12 Great Hikes in San Diego County

Updated on January 1, 2018
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jvhirniak has lived and hiked in many places all over the world and the American West.

Here's a sampler of a dozen hikes in California's southernmost county, some easy and some strenous, through oaks, pines and incense-cedars, desert, grasslands, and brushlands to breathtaking views.

  1. Hot Springs Mountain
  2. Borrego Palm Canyon
  3. Cabrillo National Monument
  4. Clevenger Canyon
  5. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  6. Mission Trails Regional Park
  7. Mount Woodson
  8. Palomar Mountain
  9. Torrey Pines States Preserve
  10. Wilderness Gardens Preserve
  11. Iron Mountain
  12. Black Mountain

1. Hot Springs Mountain

Hot Springs Mountain from Warner Springs.
Hot Springs Mountain from Warner Springs. | Source

1. Hot Springs Mountain. A classic San Diego hike because the summit is the highest point in the county. Not without its red tape, Hot Springs Mountain (6,536'), near Warner Springs, is located on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation and is only open for hiking on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with a $9 entrance fee (April 2012). A dirt road leads to the summit which affords great views among the boulders and the rickety lookout tower. Above 5,500 feet are forests of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees including some huge incense cedars. From the base to the summit via the Hot Springs Mountain Road is 8 miles and 2,700 vertical feet of gain. Call the Indian reservation for more information.

2. Borrego Palm Canyon

Borrego Palm Canyon hiking trail. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Borrego Palm Canyon hiking trail. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. | Source

2. Borrego Palm Canyon is not to be missed by the avid hiker although its isolation in the eastern part of the county and extreme heat from May to November make it under-appreciated and probably under-visited. Located in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park, the Borrego Palm Canyon is essential for those who can't spend more than a day in this park. The trail wends its way up the canyon eventually reaching a Washingtonia palm grove, the only palm native to California. The Borrego Palm Canyon is also the third largest palm oasis in the state. Most hikers head to the oasis, which requires a 600 vertical foot climb and three miles of round trip hiking. Maidenhair Falls, an ephemeral waterfall, is another hike in the area, in Hellhole Canyon, to the south off S22.

These hikes are not recommended for the summer months because of the extreme heat.

The are various ways to get to the State Park and few that are direct. The best approach, depending upon where one is coming from, is probably via Route 78 via Julian and then to S3. Or Route 79 north to S2 (San Felipe Rd) to S22 (Montezuma Valley Roadd) which goes into the town of Borrego Springs after dropping 2000 vertical feet of hairpins through Culp Canyon.

Looking up at the palm oasis along Palm Canyon Trail. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Looking up at the palm oasis along Palm Canyon Trail. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

3. Cabrillo National Monument

Looking towards San Diego from Cabrillo National Monument. Cuyamaca Peak is barely visible in upper right.
Looking towards San Diego from Cabrillo National Monument. Cuyamaca Peak is barely visible in upper right.

3. Cabrillo National Monument commands some of the finest views of San Diego. Overlooking the mouth of San Diego Harbor, Cabrillo National Monument is capped by Point Loma, the rugged headlands that rise more than 400 feet above the ocean. Entrance fee to this park is $5 at the time of writing and the receipt is good for one week's entrance. The Bayside Trail follows a dirt road starting at the visitor center parking lot and leads down to the water where there are good views of North Island Naval Air Station and downtown San Diego. The hike is about 1 mile and should not be attempted for those in poor physical condition as it is steep. The tide pools on the Pacific side are also worth visiting and require short hikes from the parking lots. From I-5 take Rosecrans Street exit (Exit 20) and follow signs to the park.

4. Clevenger Canyon

Trailhead at Clevenger Canyon along Route 78.
Trailhead at Clevenger Canyon along Route 78.

4. Clevenger Canyon can be reached from State Route 78 about 10 miles east of Escondido or 3 miles from Julian. Pull off the highway and park in the well-marked trailhead that has a gravel parking lot and scenic overlook. A series of hiking trails drops steeply down into the canyon and up neighboring hills. Clevenger Canyon is a beautiful canyon with oak groves that populate the areas next to the river. This area gives one a sense of unspoiled and wild southern California.

5. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Stonewall Peak (5730') in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park overlooks the trout-filled Cuyamaca Lake (4657').
Stonewall Peak (5730') in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park overlooks the trout-filled Cuyamaca Lake (4657').

5. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is an airy, pine-studded alpine oasis in otherwise dry and dusty San Diego County. The highlight of this park is granite Cuyamaca Peak (6512’), the second tallest mountain in the county. Forest fires in the area have unfortunately burned over many of the beautiful pine trees but that shouldn’t dissuade a hiker. From Green Valley Campground a number of trails that fan out, including one that goes to the summit of Cuyamaca Peak. Take I-8 east to Route 79 north.

