Best known for its laid-back beach vibes, San Diego is the perfect spot for nature lovers to spend time outdoors. While most people flock here to check out the surf and try their hand in the water, there are still several people who come to check out the hiking trails in and near San Diego.
Finding the best San Diego hikes may be a bit daunting if you do not know where to look. Keep reading to find out where the best trails are located for each skill level. If you are not accustomed to hiking, you will want to avoid the difficult trails until you have mastered some of the easy and moderate trails. Fun places like Potato Chip Rock, Cedar Creek Falls Hike, and lovely peaks that overlook the San Diego River will keep you enchanted with trekking in this spectacular area.
Before lacing up your hiking boots, drop excess bags and gear at a San Diego luggage locker. Then have fun deciding which of the best hikes you'll try. Whether you are planning to stay in the city limits of San Diego or heading out into the great outdoors further into San Diego County and beyond, there are plenty of hiking trails to choose from.
Our Top Hiking Trail Picks in San Diego
While you probably think of sandy beaches, ocean waves, and relaxing on a pier when you think of San Diego, there is much more. This southern California city is brimming with exciting things to see and experience aside from lounging on the beach. Grab your hiking boots and spend time exploring the top hiking trails in and near San Diego.
Oak Canyon Trail
Length: 3.2 miles
Location: Mission Trails Regional Park
The Oak Canyon Trail makes for a great stroll through nature. You will make your way through wide meadows, past small ponds, and even hike through a few small rock canyons. While the trail is marked for moderate skill, there are places along the trail that are great for beginners and the overall experience is not overly strenuous.
If you are looking for a longer hike while you are in the Mission Trails Regional Park, check out the Oak Canyon to Grasslands Trail that will take you on a 3.7-mile journey through amazing meadows. Tackle this trail during the spring and summer for an explosion of color from all the wildflowers blooming in the meadows.
Torrey Pines Beach Trail
Length: 2.3 miles
Location: Torrey Pines State Park
You do not want to miss the chance to go on one of the most iconic trails in San Diego. The Torrey Pines Beach Trail will lead you on an adventure along breathtaking seaside bluffs. Take a few minutes to stop and look out over the ocean and watch the waves crash against the rocks below. You will make your way through some interesting rock formations and lush meadows.
This is a very easy hike for all skill levels and is a great activity for the entire family. Most of this trail is in full sun so you will want to bring along plenty of sunscreen and wear a hat. Pack enough water to stay hydrated while on the trail. The trail is less crowded in the morning but the views of sunset are absolutely spectacular.
El Cajon Mountain Trail
Length: 11.3 miles
Location: El Capitan County Preserve
This is one of the most challenging hikes in San Diego and if you are not fully ready to tackle a difficult hike you will not want to try this one. This trail will challenge even the most seasoned hikers with its uphill climbs and false peaks. While the trail starts smooth enough along a paved road, you will quickly find yourself going through some pretty rough terrain.
The climb up is very steep and your legs will be burning by the time you tackle the uphill climb. But the hike is really worth it with the stunning views of the El Capitan County Preserve and even the Pacific Ocean off in the distance. Once you tackle El Cajon Mountain, you will truly feel you have accomplished something special.
Big Laguna Trail
Length: 13.3 miles
Location: Cleveland National Forest (off Laguna Meadow Road)
Even though the Big Laguna Trail is just over 13 miles long, it is a relatively easy hike and is good for those looking for a day-long adventure. The scenery along the trail is well worth the hike. You will make your way along the shores of both Little Laguna Lake and Big Laguna Lake with plenty of great shade from the evergreen forests along the way.
Big Laguna Trail is one of the most popular trails for locals and what is fabulous about this path is that you do not have to hike the entire 13 miles, you can pick and choose which parts you would like to explore. The trail is open year-round so you can come out anytime to check it out.
Lake Hodges Overlook
Length: 7.3 miles
Location: Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve (Escondido, CA)
The Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve is about 30 minutes to the north of San Diego and is a great place to spend the day. The Lake Hodges Overlook is a fun, accessible hike for those looking for a little bit of a challenge. Beginners will probably not find this hike as relaxing as those who are used to hiking.
The trail begins with a pretty steep incline with several switchbacks, but once the trail levels out about halfway up the trail there is just a slight gradual include the rest of the way to the top. Once you reach the top you will see stunning views of Lake Hodges and the surrounding reserve.
Length: 11.4 miles
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
There are two Split Mountains in California, so to be clear, this is the Split Mountain hike located in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The trail up the mountain is wide and you may even see four wheelers, sport utility vehicles, and Jeeps making the climb up the mountain, too. Stay on your toes and keep an ear out for motorized vehicles on the trail so you do not get run over.
