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Ten Great hikes in San Diego County

Updated on April 25, 2014
View from Lake Poway along the trail to Mount Woodson.
View from Lake Poway along the trail to Mount Woodson. | Source
Borrego Palm Canyon hiking trail. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Borrego Palm Canyon hiking trail. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. | Source
Toro Peak from Palomar Mountain.
Toro Peak from Palomar Mountain. | Source
From Mount Woodson trail looking northeast.
From Mount Woodson trail looking northeast.
The Forest Service Access road to Black Mountain, Pamo Valley.
The Forest Service Access road to Black Mountain, Pamo Valley.
Wilderness Gardens Preserve near Pala, California.
Wilderness Gardens Preserve near Pala, California.
Hot Springs Mountain from Warner Springs.
Hot Springs Mountain from Warner Springs. | Source
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.
South Fortuna Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park.
South Fortuna Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park.
Trailhead at Clevenger Canyon along Route 78.
Trailhead at Clevenger Canyon along Route 78.
Cowles Mountain from the summit of Kwaay Pay, Mission Trails Regional Park.
Cowles Mountain from the summit of Kwaay Pay, Mission Trails Regional 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').
The bluff of Torrey Pines State Reserve from the lagoon.
The bluff of Torrey Pines State Reserve from the lagoon.
The entrance to Wilderness Gardens Preserve along Route 79.
The entrance to Wilderness Gardens Preserve along Route 79.
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.

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. 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 including some huge incense cedars trees. Base to summit via the Hot Springs Mountain Road is 8 miles and 2,700 vertical feet of gain. Call the Indian Reservation for more information and there is a $9 entrance fee (April 2012).

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 for those who do not have time to spend more than a day, or simply for day-trippers. It is probably the most popular hike in the park and 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 Vly Rd) which goes into the town of Borrego Springs after dropping 2000 vertical feet of hairpins through Culp Canyon.

Cabrillo National Monument commands some of the finest views of San Diego. Overlooking the mouth of the 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.

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.

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

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, 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. Distance depends upon where you pick the trail up by the hike is moderate. 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.

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.

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.

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. Confined to this part of coastal California 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 signs.

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.

Other hikes:

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'.

Other hiking hubs by jvhirniak:

Climbing Longs Peak: A Personal Narrative.

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    • Geoff Morova profile image

      Geoff Morova 5 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!

    • jvhirniak profile image
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      jvhirniak 5 years ago

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

    • 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 5 years ago

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

    • profile image

      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

      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!

    • 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
      Author

      jvhirniak 2 years ago

      traveleze - thank you!

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