6. Mission Trails Regional Park

South Fortuna Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park.
South Fortuna Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park.

6. Mission Trails Regional Park is in many respects San Diego’s back yard. It preserves 5,800 acres of mountains and wild lands and has 40 miles of hiking and biking trails. The best hiking is accessed along Mission Gorge Road. Of historical interest is the Old Mission Dam along the San Diego River built by Kumeyaay Indian labor for the Franciscan friars. This is a short walk from the Father Junipero Serra Trail (road) which has car access.

A short and steep hike worth taking from this road is the Kwaay Pay Trail which leads to the brushy summit of its namesake Kwaay Pay (1194’) in 1.1 miles. Cowles Mountain (1591’), the tallest point in the park and the San Diego city limits, is accessed by three trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Fortuna Mountain (1291’), a familiar peak visible across San Diego, is also located in the park, and can be reached via the North Fortuna Trail, a moderate hike whose distance depends upon where you pick up the trail. Of greater difficulty is South Fortuna (1094’) accessed via the South Fortuna Trail. The park is located between I-15 and I-8, on the west and south, and State Routes 52 and 125 on the north and east, respectively.

Cowles Mountain from the summit of Kwaay Pay, Mission Trails Regional Park.
Cowles Mountain from the summit of Kwaay Pay, Mission Trails Regional Park.

7. Mount Woodson

From Mount Woodson trail looking northeast.
From Mount Woodson trail looking northeast.

7. Mount Woodson (2890’) is a great hike because it is centrally located in the county and offers great views of the Peninsular Ranges as well as out towards the coast. Access is from Lake Poway in the city of Poway. There is a small parking fee in-season so check the city’s website. The trail, shared with equestrian, joggers, and mountain bikers, travels approximately four miles and gains almost 2000’ vertical feet to the summit which is known for its gigantic spherical granite boulders. The views of the way up are excellent but the summit is a bit anti-climactic because of the abundance of telecommunications hardware. For a shorter route to the summit try the access road from Route 67 on the east side of the mountain. To get there take I-15 to Exit 24 and take Espola Rd. to Lake Poway.

View from Lake Poway along the trail to Mount Woodson.
View from Lake Poway along the trail to Mount Woodson. | Source

8. Palomar Mountain

Toro Peak from Palomar Mountain.
Toro Peak from Palomar Mountain. | Source

8. Palomar Mountain (6140’) is more of a plateau than a mountain and offers variety for the hiker. For the leisure hiker the granite mountain is especially accessible as a road climbs up to the mountain top and stops at the Observatory. For the dedicated hiker who wants to climb from base to summit there are a series of fire roads that begin on the north side of the mountain near Oak Grove and gain more than 3300’ before reaching the fire tower on the summit, known as ‘High Point’. This hike starts by following the Oak Grove Trail and Oak Grove Road to the summit.

It’s advisable to get a good map, preferably a Google map, as the USFS maps tend to be dated. Follow Route 76 to Rincon and then take S6 to Palomar Observatory. Hiking from Oak Grove, take Route 79 to Oak Grove and look carefully for the FS road.

9. Torrey Pines States Preserve

The bluff of Torrey Pines State Reserve from the lagoon.
The bluff of Torrey Pines State Reserve from the lagoon.

9. Torrey Pines States Preserve is located along the coast within the city limits of San Diego and Del Mar. It preserves one of two places in California where the Torrey Pine grows exclusively; here and Santa Barbara Island. The reserve makes a fine place to take short but steep hikes with excellent views of the ocean. Park along the roadside for free or pay for parking at the State Beach lot which is closer to the Preserve. Guided and well-marked trails follow the cliffs that overlook the ocean for dramatic views. Steep drop-offs are common so exercise some caution. From I-5 take exit 29 or 33 and follow the signs.

10. Wilderness Gardens Preserve

Wilderness Gardens Preserve near Pala, California.
Wilderness Gardens Preserve near Pala, California.

10. Wilderness Gardens Preserve has great trails with few vertical extremes mostly along the bottom of a gulch below Pala Mountain (2130'), which rises 1500' above the river bottom. This makes it a good place to bring kids but strollers are not recommended because there is no bridge across the San Luis Rey River. The vegetation typifies inland San Diego county which has a dry semi-desert climate. There are four miles of well-marked trails in this park maintained by the county, portable restrooms, a parking lot, and a picnic area. Good views of Palomar Mountain are seen from the E loop (Camelia Trail). The park is located off Route 76 exactly four miles east of the Pala Mission Rd and Route 76 stoplight. There is a $3 fee for parking (check or cash only) and it is best to call ahead for days of operation.

