see includes hawks, eagles, lizards, snakes, bobcats, and coyotes. Dogs can hike with you but keep them on a leash for their safety.
Enter the Preserve by going east of the town on Farmers Road. The San Diego County Parks and Recreation service provides an excellent map. Plan whether you will take loop trails or head right to the crest, where you’ll enjoy a spectacular view.
Note that Julian occasionally experiences snow. If more than a half-inch of rain or snow falls in the area, the Preserve is closed until the trails dry out.
4. Challenge Yourself At Iron Mountain
For a moderate hike, head to Iron Mountain Trail, located near Poway, California, just off State Route 67. This 5-mile trail looks easy from the parking lot, but you will start winding uphill after the beginning. You’ll marvel at the views out to the ocean. And spring flowers abound to cheer you on as you huff and puff upward. The trail offers no shade, so plan ahead and take a hat and sunscreen.
Mountain bikers are allowed, so watch for them as you hike. You can take your pooch, but leashes are required.
Pro Tip: Start early to avoid crowds. This will also allow you to hike up and be back down the mountain before the days heat up in the summer.
5. Climb High At Mission Trails Regional Park
For a hike up a mountain not far from downtown San Diego, choose from the options at Mission Trails Regional Park. Located 8 miles from downtown, this former home of the Kumeyaay includes five peaks, and four of them rise above the San Diego River. The four are Pyles Peak at 1,389 feet, Kwaay Paay at 1,200 feet, South Fortuna at 1,094 feet, and North Fortuna at 1,291 feet. To hike these, park at the visitor center.
The fifth peak is across Mission Gorge Road and is the highest at 1,600 feet. Known as Cowles Mountain, this peak is the most well-traveled and will give you a fabulous view out to the ocean. Park at the base along Golfcrest Drive.
Allow about 2 hours to climb up and back down Cowles Mountain. A viewpoint at the top offers a 360-degree view of San Diego -- and welcomes you to catch your breath before you start back down.
Check out the San Diego Park System’s map of the five peaks before your hike so you can figure out how far and how steep you want to go.
Pro Tip: Sunrise and sunset atop Cowles Mountain can be breathtaking. Remember your flashlight if you’re on the mountain in the dark.
6. Amble Along Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
A busy loop trail, Los Penasquitos Canyon is 7.3 miles long and is near Poway. The draw is a waterfall. And the trail is fairly flat, so hikers of any skill level will enjoy this one. The hike winds through both shady and sunny areas. Take your choice of single-lane trails that shoot off the main path and then rejoin.
If you are short on time or have young ones in your group, this is a good place for a nature hike.
7. Tackle The Three Sisters Trail
Are you up for a challenge? The Three Sisters hike is a great choice. This trail rewards your efforts with a variety of ecosystems and three large waterfalls. Once you reach the falls, you can swim in the cool water of the pools.
In the past, the trail has required scrambling over rocks and going down an eroded hillside. But it recently underwent an upgrade by the U.S. Forest Service. Now, you can hike to the falls on a marked trail the entire way. You and the environment are better off. The hike is still demanding, though. And if you want to rock climb or crawl over rocky outcrops, you can still do that.
The Three Sisters is known as an “inverted” hike. You first go down about 1,000 feet into a canyon. After reaching the falls and going for a swim, you will still need the energy to climb back up at the end of your hike. Also, the canyon can reach high temperatures in the summer, so take plenty of water and a hat.
Not only is the terrain hilly, but also the trail is sometimes narrow and rocky. And the granite slabs around the waterfalls are slippery because they are wet.
So, this hike is for experienced hikers who are in fairly good physical condition. Take snacks, wear good hiking shoes, and go slowly. The waterfalls, pools, and hilly landscape can make for a memorable hike, as long as you take precautions to stay safe.
If you want to slow things down a bit and go on a leisurely walk instead, here is a list of seven fascinating walks in the area. Whether you are looking for a leisurely hike in meadows, a hike with ocean and bay views, or a hike that allows you to conquer the heights, you can find it in San Diego. Check out online maps before you go and take water and snacks. Then head out to refresh your mind and spirit as you explore the wonders of nature.