Guide on Hiking in San Diego FI

KÜHL's Guide on Hiking in San Diego

By Tom Harrison on November 13, 2023
12 min read

There are three must-haves for a great hiking destination, and San Diego has them all: great weather, trails with varied difficulty, and incredible views. On top of that, this Southern California city offers a vibrant urban experience and is one of the most peaceful US cities. 

The best thing about hiking in San Diego is that there are trails of all flavors. From mountainous paths to coastal treks and everything in between, there are San Diego hikes to suit every outdoor lover’s level and sense of adventure. 

Here’s a list of our top 15 hiking trails San Diego offers to outdoor lovers. We have noted their difficulty, trail length, and cost to make choosing easier. 

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Sunset at Torrey Pines beach trail, San Diego. Photo by: Thanasith.

Key Takeaways 

  • Spring and Fall seasons are the best time to go hiking in San Diego for great weather and less crowded trails. 
  • For challenging hikes in San Diego, consider Mt. Woodson Trail, Three Sisters Falls Trail, Cedar Creek Falls Trail, and El Cajon Mountain Trail. 
  • The best easy hikes in and near San Diego include Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail, Annie’s Canyon Trail, La Jolla Trail, and Balboa Park Trail 1, among others. 
  • Head to Balboa Park for the best San Diego hikes without leaving the city. 
  • Santa Margarita River Trail Preserve is among the best places to hike in San Diego with family. It offers bird-watching, wildlife viewing, wildflower viewing, hiking, biking and is pet-friendly and free. 

What to Know Before Your Hiking Trip to San Diego

Why is San Diego so Popular?

Dubbed America’s Finest City, San Diego ticks all the boxes that qualify it as the best hiking destination. We’re referring to its mild year-round Mediterranean climate, over 70 miles of pristine beaches, and more than 400 parks. Together, these ingredients make this one of the best US cities for hiking. 

Besides taking on the best hikes in San Diego, the city has plenty of other attractions for fun lovers and adventure-seekers. Have a close encounter with great white sharks on a cage diving tour. Explore San Diego city on a hop-on, hop-off tour trolley. In the late afternoon, catch a beautiful sunset on a romantic private sail on the San Diego Bay. 

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Cedar Creek Falls in Cleveland National Forest by: Gabe Pierce.

Preparing the Right Gear

Here’s what to bring on a hike in San Diego:

  • Clothing - for warm and sunny weather, consider clothes that offer the best sun protection without compromising comfort. KÜHL has women’s hiking clothing and men’s outdoor wear that helps you feel sure-footed when stretching, stepping, and climbing. 
  • Socks - prepare at least two pairs of comfortable socks with enough cushion to avoid causing blisters. 
  • Hiking or trail running shoes - should be broken in and offer enough support and stability. 
  • Sun protection - this includes a lot of sunscreen, sunglasses, sunscreen chapstick, and a hat or large brim visor. 
  • Food and water - hiking food, regardless of trail length, offers a good excuse to take a break. For hydration, you’ll need all the water you can carry, especially if you’re mountain hiking in the summer—plan for at least one liter of water per hour of hiking per person. 
  • First aid kit - no matter how short the hike is, always pack a basic kit in case you stumble or skin a knee. KÜHL Clothing has a first aid checklist of essential items you may want to bring. 
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Aktivator® Hoody and Splash™ Roll-Up Pant are ready for your exploring.

Best Hikes in and Around San Diego

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail

Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve is an urban park approximately 30 minutes north of San Diego via CA-163. Encompassing some 4,000 acres of natural beauty, this park is home to one of the best San Diego hiking trails. The canyon's scenery comprises a year-round stream, a cascading waterfall, and a range of wildlife, including bobcats, mule deer, and coyotes. 

Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is a locals' favorite because it's relatively flat and nicely shaded. This 6.8-mile loop takes around 2 hours 5 minutes to complete. It's generally considered an easy route. There's a $3 entrance fee to the park. 

Annie's Canyon Trail

Annie's Canyon Trail is one of the best hikes San Diego offers near the beach. It's located in Solana Beach, 23.2 miles north of San Diego, just five minutes off Interstate 5. 

A short and easy 1.8-mile hike, Annie's Canyon Trail squeezes through a narrow sandstone canyon that was once underwater millions of years ago. Note that some portions of the canyon slot are so narrow that only one person can pass at a time. In addition, there's a ladder that you have to climb at the end of the trail. Annie's Canyon Trail is free to hike and takes 1 hour and 6 minutes on average. 

Guide on Hiking in San Diego
 Oak Canyon Trail by: Gloria Moeller.

Oak Canyon Trail

Oak Canyon Trail is among the most known hikes near San Diego, and for good reason. This trail is part of the Fortuna Mountain Trail, which takes you over both summits of the Fortuna Mountain Trail. Its location in Mission Trail Open Space makes for beautiful scenery the entire way. 

