13 Best Hikes in San Diego

August 17, 2022

The diverse landscape of Southern California means San Diego is a haven for hikers. Ocean views, forest paths, and waterfall wonders all exist together in this natural paradise!

Visitors to San Diego can find far more to do just beyond the city limits. Enter a nature wonderland on one of the best hikes in San Diego! There are numerous San Diego hikes to choose from for hikers of all skill levels.

When you embark on a hiking trail in the area, adventures exist at every turn. There are San Diego waterfall hikes, San Diego hikes with dogs, San Diego beach trails, and San Diego hikes with swimming holes along the way. There are hikes in North County San Diego and hikes in San Diego County. Forest hikes and coastal hikes. Day hikes and hikes best experienced beneath the stars.

You get the idea! San Diego hiking offers a good dose of variety to satisfy every brand of explorer. If you’re looking to hit the hiking trails, San Diego delivers. So, lace up your hiking boots and grab your water bottle! Keep reading for a list of San Diego hikes to choose from. 

Sunset Cliffs Trail

Distance: 2.4 miles (roundtrip)

Difficulty: Easy

As you might guess from the name, the Sunset Cliffs San Diego hike is a prime place to catch spectacular San Diego sunsets. Short and scenic, this walk runs next to oceanside cliffs that are absolutely stunning! The views make it one of the best trails in San Diego.

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If you’re hoping to go on some beach hikes, San Diego boasts a few -- including this one. The sound of the crashing waves as you meander down the trail adds to the spectacular ocean ambiance. If you decide to be spontaneous, you can also take a trail down to the beach or explore the rest of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park! 

Additionally, Sunset Cliffs Trail makes it on the list of easy hikes in San Diego. So, those who aren’t skilled hikers will find this one is still doable! 

Wide shot of where the ocean meets Sunset Cliffs Natural Park and part of the beach in San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: John Nicksic via Facebook

Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop

Distance: 2.3 miles (loop)

Difficulty: Easy

If you’re thinking of going on a Torrey Pines hike, San Diego is technically about 30 minutes away. This trail is included on the list of hiking trails in La Jolla, California. The area is known for beaches, wildlife, and tide pools! Are you a tide pool enthusiast? Check out our guide to finding the best tide pools in San Diego!

The Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop leads hikers alongside gorgeous ocean views. Let the glimmering blue expanse spur you on as you hike! If you’re up for more exploring after completing this trail, there are even more trails at the Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Pro Tip: Leave your furry friends at home for this one! Dogs are not allowed.

cliffs overlooking the beach at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve near San Diego, California, USALos Penasquitos Canyon Trail

Distance: 6.8 miles (loop)

Difficulty: Easy

Most may assume a San Diego canyon hike would feature dusty red rocks and sparse foliage. However, this isn’t the case at Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail! This ecosystem features luscious woodlands teeming with oak trees and enchanting glassy rivers to cross. The unique landscape makes this trail one of the most popular hikes in the San Diego area!

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In addition, keep an eye out for wildlife as you wander along the trail! Sightings are common. The trail is especially popular among birdwatchers!

photo credit: Daily Trail Runner via Facebook

Cowles Mountain Trail

Distance: 3 miles (roundtrip)

Difficulty: Moderate

You’ll be on top of the world on this trail -- or at least the top of San Diego! Cowles Mountain is proudly the highest point in the city. The hike leans toward the strenuous side, but the panoramic view payoff is well worth it. 

Add an extra twist to the adventure by setting off at night! Cowles Mountain is a great stargazing spot, thanks to its height and limited pollution. So make your way to the top to bask in nighttime glory! The well-traveled trail isn’t hard to navigate at night, but be sure to bring a flashlight. 

View from the top of Cowles Mountain with a bright cloudy sky overhead in San Diego, California, USAIron Mountain Trail

Distance: 5.9 miles (roundtrip)

Difficulty: Moderate

Sweeping views are the name of the game on the Iron Mountain hike San Diego. As one of the best hikes near San Diego, the Iron Mountain Trail allows hikers to catch sight of Mt. Woodson and the Catalina Islands on clear days! The trail starts as a flat, leisurely walk but turns into a climb up the mountain rather quickly.

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Pro Tip: Good hiking boots are recommended on this trail. Additionally, there is no shade. So, pack plenty of water and sunscreen!

sign at trail will wildflowers and mountains in background at Iron Mountain Trailhead in San Diego, California, USA

Cuyamaca Peak via Azalea Glen Loop

Distance: 7.7 miles (loop)

Difficulty: Moderate

A mixture of mountains and valleys creates an interesting landscape at Cuyamaca Peak! Indulge in pine forest views and expansive sky views from the top of the second highest peak in San Diego. 

Those afraid of heights may want to steer clear of this hiking trail. At one point, the trail becomes a wall trail along a steep drop!

photo credit: Kim Chan via Facebook

Double Peak Trail

Distance: 4 miles (loop)

Difficulty: Moderate

This hike near San Diego features a 1,644-foot summit! The journey begins on a paved path before it starts to get steep. At the top, encounter stunning 360-degree views.

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We suggest arriving early to snag a parking spot, as the lot is small. Moreover, don’t hesitate to bring your dog! Double Peak Trail is one of the dog-friendly hikes in San Diego.

Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

Distance: 2.9 miles (loop)

Difficulty: Moderate

This San Diego hike is situated in California’s largest state park, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Traverse through dry, dusty terrain to reach the reward: a gorgeous palm oasis! It clocks in as California’s third largest. 

This hike is a great one to bring the kiddos on. Be sure to keep an eye out for bighorn sheep! Looking for other great kid-friendly San Diego experiences? Read our guide and never run out of activities to keep little ones engaged. The best news? Each activity on this list is free!

Pro Tip: If you’re looking to visit when there are thinner crowds, avoid this trail during the spring. Wildflower season brings in a slew of additional hikers. Regardless of the time of year, early mornings are your best bet to take a breather from big crowds.

close up palm trees at Borrego Palm Canyon in San Diego, California, USAclose up of palm trees atBlack Mountain via Nighthawk Trail Loop

Distance: 4.4 miles (loop)

Difficulty: Moderate

Meander over rolling hillsides and make your way to the top of the mountain! On a clear day, you can even get a glimpse of Mexico. Like many other hiking places in San Diego, the Black Mountain Hike San Diego offers spectacular views at the top. The hike is relatively short but gets steep!

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As a bonus, this is one of the best dog-friendly hikes San Diego offers! Just make sure Fido is on a leash. 

Potato Chip Rock via Mount Woodson Trail

Distance: 7.4 miles (roundtrip)

Difficulty: Moderate

Of course, we can’t talk about hiking around San Diego without mentioning this one! The famous Potato Chip Hike in San Diego is well-known for offering some of the best hiking near San Diego. The steep, narrow hike to the ever-popular Potato Chip Rock takes some skill. However, the payoff at the top is worth the effort!

Photo Alert: It’s all in the name. This hike takes you to a unique rock formation that literally resembles a potato chip! As such, this is one photo your Instagram can’t afford to go without. Embark on the Potato Chip Hike San Diego to get this shot!

couple standing on potato chip rock on a sunny day in San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: Robin Randolph Photography via Facebook

Cedar Creek Falls to Devil’s Punchbowl

Distance: 6 miles (roundtrip)

Difficulty: Difficult

Cedar Creek Falls to Devil’s Punchbowl San Diego is best for pro hikers who are accustomed to the challenges of hiking. Pass through narrow canyons and ascend steep hills on this exciting excursion. Groves of oak, willow, and sycamore trees along the San Diego River offer refreshing nature respite. 

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Devil’s Punchbowl is a sparkling blue swimming hole, but jumping off cliffs is not the recommended way to enter it. Several deaths have occurred due to cliff jumping in this area, so beware of the potential danger! Simply follow the safety precautions to conquer this trail. 

Pro Tip: Make sure you purchase a permit before heading off for this hike. You won’t be able to enter the area without one!

Additionally, don’t let the way down fool you. It’s the way back up that’s the killer! Pack snacks and plenty of water to refuel before making the trek back. After the long, arduous journey, you’ll be able to say you survived one of the most challenging hike trails in San Diego!

photo credit: San Diego Reader via Facebook

Three Sisters Falls Trail

Distance: 4.1 miles (roundtrip)

Difficulty: Difficult

Only experienced hikers should attempt to embark on the Three Sisters Falls Trail. As one of the most challenging hikes in San Diego, hikers will come across rocky terrain and steep inclines. It involves some scrambling, too! For those who seek true thrills on their hikes, the Three Sister Hike San Diego delivers. 

Additionally, for those on the hunt for a waterfall hike, San Diego has several offerings. Three Sisters Falls is a fan-favorite option! If you want to see the waterfalls in full force, don’t visit near the end of the summer months. The waterfalls become mere trickles during this time. However, the views are no less spectacular!

Pro Tip: This hike requires an adventure pass! There are day, multi-day, and annual options available.

photo credit: Kamelia Britton Coaching via Facebook

Golden Hill Trails Gateway at Balboa Park

Distance: Varies

Difficulty: Varies

Finally, you don’t have to worry about journeying far into the wilderness for these trails at Balboa Park in San Diego! As it turns out, some of the best hiking in San Diego is found in the middle of the city. There are three trails for varying skill levels at the Golden Hill Trails Gateway.

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The half-mile trail is an easy stroll for those who aren’t avid hikers. Kick it up a notch on the moderate 4.4-mile trail that takes visitors into Switzer Canyons. The 6.8-mile trail is the most difficult. The return journey leads visitors through gardens and past museums!

Hit the Trails on One of These Hikes Today!

When it comes to hiking, San Diego County and surrounding areas present virtually countless options for places to explore! Now that you know about the best hikes San Diego has to offer, which ones are on your bucket list?

As long as this list is, it only scratches the surface! Other popular hikes include Eagle Rock Hike San Diego, 7 Bridges Hike San Diego, and the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hiking in San Diego is one of the best ways to spend a day in America’s Finest City! Use your energy to revel in the great outdoors, then grab dinner at one of the city’s great restaurants to refuel after a long day of San Diego trekking.

End the day in a luxuriously cozy San Diego hotel. Then, once you’re rested, snag discount tickets for some of the other attractions in San Diego to fill the rest of your trip itinerary! 

Have You Been on Any Southern California Hikes?

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michaela smiling holding magazine with body of water in background

Written By Michaela

Michaela is a journalist who views every story she writes as an adventure, leading her to explore new places and meet new people. She is based in the Midwest ...

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