The entrance to Wilderness Gardens Preserve along Route 79.
The entrance to Wilderness Gardens Preserve along Route 79.

11. Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain (2696'), just south of Mount Woodson and accessible from Poway, is a hikers' haven because it is close to major highways and offers a moderate climb with outstanding views. Unlike Woodson, its sister peak, you won't find any significant hardware on the summit except a bench for sitting and a spyglass to take in the views. What you will find at the summit are hordes of people on any given day. Don't let that dissuade you from this hike which gains just over a thousand vertical feet in just over two miles. The parking lot at the Iron Mountain Trailhead fills up quickly but it's a big lot. Follow the well-beaten and well -travelled Iron Mountain Trail to the summit.

12. Black Mountain

The Forest Service Access road to Black Mountain, Pamo Valley.
The Forest Service Access road to Black Mountain, Pamo Valley.

12. Black Mountain (4052’) is one of two so named mountains in San Diego county. This description is fit for the higher and less-visited of the two mountains, which is crowned by a lookout at the summit and has great views of Palomar Mountain to the north, Mount Woodson to the southwest, and Hot Springs Mountain (6533’), San Diego’s highest point, to the northeast. From Ramona take Elm Street north until it comes to Lusardi Pamo Road. Follow that road about 4 to 5 miles north and find parking on the side. A four mile trail (Black Mountain Truck Trail) leads to the summit from the Pamo Valley and gains just over 3000'.

!2 Great Hikes in San Diego County (Map #1)

show route and directions
A markerHot Springs Mountain -
Hot Springs Mountain, California 92086, USA
get directions

B markerBorrego Palm Canyon -
Anza Borrego Desert State Park(R), 200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, USA
get directions

C markerCabrillo Narional Monument -
Cabrillo National Monument, 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106, USA
get directions

D markerClevenger Canyon -
Clevenger Canyon North trail, 18379-18499 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Ramona, CA 92065, USA
get directions

E markerCuyamaca Rancho State Park -
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 14592-14674 CA-79, Julian, CA 92036, USA
get directions

F markerMission Trails Regional Park -
Mission Trails Regional Park, 1 Father Junipero Serra Trail, San Diego, CA 92119, USA
get directions

G markerMount Woodson -
Mount Woodson Trail, Poway, CA 92064, USA
get directions

H markerPalomar Mountain -
Palomar Mountain, CA 92060, USA
get directions

I markerTorrey Pines State Preserve -
Torrey Pines State Reserve, 12600 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
get directions

J markerWilderness Gardens Preserve -
Wilderness Gardens Preserve, 14209 CA-76, Pala, CA 92059, USA
get directions

12 Great Hikes in San Diego County (Map #2)

show route and directions
A markerIron Mountain, Poway, CA -
Iron Mountain Trail, Ramona, CA 92065, USA
get directions

B markerBlack Mountain, Ramona -
Black Mountain, California 92065, USA
get directions

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    • jvhirniak profile image
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      jvhirniak 2 years ago

      traveleze - thank you!

    • traveleze profile image

      Lee John 2 years ago from Preston

      Hey jvhirniak,

      Great hub mate! Ive voted up, I love the USA and,San Diego, I am British but have family there,

      Check my travel hubs out and give me your feedback

      Thanks Again

      Lee

    • jvhirniak profile image
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      jvhirniak 5 years ago

      Evie Jones - I'm glad you enjoyed and that it brought back good memories. What I found amazing is to have such varied scenery so close to a large urban area such as SD. Thanks for visiting!

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      Evie Jones 5 years ago

      Beautiful photography! Wow! As a Redlands, California, native, this also made me long for the West. My husband and I have lived in Atlanta, GA., for 28 years! I had forgotten how different the West really is.:) Your

      writing is very informative, and helpful. Be encouraged.:)

      Sincerely, Evie:)

    • jvhirniak profile image
      Author

      jvhirniak 5 years ago

      bloggerjones - you are welcome and I'm glad you were able to relate to these places from your personal experiences.

    • bloggerjones profile image

      bloggerjones 5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Having gone to college in San Diego a number of years ago, I recognized most of these hikes. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    • jvhirniak profile image
      Author

      jvhirniak 6 years ago

      Geoff - they are all beautiful hikes. My favorite is the Borrego Palm Canyon.

    • Geoff Morova profile image

      Geoff Morova 6 years ago from South Dakota

      Great info! I'm going to have to try some of these out next time I'm in the area!