Oak Canyon Trail is located roughly 14 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. This moderately challenging trail is 1.7 miles and takes 1 hour 12 minutes on average. There is free parking. 

La Jolla Trail

If you're looking for an easy but scenic San Diego hike around the coast, try La Jolla Trail. This walk is 15 miles northwest of downtown San Diego via Interstate 5.

La Jolla Trail covers 2.3 miles (out and back) and takes about 50 minutes to complete. We recommend taking it slow, though, so you take in the shoreline views and flora and fauna that line up this mostly dirt track. There's a $20 drive-in fee. 

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Torrey Pines Gliderport, La Jolla. Photo by: Greg Garnhart.

Tijuana Estuary Trail

If you ever want to see how a river meets the ocean, Tijuana Estuary awaits you some 20 miles south of downtown San Diego. Tijuana Estuary is a globally popular bird-watching destination. It's also home to some of the best hiking and mountain biking spots in San Diego. 

The Tijuana Estuary Trail hike is 4.6 miles long and is considered an easy route. It takes you through one of the few salt marshes remaining in the state and down to the river mouth, where the Tijuana River enters the Pacific Ocean. It's free to hike the Tijuana Estuary Trail. 

Balboa Park Trail

One of the best hiking spots in San Diego, Balboa Park, is proof that you don't have to leave the city for a great hike. Balboa Park covers 1200 acres and is home to 15 different museums, numerous gardens, picnic areas, a zoo, and so much more. These attractions are linked by 65 miles of trails shared by hikers, bikers, runners, and families with pets. 

The Balboa Park Trail #1 is a good option if you want a relatively quieter trail away from the crowded parts of the park. It's 1.5 miles long and is generally considered an easy route. There are no charges for hiking in Balboa Park. 

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Potato Chip Rock, Mt.Woodson. Photo by: Zac.

Mt. Woodson Trail

Mt. Woodson Trail is a challenging route with a reward at the end. This is one of the most popular trails in San Diego because it leads to Potato Chip Rock. The latter is one of the most photographed landmarks in the area and a must-visit when touring this city. 

Mount Woodson Trail is located 28 miles north of San Diego. It begins in Lake Poway Park at the foot of the mountain and covers 7.4 miles (out and back). Non-residents pay a $10 fee to park in the lot on weekends and holidays. Parking is free on weekdays.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Beach Trail

For a breezy and dreamy hike near San Diego, head to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Located 17 miles north of downtown San Diego, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve has some of the most stunning views of the Pacific coastline. 

This state park comprises six hiking trails, meaning there's a hike for everyone. The beach trail is a favorite among locals and visitors alike because of its great views of the cliffs and the waves crashing below. This is a 1.5-mile out-and-back hike and is considered moderately challenging. There's a $10 park entrance fee per vehicle. 

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Torrey Pines State Reserve Going to the beach. Photo by: Gary Peplow.

Santa Margarita River Trail

Santa Margarita River Trail is one of the quietest San Diego hiking trails. It's an excellent outdoor escape away from the overcrowded beaches and city parks.

The trail is located in the Santa Margarita River Preserve, about 58 miles from San Diego via Interstate 15. The hike hugs the shady river shores and traverses stunning boulders and shady woodlands, among other sceneries. 

Santa Margarita River Trail is considered an easy route. It offers two hiking options: a flat 3-mile hike and a longer 5.7-mile route that leads to a hidden beach. Hiking the Santa Margarita River Trail is free of charge. 

Santa Ysabel Preserve West Trail

Santa Ysabel is a scenic mountain preserve about an hour's drive northeast of San Diego. Boasting more than 1,500 acres of native grasslands, oak woodlands, and fields of wildflowers, this is a great place to unwind in a natural setting.

Santa Ysabel Preserve West Trail is a 5.6-mile loop with a moderately challenging difficulty rating. For those who are not into hiking, this multi-activity trail also offers biking, riding, and picnicking adventures. Parking is free at Santa Ysabel Preserve West Trail. Remember to bring a lot of water, though. 

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Cedar Creeks Falls by: April Vasquez.

Three Sisters Falls Trail 

The Cleveland National Forest is home to one of the best hikes near San Diego - the famous Three Sisters Falls Trail. It's located about 55 miles northeast of San Diego and about 13 miles south of the small town of Julian. 

The Three Sisters Falls hike is four miles long and strenuous. While it's relatively flat at first, the trail quickly gets more intense, with some sections requiring hiking poles or ropes (already installed). We highly recommend investing in proper hiking shoes for this one. You'll also need a lot of water, hiking food, and sun protection.

A $5 (one day) or $30 (annual) Adventure Pass is required to hike the Three Sisters Falls Trail. 

Cedar Creek Falls Trail

Cedar Creeks Falls is another challenging hiking route in Cleveland National Forest. Like the Three Sisters Falls Trail, this hike also leads to another enchanting waterfall. The waterfall plunges about 100 feet through a steep boulder of polished granite into a seasonal swimming pool below. 

