Our Favorite Hiking Trails & Backpacking Trips Near San Diego

Desert and mountains on a hiking trail near San Diego, California
Our Favorite Hikes Near San Diego, California

San Diego is one of the most popular U.S. travel destinations for several reasons. For some, it’s a good base for visits to that world-famous zoo. For others, it’s the perfect beach escape. And, if you’re into outdoor adventure, the best hikes near San Diego won’t disappoint.

San Diego’s hiking scene offers trails with diverse landscapes you wouldn’t expect such a laid back city. That includes easy urban escapes at Mission Trails Regional Park, imposing rock formations at Eagle Rock, or wildflower-spotting at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

I spent seven years exploring the best hikes near San Diego, California, and have put together a guide that includes distance, elevation gain, and difficulty to help you plan your treks. No matter your hiking experience, there’s a trail on this list that’s ideal for you.

I’ve included day hikes in the city, day trail trips within a two-hour drive from San Diego, and longer bonus trips for backpackers. Some of these trails require preparation beforehand, but I promise they’re worth the trouble.

Hikes in San Diego

San Diego has many options for hikes that require very little time in the car. Let’s start with San Diego’s best urban hikes and easy trails that you can hit with minimal pre-planning.

Cowles Mountain Trail

View of San Diego from a trail just outside of town
Cowles Mountain Trail

Distance: 3 miles
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

This jaunt up Cowles Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego. The distance from town is short enough for a spur-of-the-moment hike, and the payoffs are worth the climb. You’ll end up at the highest point in San Diego, with impressive views.

But don’t sleep in if you want to check it out. This hike within Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the city’s best urban spaces, can get thick with crowds. The later you start, the more competition you’ll have for the perfect photo at the top.

Seven Bridge Walk

Distance: 5.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 300 feet
Difficulty: Easy

This one may not feel like the classic hike, but it’s the perfect urban trail if you can’t get out of the city. The Seven Bridge Walk shows off San Diego’s best bridges. Start at Park Boulevard Bridge in Balboa Park or the George Street Bridge in Hillcrest for the trek.

The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is the highlight segment of this trail. Known for its signature sway, the bridge is a popular stop for glimpses of Kate Sessions Canyon below. I find the wooden trestles of the Quince Street Bridge even more magical.

This one is lengthy but not at all difficult. You can easily turn this one into a half-day San Diego activity by making additional stops.

If you have more time, stop by the Japanese Friendship Garden when it’s time to cross the city’s iconic Cabrillo Bridge. It’s the perfect place to chill out and take a rest.

Oak Canyon Trail

Fenced hiking trail with trees hanging over, Oak Canyon Trail
Oak Canyon Trail

Distance: 3.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 250 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

The Oak Canyon Trail is also in Mission Trails Regional Park, a favorite of locals for outdoor adventures close to the city. This is a fun one for families, as there’s some rock scrambling toward the end.

The trail is much less crowded than Cowles Mountain until springtime. An old creek bed and trickling falls at the end sit against the backdrop of the park’s oak trees.

I say “trickling” to set expectations. These aren’t comparable to the falls further north in the state, but they’re a nice place to relax and cool off before heading back. Spring is a great time for wildflowers along this trail, too.

Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop

Distance: 2.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 350 feet
Difficulty: Easy

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is technically in La Jolla. As it’s still in San Diego County and likely on most San Diego trip itineraries for its proximity to the city and stellar views with little effort, I’ll allow it here.

The park’s Beach Trail is only ¾ mile from the ocean, with views from the top down to the beach below. That’s where you can spend some time tide pooling to add a little sea safari to your trek. Add some length by making this one a loop.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve parking rates vary based on demand but expect to pay at least $10 per vehicle, which covers a full day in the park. There’s also free parking outside the park along North Torrey Pines Road if you don’t mind the extra walk.

Hikes Near San Diego

These are all kinds of hikes within a short drive of San Diego County. These can all be reached within an hour or less, so they’re easy to hit even on a quick San Diego trip.

