11 Popular Hiking Trails in San Diego

January 10, 2019

No matter what type of hike you’re looking for, from forest-laden paths to coastal views of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find a trail with your name on it.

Year-round balmy weather, fresh coastal breezes, and an abundance of well-maintained, scenic trails positions San Diego as a haven for hikers. Popular hiking trails in San Diego feature the diverse landscapes of the Southern California region along with unparalleled adventures with every turn, switchback, and sweeping views.

When you're ready for an adventure, explore any of the 11 top hiking trails in San Diego.

coastline view of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve beach in San Diego, California, USA

1. Sunset Cliffs Beach Walk

Distance: 1.7 miles out and back
Difficulty: Easy

As you might guess from its name, the Sunset Cliffs Beach Walk is the ideal place to catch a sunset in San Diego. Short and scenic, this walk features cliffs along the south end of Ocean Beach. It's stunning views are the highlight of the trip, making it one of the most photographed spots in the city! Plus, the sound of the crashing waves add to the allure and ambiance of the tranquil walk. You can also take one of the spontaneous trails down to the beach or continue exploring Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.

2. Torrey Pines State Reserve

Distance: Varying
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

There are over 8 miles of trails at this state reserve, although the longest singular trail is just 1. 5 miles. Each trail at Torrey Pines is located along the bluffs of north La Jolla, which means not only is it a year-round hiking option due to ocean breezes but views of the coast are around every bend. Do know that dogs are not permitted along these trails, as the park is a nature reserve.

3. Cowles Mountain

Distance: 3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

Climb to the top of Cowles Mountain within Mission Trails Regional Park to see the highest point within the city of San Diego, California. The 3-mile roundtrip vertical hike is strenuous, as steep switchbacks trace the mountain. The fantastic views at the top are well worth it, though, as panoramic vistas of San Diego County are mesmerizing. Once you see the view, you won't question why Cowles Mountain is among the most popular hiking trails in San Diego. Be safe and keep an eye out for snakes along the way!

4. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail

Distance: 4.7 miles
Difficulty: Easy

Oak tree-lined trails, creek crossings and deer sightings make Los Penasquitos a popular hiking choice for families. Its elevation gain is minimal, so it’s relatively easy. Plus, the 4.7-mile hike can be shortened as there are turn around points. A waterfall cascading through volcanic rock at mile 3 is a nice photo opportunity. If you're lucky, you may even get a glimpse of the local wildlife while trekking through the canyon.

Iron Mountain

5. Iron Mountain Trail

Distance: 5.8 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult

Trek into the eastern mountains of Poway during this 5.8 miles excursion. Large boulders dot the trail, which are excellent for climbing. An elevation gain of 1,000 feet allows for sweeping view at the top, too. The trail starts as a flat, leisurely walk, but turns into a climb up the mountain rather quickly. If you'd like a challenge, take advantage of the trails to other peaks along the way.

6. Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail

Distance: 6.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult

The adventurous type love hiking the Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail. With multiple trail options including Azalea Glen Loop,West Side Trail, Conejos Trail, and the Azalea Springs Fire Road, there are several ways to access the top of the peak. Granite rocks and dense forest line the trail, complete with sweeping views of the valley below and smaller mountains below.

7. Cedar Creek Falls to Devil’s Punchbowl

Distance: 4.2 miles
Difficulty: Difficult

While the end destination, Devil's Punchbowl, offers great intrigue, it's also filled with danger. The infamous swimming hole has been the cause of several deaths over the years as a result of cliff jumping. So long as you adhere to all safety precautions at Devil's Punchbowl, you'll be fine conquering one of the most popular hiking trails in San Diego. However, don't let the way down fool you, it's the way back up that's the killer! You'll also need to purchase a pass prior to visiting and beginning your trek.

8. Double Peak Trail

Distance: 5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

Complete with a 1,644-foot summit, the Double Peak Trail offers 360-degree views of the area at the top. Since the area offers little to no shade, sunscreen will be your best friend on this dog-friendly trail. The journey begins on a paved path before turning into a single path for the rest of the trek. Know that the parking lot is small, so arrive early if you want to find a spot.

9. Three Sisters Falls Trails

Distance: 4 miles

Only experienced hikers should attempt to conquer the Three Sisters Falls Trails. These trails include rocky terrain and pathways, steep inclines, boulder climbing, and other expert skills. While ropes are included along the trail for assistance, novices and those not secure with their hiking skills should not attempt this hike. Ample water, sturdy hiking shoes, and sun protection are required for a successful hike up to the falls.

Palm trees at Borrego Palm Canyon

10. Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

Distance: 3.25 miles

This trail leads to California's third largest palm oasis after trekking through a bit of desert terrain. While you conquer this loop, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep! The trail is kid-friendly, and thus, a popular option for visitors and locals alike. Try to visit early in the day when the sun, heat, and crowds are minimal.

11. El Cajon Mountain

Distance: 10.6 miles
Difficulty: Difficult

If you're searching for hiking trails in San Diego that will take all day to complete, El Cajon Mountain is right up your alley. Due to it's difficulty, the trail is lightly trafficked, leaving you to explore the natural beauty in peace. Using hiking poles to trek to the top is recommended due to the trail's rugged pathways. Dogs are also welcome on the trail!

Which Hiking Trails in San Diego Have You Completed?

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