5 Best Challenging Hikes Within an Hour of San Diego

Updated on August 13, 2019
SouthernHoney profile image

Allison is an avid outdoor adventurer who has completed close to 40 different hikes in the San Diego area.

San Diego is a great city for hiking, climbing, and backpacking. Its close proximity to mountains, desert, marshlands, and coastline make it an outdoor paradise for the indecisive. One thing that can spoil a good trail around this city, however, is the sheer number of weekend hikers. Anybody who has waited in line for 45 minutes at Potato Chip Rock can attest to this—it's hard to beat the crowds. The following list of lesser-traveled gems will fulfill your sense of challenge and adventure while offering that most vital outdoor commodity: peace.

1. Morena Butte

This 8-mile hidden gem begins at Lake Morena County Park in Campo, CA, where it shares a trail with the legendary Pacific Crest Trail. At first the path is smooth and clear, offering views of the remote Lake Morena reservoir (a fishing mecca) and passing the remnants of an old lodge. After parting ways with the PCT, the trail becomes challenging—a scramble up a steep mountainside will have you grasping at tree branches and an old steel cable to reach the top. From there you enter a world of large standing boulders and huge granite slabs. With recent rains, dozens of little pools and streams glimmer magically in the granite. Pick your way through chaparral, boulders and cairns to each of three granite outcroppings, where views of the Morena reservoir and Hauser Canyon below are expansive and brilliant. As the city hordes have yet to discover this quiet wonderland, chances are you'll have the place all to yourself.

Hauser Canyon Views
Hauser Canyon Views
Pools in the granite
Pools in the granite

2. South and North Fortuna

Just a 15-minute drive northeast of downtown San Diego is a vast regional park called Mission Trails. It's kind of amazing to leave the bustle of urban sprawl so suddenly and thoroughly. Over 7 thousand sprawling miles of mountains, valleys, and scrubland host countless trails and 5 notable mountains that make up the "5 peak challenge." Two of these peaks are North and South Fortuna which, connected by a short saddle, make the perfect and perhaps most underrated hike in the park.

Park at the end of Clairemont Mesa Blvd. and begin this 6.5-mile hike by crossing a long wooden pedestrian bridge. From there, use a trail app or follow a map (available online and at the visitor's center) through the many winding trails towards South Fortuna mountain. Perhaps the most challenging (and most fun) part of the hike is the side of South Fortuna, which requires some mild scrambling and climbing of ruthless wooden stairs. South Fortuna peak offers some great views. However, the real reward lies across the saddle and up North Fortuna, where a hiker can stand on the boulders at the false peak and soak in what is (in my opinion) the best view in the whole park.

South Fortuna in the spring
South Fortuna in the spring

3. Lawson Peak

A hiker has to put in the work before reaping the rewards on this 4.3-mile hike, which involves a rather dull trek on a dirt service road. The adventure at the end is well worth the effort, however. After scrambling and bushwhacking your way to the granite outcropping that crowns Lawson Peak, you'll use an existing rope of unknown origin to climb your way into a tall crack in the rock. From there, squeeze and boulder your way through various rock formations in this Scrambler's Paradise. The views at the top are magnificent, and all the sweeter after the many obstacles you've conquered.

One of many fun obstacles required to bag Lawson Peak
One of many fun obstacles required to bag Lawson Peak
The view from the top of Lawson Peak
The view from the top of Lawson Peak

4. El Cajon

El Cajon is the most challenging hike on this list—and one of the hardest in the San Diego area. Eleven miles of relentlessly steep ups and downs ensures that getting to the peak is only half the battle—the journey back feels just as hard. Add to that a complete lack of shade and water, and you've got yourself a dusty trial by fire. The field of granitic boulders at the top, culminating in an outcropping that can be climbed for endless views, is a real cherry on top. If you're looking for a great challenge with great rewards, El Cajon is for you. Just make sure to start early, and bring all the water.

The author soaks in the views from the top of El Cajon
The author soaks in the views from the top of El Cajon

Not sure if you're up for the challenge? Visit Modern Hiker for more in depth information before tackling this beast.

5. Ho Chi Minh Trail

At just over a mile roundtrip, this is the shortest and least strenuous trail on the list, but it still offers a unique challenge. The Ho Chi Minh Trail takes a certain amount of balance, moxy, and shoe traction to reach Blacks Beach at the end. What began in the 60's as an informal surfer trail to the beach is now a not-so-secret obstacle course for daring tourists and locals alike. Slippery sandstone, narrow chutes, crumbling cliffs and a rope descent at the end make this an adventure that I'm happy to have experienced … but don't plan on repeating. And yes, barefoot surfers still somehow carry boards down this trail to the beach.


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© 2019 Allison


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    • SouthernHoney profile imageAUTHOR


      14 months ago from San Diego, CA

      Thanks Liz! I look forward to exploring your page :)

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      14 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting and well-illustrated article article.


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