Cedar Creek Falls

Waterfall running down rocks into a pond below
Cedar Creek Falls

Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet
Difficulty: Hard

You may hear locals arguing the merits of the Three Sisters Falls hike, but many consider Cedar Creek Falls the best waterfall hike near San Diego. To get there, travel to the Cleveland National Forest, just under an hour away from San Diego.

This a challenging hike, with most of the elevation gain on the backend. Spend as much time as you’d like at the falls because you’re in for a steep climb on the way back. This is also a swimming hole, should you need a refreshing break. It’s known as the Devil’s Punchbowl.

This hike requires a permit, so you must plan ahead. Book a permit online as soon as you know your timeframe. Without a permit, you’ll risk a fine or being turned away by a ranger.

Potato Chip Rock

Distance: 4.1 – 7.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,200-2,100 feet
Difficulty: Moderate/Hard

You haven’t experienced San Diego’s hiking scene until you’ve spent time waiting in line to take a photo at Potato Chip Rock. The iconic rock formation at the top of Mt. Woodson resembles a potato chip (although it’s much sturdier).

You have a few options to make this happen. The shorter way is on the backside of Mt. Woodson along Route 67. It ascends 1,200 feet for four miles with zero shade, and you can find free parking along the road.

The long way is likely what you’ll find if you Google the trailhead. It’s over seven miles with more scenic views of Lake Poway along the way and paid parking at the bottom. Either route starts in Poway, about 45 minutes from the city.

For photos at the rock, you’ll need to climb up to the chip and hop across a small gap. Avoid risky poses and jumps, especially after some rain. The views at the top are still worth the trek, even if you don’t choose to wait in line for your photo.

And, yes, there will probably be a line!

The Way Up Trail

View of a lake from a lookout point on a hiking trail in Southern California
The Way Up Trail

Distance: 4.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 850 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

The Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve near Escondido features 11 miles of trails that might match your mental image of elfin forests. Expect the drive to take about 40 minutes in light traffic.

This trail combines the best of the park with overlooks of Harmony Grove and Lake Hodges, the most scenic spots in the reserve. You’ll climb steadily on this one as you navigate switchbacks to viewpoints of the lake, so expect to work up a sweat.

Montserrat Mountain

Distance: 4.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,400 feet
Difficulty: Hard

This trail just south of Temecula rewards a steep trek with expansive views of the ocean and the Peninsular Ranges. Those include some of the most iconic peaks in Southern California, including Palomar Mountain.

This one is challenging no matter how you approach it, but take it counterclockwise for a slightly easier ascent. Watch for trail markers along the way. Over the years, the trail became a memorial to fallen first responders after 9/11.

You should be able to reach Montserrat Mountain in just under an hour from San Diego. If you have additional time, visit Temecula, San Diego’s best wine region (with a burgeoning craft beer scene).

Day Trip Hikes from San Diego

San Diego is the perfect base for day trips, including outdoor adventures. These options are all solid picks for San Diego day trips within a two-hour drive of the city limits. If you’re considering more distant trails, plan ahead for what to bring on a day hike.

Stonewall Peak

View of Stonewall Peak during a day hike
Stonewall Peak

Distance: 3.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 800 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is one of the best hiking destinations in the region, with over 100 miles of trails and stunning vistas. The hike to Stonewall Peak is an excellent option for hikers who are okay with some exposed conditions along the way.

You’ll have to scale a rocky cliff to reach the very top. Even though the exposed side has guardrails, it’s wise to keep your eyes forward as you climb.

Your reward at the top is views of the desert in the Laguna Mountains. With more time, extend your day with a trip to nearby Julian, especially if you’re visiting in the fall. Expect the return trip to take about an hour.

Volcan Mountain Trail

Distance: 4.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,200 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

The Volcan Mountain Trail is another rewarding option near Julian that follows an old road to the summit. Along the way, you’ll pass ruins for the Volcan Mountain Observatory Outpost, an observation station built in the 1920s.

At one point, Volcan Mountain was in the running for the site of the Hale Telescope. That honor eventually went to Palomar Mountain and the Palomar Observatory, but that doesn’t make the views at the top of Volcan any less impressive.

