28 Best Trails to Hike, Bike, Run & Stroll in San Diego
A guide to San Diego's best places to hike, run, and get outside
(page 1 of 3)
If you’re a runner with zero experience, these trails are short, flat, and well maintained, just like a good crew cut.
Photography by Richard Benton
1. Balboa Park trail #1
1.5 miles ✹ EASY
Start at Sixth Avenue and Upas Street and follow the #1 green circle markers.
This trail stays away from the busier areas of Balboa Park, so new runners can get their workouts in away from the curious eyes of tourists. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can extend your run about a mile by tracing the loop south of Laurel Street.
2. Lake Miramar
4.9 miles ✹ EASY
Follow the path around Lake Miramar, starting and ending at the parking lot off Scripps Lake Drive.
Like to count down how far you have left to run? (And really, who doesn’t?) This path offers markers every quarter mile for just that purpose. The lake makes for a picturesque view. There are usually plenty of other runners, walkers, bikers, and stroller-pushers along the path, so you’ll be in good company.
3. Grasslands Loop
1.75 miles ✹ EASY
Off Mission Gorge Road on the Father Junipero Serra Trail in Mission Trails Regional Park.
For a beginner’s attempt at trail running (not on paved roads or paths), the Grassland Loop provides a friendly welcome. The wide trail only has a few small hills and provides a smooth—not rocky—running path. Take in the rolling green hills and pretty wildflowers as you run.
HIKE THE HILLS
Steeper and tougher than trail running routes, these are best reserved for experienced trail runners or those with hiking boots.
4. El Capitan
11.2 miles ✹ MOST DIFFICULT
El Capitan Preserve. The trailhead is on the right side of Wildcat Canyon Road.
This trail is hot, dusty, and steep, but the views are worth it. The trail to the top goes down as well as up and up and up, making this climb one of the few that actually is “uphill both ways.” Warning: The trail descends before the final ascent to the summit. Don’t turn back too soon. If—when!—you make it to the top, you are treated to a 360-degree view of San Diego and the satisfaction of knowing you really earned it.
5. Mt. Woodson
6.4 miles ✹ DIFFICULT
How could you not want to hike a path that includes something called “Potato Chip Rock”? Unfortunately, the rock is less mid-hike snack and more about-to-break-off piece of stone. Still, the precariousness will stop you in your tracks. Views along the way are gorgeous and far-reaching, although the very top can be a bit of a disappointment, unless you are really into radio towers. For a more serene place to celebrate your climb, take a turnoff to the left shortly before you reach the summit.
6. Iron Mountain
6.6 mileS ✹ DiFFICULT
At the intersection of Poway Road and Highway 67 in Poway.
A pretty easy (read: not ridiculously steep and long) climb that still has those payoff views. Start off passing through a wooden gate and romp among the trees, then climb up and out of the woods as you head to the top. After reaching the summit, you can continue on a longer loop for your route down (totaling 9.5 miles instead of 6.6; take the third path that splits off about a mile from the summit). This route will bring you through some exotic-looking rock outcroppings and past a nice view of Ramona. End the loop tramping through a meadow, but don’t veer off the path—that’s someone’s backyard.
7. Pacific Crest Trail
Out and back is 4 miles ✹ INTERMEDIATE
Start at the Penny Pines monument about 27 miles up Sunrise Highway and follow the Pacific Crest Trail to Garnet Peak through Laguna Recreation Area.
This is a small segment of the Pacific Crest Trail, which avid (or crazy) hikers can follow all the way from Mexico to Canada. But even this portion makes you feel like you’re in another country—or on another planet. Follow a path that crosses cliffs with 1,000-foot drops and provides views of landscapes that look like the surface of the moon. The elevation’s above 4,000 feet, so unless you enjoy hiking in snow or windstorms, check the weather before you go.
GET OUT OF THE CITY
Make a run for the (city) border. These trails are worth the drive.
8. The Train Run
16 miles ✹ MODERATE
Take the Coaster north from Solana Beach to Oceanside ($4), then run back on the Coast Highway.
If you’re sick of running the same out-and-backs or loops, this is a great way to spice up your routine. Of course, the views can’t be beat, but there’s also something about depositing yourself in Oceanside with nothing but your feet to get you back that makes this route feel like an adventure. And you know if you start the run, you have to finish—or call a cab.
9. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
100+ miles of trails ✹ MODERATE
Off State Route 79 north of I-8.
This park has tons of trails, with mountains climbing over 6,000 feet, meadows, hidden waterfalls—everything to re-create your own Lord of the Rings/Lost/Survivor adventure. Or, you know, run in. One of the most popular trails is a 3.5-mile climb up Lookout Fire Road to Cuyamaca Peak, from which you can see the Salton Sea and all the way to Mexico. A longer option is the Harvey Moore Trail, which starts near the Sweetwater River Bridge and follows nine miles of trails.
10. Palomar Observatory
4 miles ✹ MODERATE
Canfield Road in Palomar Mountain.
Maybe Palomar Mountain makes you think of the crusty Girl Scout camps of your youth, but it’s since had a serious makeover, and is worth another visit. Bring $5 for a Forest Service Adventure Pass, which is required to park at the trailhead. Once you reach the top, you can stop in the Observatory between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (or 4 p.m. during Daylight Savings Time). The trail is clean and well maintained and the views from the top are, of course, stunning.