Life in the fast lane can make it hard to stop and smell the flowers. Between working and playing or raising a family, it can be impossible to catch a break and reconnect with our natural surroundings.
We San Diegans live in one of the most beautifully endowed cities in the world. Mother Nature spent a little extra time crafting up San Diego’s scenery, from the ocean beaches to the mountains, not a valley has been left to spare. Hiking is an incredible respite and offers well-known side-effects of improving memory and increasing attention span. Not to mention, an uphill hike beats an hour on the squeaky treadmill any day. A clear head, a fit body, and even more exploration of America’s Finest City? Let’s get to it!
Everything from the Torrey Pines walking trails to the more demanding Three Sisters Falls trails are ideal weekend getaways to the peaceful serenity of nature located right in our own backyards.
Lace up those hiking boots and pack some extra trail mix for the best San Diego hiking trails.
Mission Trails Park: Oak Canyon Hike
Balboa Park and Mission Bay are known gems of our city, perfectly filled with cultural, historical, and recreational aspects of San Diego life. But the third jewel and possibly most unique from the rest is the Mission Trails Regional Park, centrally located only 8 miles northeast of downtown. As a great escape from the confines of the city, the Mission Trails Regional Park has become one of the largest urban parks in the United States. Over 40 miles of trails are offered here, but one of the most popular and perhaps most treasured is the Oak Canyon hike. Paced at a moderate level, the Oak Canyon hike is ideal for beginners looking to start out a hiking hobby and for families. A babbling stream accompanies you through the journey, providing some serious nature therapy. The sycamore- and oak-lined ravine winds north from the Old Mission Dam, literally plunging you full-force into the scenery, stripping away the city stress. About a mile into the hike, the trail becomes rocky and taking caution around some small waterfalls is key. If you take the north trail, you will be rewarded with the dream falls. The entire length of the hike is about 3 miles and will take on average 2 hours. For more details and directions please visit mtrp.org.
Lake Poway to Mt. Woodson Hike
For those ready to take on a challenge, the Mt. Woodson trail in Poway is awaiting your hiking boots. At 8.7 miles, this challenge of a hike begins in the lovely public Poway park and follows a trail that overlooks the Poway dam for about 3 miles. Hikers recommend this trail any time of year, as it provides breathtaking views of our city, the ocean, and all which lays in-between. It can get steep and narrow at times, so no rookies allowed here. Though it may be on the strenuous side, the spectacular views from the top are worth the effort. This all-day adventure will get your buns up and in-shape in no time. Be sure to bring lots of H2O, a recommended at least 2 bottles per person and plenty of snacks to keep your blood a-pumping. The trailhead starts from Espola Road go to the Lake Poway entrance. The fee is $5.00 for all day. The infamous “Potato Chip” rock, named after its shape that rests as thin as a chip is a popular photo-op for fellow hikers. Overall, spending a day at Mt. Woodson can be thought of as an intense climb with a beautiful reward at the end. Bring along a picnic at the peak to complete a flawless day. For more details and directions please visit poway.org.
Iron Mountain Hike
The Iron Mountain. Don’t let the name intimidate you. Intense yet completely manageable, the Iron Mountain trail can be accessed from the corner of Highway 67 and Poway road. The trail is boasted in its well-maintained paths and spectacular San Diego views. The trail begins relatively flat, but don’t get too cozy. The climb creeps in almost immediately. Embarking on this journey on a clear day allows you to view some phenomenal panoramic vistas, especially once you’ve reached the peak. You’ll be able to spot Tijuana to Del Mar at this elevation, so come ready to spend a moment soaking it all in. It’s a popular trail amongst locals and those incorporating the climb into their regular workout, so chose your day of ascent wisely. You’ll want to pack the SPF + for this one; little shade is offered and if you’re like me, two hours tops and we’ve got fried-tomato-syndrome on our hands. At a fast pace, this hike can be knocked out in 2 hours.
Ramona Waterfall Hike
The Ramona Waterfall trail is bliss on a summer day. Only 4.2 miles in length, the trail begins behind homes and ends at an awe-inspiring waterfall, complete with personal swimming hole. An ideal hike for these sun-filled evenings, green lush fields with flowers accompany you along the entire pathway. At an easy pace, this trail brings ultimate satisfaction as the end culminates with high ledges and a rope swing to jump into Mother Nature’s very own swimming pool. The Ramona Waterfall allows you to relive a bit of youth and impulsiveness. The swimming hole is known to be busy with visitors also looking to cool off, so don’t come expecting your own personal private resort. Just remember to bring some good hiking shoes for the way back, as it’s all uphill to return home. This hike is also referred to as the Cedar Falls waterfall in the southwest of Julian.
