12 Great Hikes in San Diego County
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.
- Hot Springs Mountain
- Borrego Palm Canyon
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Clevenger Canyon
- Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
- Mission Trails Regional Park
- Mount Woodson
- Palomar Mountain
- Torrey Pines States Preserve
- Wilderness Gardens Preserve
- Iron Mountain
- El Cajon Mountain
1. Hot Springs Mountain
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
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.
3. Cabrillo National Monument
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
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
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
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.
7. Mount Woodson
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.
8. Palomar Mountain
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
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
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.
11. Iron Mountain
Iron Mountain (2696') is just south of Mount Woodson and accessible from Poway. It's an incredibly popular hike because it is close to major highways and offers a moderate climb with outstanding views. Unlike Mount 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-traveled Iron Mountain Trail to the summit. Return the same way you came.
12. El Cajon Mountain
12. El Cajon Mountain (3675') is arguably the most strenuous day-hike in San Diego county. It's a popular climb for dedicated hikers up a mountain that is prominent and visible across East County. There are two approaches up this big, pinkish massive which reflects the granitic rock of which the more popular but longer approach will be described here. The hike starts from the parking lot in Lakeside along Wildcat Canyon Road and travels through the El Capitan Open Space Preserve. Keep in mind that the parking lot is gated and is open from sunrise to sunset and closed during the month of August because of extreme heat. Should you return to your car after dark, you may be locked in if you parked in the public lot. The trail is about 5.65 miles from the car park to the summit and the ups and downs make it particularly challenging gaining about 4000 vertical feet. One good thing about this hike is that distance markers are frequent and visible, so if you are slow you know where you stand relative to the summit. Use your discretion when hiking and make sure you have enough time (and water) should you park in the designated car park described above. There is little to no shade along the way and most of the trail is along an unimproved road well-suited for hiking. Along the way the granite boulders and peaks are impressive and the summit is crowned with amazing views: towards the southeast one can easily recognize the dome-like Viejas Mountain and to the west, the Pacific Ocean can be easily seen on a clear day. Cuyamaca Peak is visible to the east. Return the same way you came.
El Cajon Mountain trail
12 Great Hikes in San Diego County (Map #1)
12 Great Hikes in San Diego County (Map #2)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.