10 Best Hikes in San Diego To Escape the Crowds
San Diego is a popular destination year-round, but as the pandemic rages on, locals have been taking advantage of what makes the city a great destination in the first place as they seek out the best hikes in San Diego.
It’s the nearly perpetual sunshine and mild temperatures even in the winter months that make outdoor adventures here that much easier. And it’s easy to find trails that offer up easy social distancing opportunities and a chance to escape the crowds in the city. Just skip the well-known hikes like Potato Chip Rock and the beach hikes at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for now for more off-the-beaten path options.
Check out 10 of the best hikes in San Diego to stretch your legs and escape the crowds. All distances you’ll see here are marked as the roundtrip total, whether you’re hiking a loop or an out-and-back trail.
1. Balboa Park Trails (0.5-6.6 miles)
Most San Diego locals head outside of the city in search of opportunities to get the blood pumping, but the city itself has an extensive trail system and some of the best easy hikes in San Diego. The Balboa Park trails cover 65 miles of ground into canyons, past wildflower fields, and along paths that seem like they should be much farther away from San Diego. The best part is, you’re often steps away from the crowds enjoying the park’s more obvious offerings, like the museums, the San Diego Zoo, and the park’s botanical gardens.
The best urban hikes in and around Balboa Park include the 3.7-mile hike into Florida Canyon from the Park Boulevard Trails Gateway and the 6.6-mile trail from the Sixth and Upas Trails Gateway, a hike that will show off the city’s oak and pine trees.
2. Black Mountain Open Space Park Trails (1.9-6.5 miles)
North County’s Black Mountain Open Space Park features a dozen trails for hikers at varying levels of difficulty. The highlight of this trail system in Rancho Peñasquitos is trekking up to the summit of Black Mountain, accessible on several moderate to difficult hikes from the desert floor below. The Nighthawk Trail on the east side of the park is a great option, nearly 4 miles through good wildflower-spotting and beautiful views at the top.
If you’re not ready for the summit, the easier Miner’s Ridge Loop Trail is 2.5 miles with good views along the slope of the mountain. Watch for wildlife activity on these trails, as it’s a favorite habitat for bobcats, numerous California desert bird species. and the Pacific kangaroo rat.
3. Mission Trails Regional Park (1.4-10.4 miles)
Most San Diego locals know all about the heavily-trafficked Cowles Mountain, but there are plenty of other options for hikes within Mission Trails Regional Park to escape those crowds. The Oak Canyon Trail at 2.7 miles is an easy walk along a stream and past what in these parts are considered waterfalls. The trail gets its name from the oak trees you’ll see along the way, a welcome change from the palm trees you’ll see more often throughout the city.
For a challenge, the park boasts several peaks for you to summit. Pyles Peak, which still involves having to get past Cowles Mountain to continue to this second viewpoint, the Kwaay Paay Peak Trail, and the South Fortuna Mountain Trail are all worth the effort. All three are considered some of the best hikes in San Diego, and some of the more impressive peaks to climb this close to the city.
4. Eagle Rock (6.2 miles)
Have your own Wild moment hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail to Eagle Rock, a rock formation that resembles an eagle with its wings outstretched to the sky. Located in Warner Springs, the 6.2 mile Eagle Rock is an easy day trip from the city and a local favorite among places to hike in San Diego. Along the way, you’ll drive through the East County’s impressive farmlands and local crops, a very different landscape from the beaches and deserts most San Diegans are used to. The hike starts next to the fire station in Warner Springs, and the earlier you start, the fewer hikers you’ll find on the trail.
5. Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve (2-7.3 miles)
The Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve near Escondido is home to 11 miles of trails featuring beautiful overlooks and forested paths that do resemble what you may picture an elfin forest to look like. For a little bit of everything, hike the Way Up Trail to several overlooks, including Harmony Grove, Escondido and Lake Hodges. Across 4.8 miles, you’ll climb up steady elevation and navigate a number of switchbacks up to viewpoints of the creek valley and Lake Hodges, all especially impressive on a clear day.
6. Anza Borrego Desert State Park (0.9-16.6 miles)
If you’re willing to make a day trip out of your outdoor adventure, you’ll find some of the best hikes near San Diego in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, less than a two-hour drive from the city. Head there in the spring months for the best chance for blooming cacti and a desert floor blanketed in colorful wildflowers. The wildflowers are particularly impressive in spring seasons following a winter of heavy rains.
As far as the best hikes in Anza-Borrego, don’t miss The Slot, 2.3 miles to the best slot canyon you’ll find and squeeze into in Southern California, and Borrego Palm Canyon, a 2.9-mile trek to a palm oasis with excellent wildflower viewing along the way. There are a number of long multi-day hike opportunities in the desert park, as well. Just make sure you’re well-suited for that kind of a hike, though, as the desert is unforgiving.
7. Stonewall Peak (3.4 miles)
You could spend months exploring the trails in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. There are over 100 miles of them, taking visitors to peaks showing off desert views and less strenuous hikes around Lake Cuyamaca. If you’re not afraid of heights, the Stonewall Peak Trail is a moderate 3.4-mile hike that ends in scaling a rocky cliffside to views of Anza-Borrego and the Laguna Mountains from elevations of 5,700 feet. You’ll have guardrails to help you on the way up.
To reward yourself for a job well done, it’s a short drive to downtown Julian from here, home to the best apple pie and apple cider in and around San Diego.
8. Monserate Mountain (3.1-4.1 miles)
This loop trail in Fallbrook, about an hour north of San Diego, will make you work for those views. At only 3-1 to 4.1 miles roundtrip, depending on where you start, you’ll be climbing over 1,100 feet on this trail. That makes for a steep trek up to the top to matter how you approach this hike. The views, though, are worth it. The nearby Santa Margarita River Trail is a bit longer at 5 miles but less challenging, hugging the river the whole way around for an easy leg stretcher just outside of the city.
9. San Elijo Lagoon (0.5-5.3 miles)
No matter your hiking level, the trails around the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center have something for everyone. An easy way to get some fresh air, particularly if you’re within a short of Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Encinitas, is the half-mile loop around the river.
The most popular hikes here end in Annie’s Canyon, or “The Mushroom Caves,” a relatively short trail of only 1.4 miles roundtrip. Only recently reopened because of vandalism and graffiti, the trail is popular for families with kids, as you’ll be heading down into some narrow sections as you navigate past the canyon walls surrounding you.
As the hike is one-way and a tight squeeze in several areas, access to Annie’s Canyon is dependent on state and county guidelines. So make sure that you check whether you’ll be able to head into the canyon if your heart is set on visiting the canyon.
10. Moonlight Beach to Beacon’s Beach (3.2 miles)
It isn’t a list of the best San Diego hikes without at least one beach hike. Get out of the city and head up to Encinitas instead to escape the crowds that fill up the more popular trails closer to San Diego. Start at Moonlight Beach, which got its name from the midnight picnics residents used to enjoy here back in the day. Continue north to Stone Steps Beach. If you want to climb some stairs for better views of the coastline, climb the steps all the way up before continuing on to Beacon’s Beach, another half mile ahead.
Take a break at Beacon’s Beach, also known as Leucadia State Beach, a quintessential Southern California and great place to watch surfers. You’ll see some switchbacks here to more coastal viewpoints if you’re interested before heading back to your starting point.
These hikes only scratch the surface of all of the hikes you can tackle in and around San Diego, but these will certainly allow you to escape the crowds at this moment.
Written by Agnes Groonwald for Knockaround.