This trail starts in the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Parking is free along the road, just before the entrance.

Eagle Rock

Eagle Rock Monument near San Diego, California
Eagle Rock

Distance: 6.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 850 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

Eagle Rock is the most aptly named hike on the list. The trail takes you to a rock formation that looks just like an eagle with outstretched wings. You’ll first need to travel to Warner Springs, about an hour and a half from the city, to get there.

Any elevation gain is spread out over the hike, so the moderate rating is more reflective of the length of this one. Bring plenty of water; this hike is very exposed.

Start your hike next to the fire station in Warner Springs, but don’t park there or block the station in any way. You should be able to find parking across the street along the road.

Added bonus: You’ll be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on this one. If you’re interested in multi-day treks, it doesn’t get more epic than the PCT in this region.

Hellhole Canyon Trail

Distance: 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 960 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

If you visit in the spring, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the best place to catch colorful wildflowers near San Diego. Don’t let the name spook you. This moderate trail is a far cry from hellish.

The canyon trail is ideal for blooming cacti on your way to a refreshing oasis known as Maidenhair Falls. Keep in mind that you’re hiking through the desert here. Bring plenty of water and sun protection, especially in the warmer months.

You’ll need to get to the very end of the trail to soak your feet at the falls. The park is just under two hours from San Diego, and the trailhead for this one is right around that mark.

With more time, add The Slot to your itinerary. It’s a popular nearby slot canyon that will add another 15 minutes to your drive, but it’s a fun addition at just about a mile in length.

Backpacking Trips Near San Diego

If you’re looking for a challenge, plan a backpacking trip near San Diego that you can finish up after a night out in nature. Consult your backpacking gear list to make sure you’re prepared. Keep it lightweight, and only bring the essentials needed to keep you safe and comfortable.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Views near the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail

Distance: Varies
Elevation Gain: Varies
Difficulty: Hard

I’ve already mentioned the PCT in my description of Eagle Rock, but limit yourself if you’re on a bucket list backpacking adventure. Tackle as much or as little of the 2,650-mile trail as you like.

This one is very weather-dependent, so even if you want to tick off the first 133 miles that run through San Diego to the Mexico border, you need to plan around the seasons. The trail runs through the desert, so summer hiking isn’t recommended.

Otay Mountain

Distance: 12.4-20.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,000-4,000 feet
Difficulty: Hard

Camp in the Otay Mountain Wilderness and tick off Otay Mountain, the highest peak in the San Ysidro Mountains. There are a few ways to summit this, but all approaches require steady climbing.

No matter where you start, you’ll have to navigate some gravel roads to get there, either on foot or in your vehicle. This is a popular area for off-roading. Once you reach the top, you should be able to see all the way to Mexico, even on a hazy day.

Otay Mountain is just a few miles north of the border, so you may encounter Border Patrol agents along the way. You don’t need permits to hike in this area, but if you’re asked any questions, answer them politely!

Ready to Crush Some Hikes Near San Diego?

Views along the Hellhole Canyon Trail in Southern California
Views along the Hellhole Canyon Trail

San Diego is a great base camp for outdoor adventure, both for beginning hikers and experienced backpackers. Apart from the physical activity, choosing which trail to take can be the biggest challenge of these best hikes near San Diego, California.

Stay close to the city with the breezy hikes of the Mission Trails Regional Park, or hit the road for day hikes to impressive Eagle Rock or Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Each hike offers something unique at varied distances, elevation gains, and difficulties.

San Diego is a fantastic city to explore no matter your plans, but give its varied trails a shot, and you’ll be rewarded with experiences many tourists will never consider. Now, pick one of these best hikes near San Diego, lace up those hiking shoes, and hit the trail.

Last Updated on March 19, 2024

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Agnes Groonwald

Agnes Greenwald is a freelance writer and travels blogger behind Travel on the Reg, a place for people who travel regularly and in a regular fashion. She lived in San Diego for seven years before hitting the road as a nomad with her husband and her dog, Kimmy Kibbler.

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