The Cedar Creek Fall Trail is 5.4 miles out and back. The hike involves descending to get to the waterfall and then climbing back. We recommend doing this hike during spring when it's not scorching hot and the waterfall has a lot of water. A $10 permit (usable by up to 5 people) is required for this hike. 

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Clustered rocks in El Cajon. Photo by: SailingAway.

El Cajon Mountain Trail 

Are you a seasoned hiker looking for the most challenging hiking near San Diego? If so, the El Cajon Mountain Trail is the way to go. This 11-mile out-and-back hike is considered one of the most strenuous hikes around San Diego. The route is full of ups and downs and has gradients of up to 36%. Plus, the slopes are rocky and loose, so good hiking footwear is a must. 

El Cajon Mountain Trail is located in the El Capitan Preserve, approximately 36 miles from San Diego. The hike to the summit and back takes 4-5 hours to complete. There's no hiking fee or permit required. 

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Beautiful hike at Cuyamaca. Photo by: Emilio Borraz Ortega.

Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail

Summiting the Cuyamaca Peak is one of the best things to do in San Diego. This is the second-highest point in San Diego at 6512 feet. It's 21 feet shorter than the Hot Springs Mountain in the Peninsular Ranges. But it offers breathtaking views (including the Table Top Mountain in Mexico) while being a moderately challenging hike. 

Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail is located within Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. This is a 7.4-mile loop trail that takes about four hours on average to complete. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park charges $8 at the entrance. 

Iron Mountain Peak Trail 

Iron Mountain Peak Trail is one of the best hiking trails in San Diego. It's easily accessible, reasonably challenging for an average hiker, and packed with amazing views. This is a popular workout destination for San Diegans, so don't expect quiet solitude. 

The Iron Mountain Peak Trail is a 5.9-mile out-and-back trail west of the Boulder Oak Preserve. It's a 40-minute drive from downtown San Diego. There is a $5/vehicle fee. 

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Spring Wildflowrs on Iron Mountain Trail. Photo by: Gloria Moeller.

Honorable Mentions 

These trails didn't cut it into our top 15 San Diego backpacking hiking trails. But they are still a worthy consideration. 

Cowles Mountain Trail

Cowles Mountain Trail takes you to the summit of Cowles Mountain - the highest point in San Diego. So, expect the 360-degree views to be terrific. This 3-mile, moderately challenging hike is located in Mission Trails Park, about 15.5 miles from San Diego. Hiking the Cowles Mountain Trail is free. 

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Anza Borrego Desert State Park during the spring . Photo by: MelissaMN.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park Trails

Anza Borrego is a desert state park and home to over 110 miles of hiking trails. Covering over 600,000 acres, the park features slot canyons, native palm oases, washes, ridges, and desert bighorn sheep awaiting adventurous hikers. Anza Borrego Desert State Park is about two hours from San Diego. Entrance is free.

Sunset Cliffs Park Trail

It's not just the towering cliffs that drop straight to the ocean that pull crowds to this park. The magnificent ocean draws and the chance to see gray whales are other major draws. Sunset Cliffs Park Trail is a 2.4-mile (out and back) hike considered an easy route. It's eight miles west of San Diego and free to hike. 

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Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by: Kellyvandellen.

Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail, which cuts through California, Oregon, and Washington, is one of the most iconic hiking trails in the world. It's rugged and remote, but it's a fantastic experience altogether.

If you're in San Diego and wish to hike a portion of this trail, you'll need to drive for around 12 hours to Wyleys Knob - Weldon. This is a challenging hike, but it's manageable with proper planning. 

Final Thoughts

Hiking in San Diego is one of the best ways of taking in this coastal city's natural beauty. Whether your idea of a great hike is a desert trail with an oasis, summiting a mountain peak, or taking a breezy stroll along coastal cliffs, America's Finest City has your back. If hiking in the San Diego area is at the top of your agenda, add some of these hikes to your list. 

Featured image by: John Apps.


Can you hike at night in San Diego?

Nighttime hiking is a popular way of enjoying San Diego trails, especially when summer days are sizzling. Anza-Borrego's All-Access Trail, Cowles Mountain, and Mt. Woodson are some of the best nighttime hiking spots near San Diego. 

Can you sleep on San Diego beaches?

Camping, overnight parking, or sleeping on the beach is illegal in San Diego. 

When is the best time to go hiking in San Diego?

The shoulder months of March through May and September to October have the best weather for hiking in San Diego. 

Is San Diego an expensive city?

San Diego has some of the most expensive getaways in the country. But free things to do, including hiking trails, still exist. 

How does the Tijuana River affect San Diego?

Pollution from the Tijuana River is typically the leading reason for beach closures in San Diego.

Tom Harrison
Tom Harrison

Tom Harrison is an intrepid explorer and fervent nature lover. Through his clean writing style, he invites readers to join him on an exhilarating journey into the wilderness.


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