Hiking in San Diego means options, and lots of them. There’s something for everyone here, which sounds cliche, but it’s true – from urban hikes to backcountry adventures, San Diego is a year-round, all-inclusive outdoor buffet.

Whether the mood calls for a classic coastal exploration, a desert trek, or crave mountainous terrain; whether with kids in tow or best buds, think of these five hikes below as appetizers to a glorious, expansive feast of trails within San Diego County for the adventurer in all of us.

Dad and Son Hiking in a Canyon
The slot canyons are perfect for kids who love to climb © Michael Svodoba / Getty Images

Annie's Canyon Trail, Solana Beach

Best kid-friendly hike
1.4 miles, 45 minutes, easy (with some strenuous areas)

On Annie’s Canyon trail, kids will enjoy shimmying through a narrow sandstone canyon before engaging all limbs to climb a ladder to the top of the canyon, which thousands of years of coastal rains have shaped. Infinite views of the Pacific Ocean, and the Central Basin of San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve make an ideal backdrop for photos. The trailhead is located at the end of North Rios Avenue, in a cul-de-sac. This easy 1.4-mile loop is easy, and packs a burst of excitement through and up the canyon in less than an hour. Have the family empty their bladders before arriving – there are no bathroom facilities onsite. And, be mindful to keep driveways clear when parking in the neighborhood. 

Further reading: Best beaches in San Diego

Young woman hiking, rear view
This is a tough one, but worth the effort © Corey Jenkins / Getty Images/Image Source

South Fortuna Mountain, Mission Trails Regional Park

Best challenging hike
5.5 miles, 3 hours, moderate to challenging

Sweat seekers need not look further than South Fortuna Mountain trail located within Mission Trails Regional Park, which is considered one of the largest urban parks in the country. Driving north from San Diego, you can be on the trail in just 20 minutes. Challenge your stamina with a 600ft vertical climb up a wooden staircase before the ascent to the summit. From the top, observe the park’s other major peaks, including Kwaay Paay, and Pyles peaks. Then, backtrack the way you came up, or opt to head down via the Saddle Trail. Begin at the Visitors Center trailhead, take the footbridge to cross the San Diego River, and follow the signs for Suycott Wash, then Suycott Wash/South Fortuna. Stay alert: Parts of the trail are shared with mountain bikers. 

The South Fortuna Mountain trail is less-trafficked than the switchbacks of Cowles Mountain trail, a local favorite. Beyond hiking, the park offers camping sites, equestrian areas, places to picnic, as well as an interpretive center. The Indigenous Kumeyaay, and Luiseño people have been connected to this area (and most parts of present day San Diego County) since before Spanish Missionaries arrived in the late 18th century. 

Further reading: Best time to visit San Diego

Cabrillo Bridge, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA
The Seven Bridges Trail takes you through the hustle and bustle of San Diego in the best way © Sam Antonio Photography / Getty Images

Seven Bridges Trail, San Diego

Best urban hike
5.5 miles, 2.5 hours, easy to moderate 

Opt for the easy to moderately difficult Seven Bridges Trail, referred to as an urban hike, for an up close and personal perspective of San Diego and its unique neighborhoods. Start from Balboa Park’s Rose Garden off Park Boulevard and cross the first pedestrian bridge to continue through the park, along El Prado, before crossing Cabrillo Bridge (sometimes called Laurel Street Bridge). It was built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Subsequent bridges include the steel-arch First Ave. bridge; Quince Street Bridge, a wooden trestle bridge built in 1905 that hovers over Maple Canyon; Spruce St. suspension bridge; Vermont Street Bridge, and Georgia Street Bridge.

Parts of this 5.5-mile loop include city sidewalks that run through residential and commercial areas, so expect the hustle and bustle of increased car and foot-traffic at times. As an advantage, consider building in time to sit down for a meal along the way–choices for all dietary preferences abound. 

fit female hiker sitting on rock at mountain top looking at city in distance with arms up
Pick a trail in Daley Ranch and wander through the Southern California natural habitat © Rez-art / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Daley Ranch, Escondido

Best choose-your-own-adventure hike
4 miles, 2 hours, moderate

What was once inhabited land by the Kumeyaay, and Luiseño people, and then a working ranch during the late 19th century, is now a network of more than 20 recreational trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders of all levels. Daley Ranch spans 3,000 acres and inspires multiple ways to plan a day trip outside, 30 miles northeast of San Diego proper. Hike through natural habitats like oak woodlands, chaparral (a family of shrubs most commonly found in western US and northern parts of Baja, Mexico), and coastal sage scrub.

The 4-mile Boulder Loop, suitable for most fitness levels, is one of its most popular hikes. Half of the loop is an uphill climb to views of hills and valleys, and the Pacific Ocean out west on a clear day. Wildflower peeping happens between November and July. As far as etiquette goes, hikers should yield to horseback riders, while bikers should yield to hikers. Dogs are welcome too – just keep furry friends leashed, and bring lots of water for both humans and pets in the summer months, which almost always brings dry heat can dehydrate you quickly.

Further reading: 21 best free things to do in San Diego

Sunrise From the Summit of Granite Mountain
The best views in San Diego are at the top of Garnet Peak © Sierralara / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Garnet Peak via Penny Pines Trailhead 

Best 360-Degree San Diego Views
4.4 miles, 2.5 hours, moderate

Garnet Peak in the Laguna Mountains, within Cleveland National Forest offers arguably the best all-around views of San Diego County’s diverse geographical features. Plus, there’s even an opportunity to hike part of the famous Pacific Crest Trail on the way. Start at Penny Pines Trailhead located off the Sunrise Scenic Byway, which runs through the Laguna Mountains. This route is a moderate 4.4-mile hike, with loose rocks and a bit of a scramble to reach the peak. Your reward: views of Monument peak to the south, Cuyamaca Peak to the west, Anza-Borrego to the east, and Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio to the north.

Note that Poodle Dog Bush, a plant that causes mild to severe skin irritation and respiratory issues on contact can be found along the trail. Its purple flowers and pungent smell help identify this plant, but the easiest thing to do to preserve your safety (and nature) is to follow Leave No Trace Principles and avoid picking any flowers, and sticking to marked trails.

Tips for hiking in San Diego:

Of course, as with anywhere else, trail safety applies when you’re out in nature: You may encounter wildlife (snakes, coyotes, and mountain lions are common to the region), poison oak, and areas where cell service is spotty or completely cut off. Bring enough water, sunscreen, and wear appropriate footwear (the more traction, the better). 

This article was first published Mar 24, 2021 and updated Mar 24, 2021.

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