10 Best Hikes in San Diego

Cedar Creek Falls spilling into a punchbowl.
Cedar Creek Falls spilling into a punchbowl. John Lemieux
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When people think of San Diego, visions of sun-kissed bodies lounging around sandy beaches may emerge. And while "America’s Finest City" may be one of the most laid back, it’s not all craft beer and surf sessions. In fact, the long list of urban adventures here often overshadows the fact that San Diego is home to some of the most amazing hiking trails in California. From climbing around cultural landmarks to plummeting into death defying waterfalls, here’s 10 San Diego hikes worth taking off your flip flops for.

1. Cowles Mountain

Running to the top of Cowles Mountain is a timeless San Diego tradition.
Running to the top of Cowles Mountain is a timeless San Diego tradition. Bill Rand

For those looking to sneak a quick hike into their day, Cowles Mountain may be the perfect lunch hour workout. At 1,595 feet, it’s the highest peak in San Diego city limits. While only 1.5-miles to the top, the steepness of the trail can quickly turn into a high intensity race to the top. With the convenience of its location and 360 degree views of the city, hikers can expect to find Cowles busy with college students, families, and lots of dogs.

2. Palomar Mountain

Sunset over the Pacific from the top of Palomar Mountain.
Sunset over the Pacific from the top of Palomar Mountain. Joe Wolf

Large Douglas firs and cedar trees accompanied by views of the San Jacinto peaks give Palomar Mountain a Sierra Nevada-like feel. One of the highest peaks in county at 6,140 feet, the 13-mile round trip is a strenuous half day hike. For those ready for the challenge, consider making it an evening adventure and visit the Palomar Observatory (4.5 miles up and home to a 200 inch reflecting telescope) for some serious stargazing.

3. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

San Diego's Sunset Cliffs
San Diego's Sunset Cliffs Bill Morrow

With easy access located at Ladera St. and Sunset Cliffs Blvd in Ocean Beach, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park may be the most relaxing and enchanting hike on the list. Showcasing the vast beauty of San Diego with 1.5-miles of majestic sea cliffs, tide pools, and ocean air, this hike doubles as a romantic date option. And if you’re headed for the cliffs in evening, expect to see bottlenose dolphins and plenty of seals splashing along the rocks.

4. Balboa Park Trails

Balboa Park isn't all museums and art exhibits.
Balboa Park isn't all museums and art exhibits. Jay

Home to world renowned museums, art exhibits, and botanical gardens, Balboa Park brings many things to mind. The list of events and sightseeing options around the park can even make locals forget that the 1,200-acre cultural landmark is surrounded by miles of hiking trails. With five trails to choose from, ranging from 1.5-miles (trail 1) to 6.6-miles (trail 5), hikers at any level can wind down canyon paths and up again through lush oak and pine covered hills.

5. Borrego Palm Canyon

Borrego Palm Canyon.
Borrego Palm Canyon. Rick McCharles

No hiking guide for San Diego would be complete without mention of Anza-Borrego , and Borrego Palm Canyon is the state park’s quintessential adventure. Breathtakingly desolate in the best ways, the trail delivers desert charm through ripe cactus gardens, wildflowers, and bighorn sheep ( borregos ). There are 3.2 miles of relatively flat trail that ends at the third largest palm oasis in California, where hikers can sway along and take in the stretch of deep colors only a desert sunset can provide.

6. Mount Woodson

On top of Mount Woodson, all covered in boulders.
On top of Mount Woodson, all covered in boulders. Dan Holl

Known for its unmistakable rock formation near the top, locals know Mount Woodson best as "Potato Chip Rock." And it has become a rite of passage photo opt for San Diegans over the years. Lined with massive boulders that tower over 6.4-miles of zigzagging trail, the difficult hike leads to one of the highest peaks in the county where views of Lake Poway and Palomar Mountain await. For this hike pack extra water, snacks, and a camera.

7. Iron Mountain

Looking southeast from Iron Mountain Peak.
Looking southeast from Iron Mountain Peak. thphht

Well marked and maintained trails coupled with diverse Californian beauty make Iron Mountain an extremely popular destination. Located in Poway, the 6-mile hike offers little coverage from the sun, but has a backdrop of sprawling hills, coated with purple lilacs and massive boulders. The trail is family-friendly and a big hit with horseback riders. Between the summer heat and popularity of Iron Mountain, an early morning start is recommended.

8. Devil's Punchbowl

Cedar Creek Falls spilling into a punchbowl.
Cedar Creek Falls spilling into a punchbowl. John Lemieux

As its namesake suggests, Devil’s Punchbowl is a rugged and punishing adventure. Located 40 miles outside the city, the hike is one of the most dangerous in the area. With a steep descent into a water filled gorge, or punchbowl , and grueling summertime temperatures, the 3-mile trek is infamous for crippling unprepared hikers with heat stroke. What makes it worth the risk? The finish line is a swimming hole that sits below a monstrous waterfall, dumping from 75 foot high cliffs. Bring a buddy, extra water, and witness one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the San Diego area.

9. Torrey Pines

Singletrack at Torrey Pines State Park.
Singletrack at Torrey Pines State Park. Lora_313

With rare pine trees, native flowers, and jagged sea cliffs, Torrey Pine State Reserve  displays the unique beauty of Southern California with 8-miles worth of hiking. Starting at the top of the reserve, it’s a “choose your own adventure” sort of destination with multiple trail choices that weave through geological highlights before opening up to views of the pacific. Razor Point (1.3 miles) and Guy Fleming (0.7 miles) provide picturesque lookout points, but for the real sunset chasers, there’s a beach trail (1.7 miles) that ends with a walk right into the sand.

10. El Cajon Mountain

Soaking in the views from El Cajon Mountain.
Soaking in the views from El Cajon Mountain. Travis Rigel Lukas Hornung

El Cajon Mountain , or “El Cap” hiking trail is the most grueling on the list. Used by IRONMAN triathletes for training, the 11-mile hike follows an old mining trail all the way up to its 3,675 foot peak. And it gets hot! The trail is closed for an entire month during the dog days of August, so plan accordingly. Layered with steep trails both up and down the mountain, this trek will leave hikers with sore legs, stunning views, and a true sense of accomplishment.

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