Here's the Plan for Your Next San Diego Hiking Adventure
March 28, 2019
With one of the most nearly ideal climates in the country, and miles of gorgeous coastlines that gradually turn to rolling hills and green valleys, San Diego County has got to be one of the best places to put down roots. From bustling downtown San Diego to its outlying neighborhoods, outdoor living is the name of the game—if you’re not already outside, you’re probably planning your next adventure.
Beach-going obviously ranks high on the list of outdoor activities that San Diego residents and visitors opt for. But it’s also no secret that the city’s surroundings are home to several top-notch trails, which hiking enthusiasts and trail-trekking novices alike happily frequent. As a result, you may feel like many of your go-to spots are being overrun. So, blaze some new trails by planning an all-day excursion on one of San Diego’s lesser-known hikes.
San Diego’s Best Hiking Trails—That Aren’t Totally Touristy
Whether you’ve lived in San Diego for decades or just a short while, you’ve probably spent a solid amount of that time outside on one of its many trails. Making the trek up Mount Woodson to Potato Chip Rock is practically a rite of passage, and the coastal views from Torrey Pines’ ocean-side trails can’t be beat when you’ve got visitors to tour around (no doubt they’ll be pretty jealous of the place you call home).
But there’s much more to discover when it comes to San Diego’s hiking trails—and several haven’t yet been totally taken over by tourists. Whether you’re looking to hike to a lookout point, or seeking serene trails amongst trees, you’ve got options. So, gather your go-to adventure buddies, gear up, and get ready for a new take on trekking San Diego.
Head Out for Some Waterfront Views
Even away from the coast in San Diego’s backcountry, you can still catch glimpses of gorgeous water features (surprising, considering the semi-arid climate). Both the Big Laguna Trail in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area and the Bernardo Mountain Summit Trail in Escondido offer lake views and low-traffic hiking trails. The 10-mile round-trip Big Laguna Trail offers up everything: desert views, forested cover, a rolling meadow, a lake, and a gentle elevation gain of 962 feet. If you want to see every single bit of nature that San Diego’s surroundings include, this hike guarantees it all in one day-long adventure.
North of downtown San Diego near Escondido, the Bernardo Mountain Summit Trail is just over 7 miles out-and-back and serves up scenic views of Lake Hodges. The trek takes you gradually upwards with a few steeper stretches, but overall, it’s an easy elevation gain up to Rattlesnake Viewpoint’s pretty perch that most any hiker can manage. You won’t find a lot of cover on this trail, so start in the morning to make the most of the cooler daytime hours, especially if you’re going to run it during the summer.
Trek to New Heights, or Hike Amongst the Trees
Ready to get a really good workout in? Look no further than El Cajon Mountain. The 11-mile out-and-back trek takes you up and down along an old mining road, to the peak at 3,675 feet above sea level. The rugged trail’s steep inclines and declines that keep testing you throughout the entire hike are worth it though, because the panoramic views at the top are an epic prize. El Cajon Mountain is known as one of San Diego’s most strenuous hikes, so it may not be well-suited to less-experienced hikers. It’s the trail to tackle when you’re ready to really push your limits.
Treat yourself to tree-lined trails in William Heise County Park, a 929-acre property that sits more than 4,000 feet above sea level. The 11-mile Kelly Ditch Trail takes you through forests and wildflower-filled meadows to Lake Cuyamaca—you can even break the hike up if you like and set up camp overnight in the park, or pack a picnic in your bag to take a well-deserved mid-hike lunch break near the lake. While the scenery makes the trail sound tranquil, it boasts a super-varied topography that’ll surely take it out of you by the hike’s end.
Under-the-radar Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is shockingly low on tourists considering how scenic it is. In fact, the under-7-mile trail ends at a waterfall. It’s an easy, semi-covered trail that’s ideal if you’re looking to go on a leisurely hike with a group of friends; hang out at the hike’s water-feature end and snap a few pictures for Instagram on Carol’s Crossing bridge before circling back to head home. This one’s great for all skill levels, and is just as gorgeous in the winter as it is during the spring and summer thanks to the lush grove of trees and the trail that follows along a tranquil creek. But do keep an eye out for rattlesnakes—they have been spotted sunbathing along the route, so watch your step to avoid disturbing one.
What to Pack and How to Dress
If you’re about to embark on a day-long, multi-mile hike, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared. Heading out in the morning to make the most of the day means you’ll be hiking during the sun’s strongest hours—so first and foremost be sure you’ve got sunscreen and a pair of workout-ready sunglasses—no matter the time of year. And a couple of hours requires lots of water, so fill up your canteen to stay hydrated (and bring a granola bar or two, or a full-on picnic for you and friends). A compact, lightweight trail backpack is your best bet for keeping your hands free during the hike.
Stay Cool in The Spring and Summer
San Diego’s agreeable climate still heats up when the warmer months arrive, especially if you’re heading inland. So, keep your cool by dressing in light layers, and bring a hat and polarized eyewear to shield yourself from UV rays. Strenuous trails require stable footwear, so bring your broken-in hiking boots. And stash another full water bottle in the car, so it’ll be waiting for you when you get back.
Keep Warm When the Weather’s Chillier
Heading out to the Big Laguna Trail to enjoy fall’s colorful foliage? The crisp weather can feel chilly when you’re on mile eight, so stash an insulating outer layer in your backpack to shrug on for the walk back to the trailhead. Hiking pants may be best too—plus, they protect your legs from scrapes and scratches on wilder treks that may take you off well-kept trails.
That’s a Wrap–Where to Head Post-Hike
After a long day outdoors, nothing’s better than chilling out with a cold drink and a good meal. If you’re really hungry (which you definitely should be after clocking several miles), head over to one of San Diego’s best burger joints, or casual breweries. Kick back with your crew, recount your favorite parts of the hike and start planning your next adventure. Now that you know where to go for a really great hike, it’s safe to say you’ll be heading out even more often.
Written by Zoe Ward for Knockaround