Torrey Pines Hike
With awakening views and various trails to follow, the Torrey Pines State Reserve never fails as a go-to hiking day trip or quick stroll by the sea. The beauty of Torrey Pines lies in its impending overlook onto the Pacific Ocean. Trails can be easily managed by all level hikers, including those looking to stroll, socialize, and picnic on a Sunday afternoon. A spider web of trails can lead you anywhere your compass takes you, but the Beach Trail is top-recommended if you are looking to cool off and head straight to the big blue. Parking will be $8, so be sure to bring some cash, some sun block, more sun block, and good camera. If luck is upon you, you may even spot some dolphins from here. Torrey Pines is your path if you’re looking to get back to nature without breaking too much of a sweat. This local beauty leaves no man behind in its attempts to kick out the over-stressed, over-worked city slickers. At around 5.6 miles, the Torrey Pines Reserve brings the nature back to the city. For more details and directions please visit torreypine.org.
Sunset Cliffs Beach Walk
From Ocean Front St and Sunset Blvd, this stroll down Sunset Cliffs may get scoffed at by the professional hiking community, but for those of us who need a mid-workday escape, Sunset Cliffs beach walk offers that exact sort of refuge. At around 3.7 miles, it’s most recommended to stake your walk around the obvious sunset hour, as the vistas over the coastline prove to be both impeccable and inspiring. You may catch a few men kneeling down to their fiancés here, as this spot is infamous for bringing out the lovers and soon-to-be’s. Nature abounds in the Sunet Cliffs region, full of innate beauty, diverse creatures, and a blissful ocean breeze. Be sure to tote your camera along on this stroll, as the panoramic snapshot appears unique with each visit. Allow plenty of time to find parking, as spaces are limited and the sunset-view isn’t quite as admirable from behind your steering wheel. Though a popular tourist hot-spot, the Sunset Cliffs beach walk never tires for locals looking to escape the daily drone.
Cowles Mountain Hike
If you’re anything like me and your competitive side shines through at almost any activity that stands oin your way, then the Cowles Mountain hike has been flawlessly designed for you. The 3 mile vertical climb leads to the highest point within San Diego, allowing for some spectacular views and total bragging rights at 1,592 ft. The overall climb totals about 4.7 miles and ensures to get your heart pumping and sweat flowing upon immediate ascent. Cowles Mountain is San Diego’s signature hiking trail, so should be considered the top of any new explorer’s list. At its highest point, the Mountain provides a 360-degree view of San Diego, from La Jolla to the west and the Laguna Mountains to the east. Starting on the southwest end is the most known approach, from the corner of Jackson Drive and Navajo Road. There was evidence that the Kumeyaay Indians held solstice ceremonies on this same location in the past, and the tradition continues with the residents of today’s San Diego. The 3 miles cardio workout is bound to get you hooked as the best new form of exercise, nothing that even the tv at the gym can compete with. And the rewards are no less than spectacular- words cannot do justice to the view of San Diego from its peak, you’ll just have to go see for yourself. For more details and directions please visit mtrp.org.
Three Sisters Falls Hike
Heed my warning: the Three Sisters Falls hike is easily the most challenging of all San Diego hikes. Those willing to take a little risk and leap of faith on their getaway, you may proceed. The hike to the falls descends down a steep trail, ending at a climb to the base of a small cliff. Here, a rope secured beckons you to climb upwards, and bolder hopping ensues. You are challenged to find your own best way up, though previous paths have been well-worn. Although the round-trip hike measures only four miles from the nearest road, visiting the falls is a task for expert hikers, not beginners. Take along drinking water, and be prepared for some strenuous climbing, both up and down, on marginal pathways. If you make it through the vertical drop, you will have an unforgettable celebration with the falls here. The prize really is worth the effort with the Three Sisters, so put your mind over matter and get to walkin’. The trailhead in located of a hairpin turn on Boulder Creek Road where the gated Cedar Creek road intersects. You can park at this intersection, and follow the trail west along a ridge until you see another trail intersect to the south. Take this southern trail and you will soon begin spotting the falls in the distance.
Insider Tip: For all your hiking supplies, REI offers everything you need, along with a knowledgeable sales staff. There are REI store locations in Chula Vista, Encinitas and on Copley Drive in San Diego.
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