best hikes in san diego

san diego

Not only is San Diego known for its beaches and temperate weather, but some little known gems include its high elevation mountains and beautiful and unique landscape that make for great hikes. Whether you want to venture on your first hike or you are a veteran adventurer, this list includes an array of must-see hikes ranging in difficulty. You are bound to find an enticing and rewarding hike in this list of popular and awe-inspiring trails.

imperial beach

For beginners, a great place to start is in Imperial Beach at the Tijuana Estuary. It is about 4 miles roundtrip but completely flat, not only making it an easy introduction to new hikers, but also wheelchair and kid friendly. Pets are also allowed on leash if you would like to take your four legged hiking buddy. The wetlands are home to hundreds of different species of birds, making it an international bird watching site for many nature lovers. While over 90% of California’s wetlands have disappeared, this estuary is highly protected by several government agencies including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as California State Parks. The Tijuana Estuary is the largest wetland in Southern California, and contains walking trails that lead optimal bird watching locations and where the Tijuana River flows into the Pacific Ocean.

eagle rock

Another easy hike that leads to a stunning rock formation is Eagle Rock in Warner Springs. It is over 6 miles long, making it a nice and lengthy hike, with a huge rock in the shape of an eagle at the end of your trail. This stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail is supported by grassy, rolling hills, oak-lined creeks, and large expansions of native chaparrals. It is definitely a hike worthy of a photo op and is a rewarding challenge for new hikers to complete. There is nothing technically difficult about the hike, making it a good place to start trying to hike further distances. It is in a remote area with little service and no bathrooms, so it is important to plan accordingly.

potato chip rock hike

If you’re looking for more of a challenge but still want to see something spectacular at the end of your hike, try the Potato Chip Rock hike out between Poway and Ramona. It is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego, as visitors and locals alike flock to the unique rock formation at the end of the trail. Hikers love taking their picture on Potato Chip Rock because it looks so thin that it shouldn’t support such weight. People like to “hang” off the edge of the chip and it makes for a photo that looks dangerous but is actually a very safe maneuver. The hike is a decent challenge, as it is over 7 miles long on a narrow and steep trail. This is a good hike for those that are looking to advance their skills and try something longer and technical.

3 sisters falls

Three Sisters Falls is rising in popularity, and in my opinion, is the best waterfall in San Diego. The hike is less than 5 miles but requires a bit of rock climbing and traversing, especially if you head for the third fall. Its rocky terrain deters it from being kid friendly, and its open exposure calls for lots of water and a preparation for a lack of shade. However, the end result is stunning. The first two falls cascade into a cool pool of water that you are more than welcome to swim in after your hike. It is quite refreshing to come across a body of water after a long, hot hike. The third fall requires more complicated hiking, but the reward is worth the adventure.

Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain presents you with a 360 degree view at the summit, overlooking San Diego, Mexico, and Orange County on a clear day. This popular hike in La Mesa is only 3 miles long, but it gets very steep and strenuous towards the summit. The views at the end are worth the hike, and in Spring you can see colorful wildflowers line the otherwise brown mountain trail. This short but challenging hike is a great way to start your morning, and takes less than 2 hours to climb and descend. This is a good hike for the more experienced hiker that wants something short but sweet, but this is also an appetizing challenge for newer hikers who want a straight forward, doable test of stamina and strength without the additional challenges of actual rock climbing. Dogs are welcome on leash if you would like to bring additional support with you. This list of varying hikes provides a well rounded experience of the San Diego hiking culture. These hikes not only provide you with a beautiful view or marvelous structure at the end, but also expose you to natural formations you may not get to see in the city, such as babbling creeks and rivers. Try one or two of these hikes on an early weekend morning and reward yourself with a filling brunch after completing your hiking adventure.

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Jordyn Reardon | UCLA alum English Major | San Diego native with an affinity for adventure. Loves discovering hidden gems across Southern California and writing about them for the greater community.