This is a difficult hike and you will need to be in pretty good shape to tackle it. It is best to try this trail in early Spring or Winter when the heat is not so intense. One of the best parts of this hike is going through a prehistoric graveyard filled with interesting seashells.
Palm Canyon Loop
Length: 2-mile loop
Location: Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation
Explore a desert oasis along the Palm Canyon Loop trail. The two-mile loop is a pretty easy stroll through the desert and you do get to see a real desert oasis complete with towering palm trees, unique rock formations, and crystal-clear streams. You will step right into paradise when you conquer this hike.
The trail is pretty flat and great for families since it is a shorter hike filled with interesting things that will grab your children’s attention. You do have to pay an entrance fee to the reservation but the trail itself is free to visit.
Length: 8.8 miles
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Like Split Mountain, Whale Peak is located in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and is a hike that is best suited for experienced hikers. Beginners should never attempt this trail. You will need GPS to find the trailhead and you may even need to bring along an experienced guide just to get started on the hike.
The trail will begin by taking you through parts of the desert but will then transition into a more alpine climate as you climb the mountain. You will find many false summits but keep climbing, you will find the true summit of Whale Peak and find some of the most breathtaking views. You will want to tackle this trail during cooler months, summer months are too hot for hikers to attempt the climb.
Cedar Creek Falls
Length: 5.6 miles
Location: Cleveland National Forest (at the end of Thornbush Road)
You will love spending an afternoon hiking through the Cleveland National Forest to Cedar Creek Falls. You will get wet when on this trail so it is best to come during the warmer months. There are three stream crossings, and no, there is not a bridge to cross. Depending on the time of year, these streams can have water that is above the knee and possibly as deep as your waist.
You do have to purchase a permit to hike this trail, you can pick up your permit at the ranger office near the trailhead. The trail is definitely worth the price of admission with rocky paths, vibrant wildflowers, and beautiful views of the forest and surrounding area.
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
Length: 7.4 miles
Location: Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve (at the intersection of Black Mountain Rd and Mercy Rd)
This multi-use trail is in a wide canyon and is one of the best places to hike, locals love coming here and spending several hours exploring. You will follow the trail through lush meadows, wind your way through wooded areas, and stop at a lovely waterfall.
The trail itself is flat and is excellent for beginners but experienced hikers will also enjoy this trail. Be on the lookout for bikers, runners, and other hikers. Thankfully, motorized vehicles are not usually found on the Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail. The trail does become very crowded on the weekends so it is best to explore during the week.
Blue Sky Ecological Reserve
Length: 3.7 miles
Location: Blue Sky Ecological Reserve (on Espola Road)
Spend a few hours strolling along one of the shadier hikes that is great for beginners. The towering oak trees create a fantastic canopy that shades most of the trail. As you make your way along the trail you will find wonderful views of Lake Ramona. Take your time exploring the trail and relaxing along the way.
Sign up for a guided tour and learn more about the flora and fauna of the area from an experienced guide. Bring your kids and spend a lazy afternoon exploring then check out some of the other trails and educational programs the reserve has to offer.
Easy Hikes in San Diego
Whether you are beginner hiker or you are just looking for an easy hike to get outdoors, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the sunshine, San Diego has a number of fantastic and easy hikes for you to try. Once you have tackled some of the easier hiking trails you will feel more confident and fall in love with being one with nature.
Check out these amazingly easy hikes:
- Blue Sky Ecological Reserve
- Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
- Palm Canyon Loop Trail
Intermediate Hikes in San Diego
After you have conquered some of the easier hikes, you may want to move on and try your hand at some of the more moderate hikes around San Diego. A moderate hike will test your stamina and give your muscles a good workout. Try one or two of the intermediate hikes and see if you are ready to take on the world.
Here are three great intermediate hikes that will stretch your muscles and get your blood pumping.
- Cedar Creek Falls
- Lake Hodges Overlook
- Oak Canyon Trail
Difficult Hikes in San Diego
Experienced hikers should be the only ones to attempt the difficult hikes around San Diego. If you have successfully tackled some of the intermediate hikes and feel up for the challenge here are a few trails that will definitely test your endurance and make you sweat.
- Whale Peak
- Split Mountain
- El Cajon Mountain Trail
Hiking Trails in San Diego
There are so many fantastic San Diego trails to check, so head out from downtown San Diego and start exploring all the fantastic places in and around the city. Whether you think hiking at the San Diego Zoo is all you can handle or you want to conquer the Cuyamaca Peak Loop Trail, there are plenty of great trails to check out.