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San Diego's Top 50 Trails

From hiking the foothills to biking the beach, this is a city made for exploring outdoors. Here’s our latest, greatest checklist of trails we love—some in your own backyard.


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1. Santa Margarita River Trail | Fallbrook

   

Run along a rushing river on this little-known trail in the wilderness. This path is flat and mostly smooth, making it an easier option for kids or trail running newbies. It’s still in recovery from the 2007 wildfires, so you’ll see new growth and wildflowers along the way. Run east along the trail and then add the loop after 1.8 miles for a longer distance.

Start here: Sandia Creek Drive and Rock Mountain Drive
Length: 6 miles for the loop
Level: Easy

 

2. Palomar Observatory | Palomar Mountain

         

A family-friendly hike that has fewer miles to cover but still offers views. The trail is in top condition, easy to follow, and has lots of shade along the way. It’ll bring you up to the observatory, where you can wander the grounds and take a peek inside the giant white dome. You can also pay $5 for a tour of the Hale Telescope before you hike back down.

Start here: Palomar Observatory Campground on S6 (S Grade Road)
Length: 4 miles
Level: Easy

 

3. Agua Caliente Creek Trail | Warner Springs

   

Hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail with this route that wanders from desert to woods. If you start on Lost Valley Road, you’ll get a chance at about 2.5 miles to detour down to the creek. But if it’s late summer, you may find the water runs dry. This trail is best done point-to-point, so consider bringing two cars and leaving one at the trail’s end on Highway 79 near Lost Valley Road. Otherwise, turn back when you’re ready to avoid a 14-mile out-and-back hike.

Start here: Lost Valley Road and Highway 79
Length: 7 miles point-to-point
Level: Difficult

 

4. Santa Ysabel Preserve | Santa Ysabel

   

This 3,800-acre preserve in Julian has 13 miles of trails that will take you through grasslands and wildflower fields. The trails aren’t well known, so you’re guaranteed to get some secluded wilderness time as you hike, run, or bike. Aim for the spring and early summer when the flowers are in bloom. One easy option is to follow the West Vista Loop Trail, but you can add distance by continuing on the Coast to Crest Trail to reach the other side of the park.

Start here: Santa Ysabel East Preserve on Highway 79
Length: 4.2 miles for West Vista Loop Trail
Level: Moderate

 

5. Hellhole Canyon | Valley Center

   

The name makes this hike sound horrible, but in the winter months this preserve is actually… well, heavenly might be a stretch, but it’s beautiful and cool. The main Historic Flume Trail follows Hell Creek and stays in the shade. If you’re feeling adventurous, keep going along Canyon View Trail to rise out of the creek bed for better views. There are more than 13 miles of trails if you want to spend the day exploring. Be prepared: The preserve is closed in August because of the heat.

Start here: On Kiavo Drive just north of Los Hermanos Ranch Road
Length: 4 miles for Historic Flume Trail loop
Level: Moderate

 

6. Lake Hodges Trail | Escondido

     

There are endless trails throughout San Dieguito River Park’s 40-plus miles, but this one is a favorite. It takes you past the architecture award-winning David Kreitzer Pedestrian Bridge, which you can run across for more trails on the south side of the lake. Otherwise, hug the lake’s shore on the Coast to Crest Trail, which you can take all the way to the Lake Hodges Dam, then turn around and come back for a long trail run or ride.

Start here: Sunset Drive and Via Rancho Parkway
Length: 16 miles
Level: Moderate

 

7. Batiquitos Lagoon | Carlsbad

     

You’ll catch some refreshing ocean breezes on this picturesque hike through one of the few tidal wetlands left in the area. The trail is wide and flat, and while it’s dirt, you can take a stroller with all-terrain wheels on it. You’ll get beautiful views of the blue lagoon along the way, and if you reach the end you’ll see a Least Tern nesting area. Take the trail in late spring and summer to catch a glimpse of the grey and white birds.

Start here: 7380 Gabbiano Lane  
Length: 6 miles
Level: Easy

 

8. Moonlight Beach Run | Encinitas

       

A walk or run from Moonlight Beach along the bike path on South Coast Highway 101 offers some of the region’s most beautiful ocean views. The path is wide and away from cars, so you can safely lose yourself in the sights of the ocean below. Follow it to the famous Cardiff Kook statue for a 5-mile out-and-back run, or continue to Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach for 9 miles total.

Start here: Moonlight State Beach on Encinitas Boulevard
Length: 9 miles
Level: Moderate

 

9. San Elijo Lagoon | Rancho Santa Fe

   

The trails through this nature park will make you forget you’re just off the highway. As you run into the lagoon between Solana Beach and Cardiff, you’ll go around a bird sanctuary, presenting a chance to see nature up close. The park has multiple trails, so you can keep coming back without getting bored. For a long run, take La Orilla trail going west under I-5 to the Pole Road Trail, which is parallel to the 101.

Start here: El Camino Real north of Rancho Serena
Length: 8 miles for La Orilla trail (not to be confused with the street nearby) to Pole Road and back
Level: Moderate

 

10. The Train Run | Solana Beach to Oceanside

     

If you take the Coaster from Solana Beach to Oceanside (or vice versa) for $4 and run or cycle back on Coast Highway, you’ll be forced to log some serious miles in order to get back to your car. Plus, this trail is flat and usually not too crowded. Expect cool breezes and ocean views all along the way.

Start here: Coaster station is at 105 North Cedros Avenue, Solana Beach
Length: 16 miles
Level: Difficult

 

11. Blue Sky Ecological Reserve | Poway

   

This hike through a beautiful nature preserve isn’t as steep as the nearby Mt. Woodson climb, making it an easier option for young kids or those who don’t spend all their free time doing cardio. Stroll down the trail that hugs the creek through an oak grove and past vibrant wildflowers (if it’s spring). Then you can choose either a shorter route to the right to go to Lake Poway, or keep going to the left to reach the Lake Ramona Dam.

Start here: Trailhead is on Espola Road just south of Old Coach Road
Length: 5 miles out and back to Ramona Dam
Level: Moderate

 

12. Mt. Woodson | Poway

     

This steep climb brings a killer workout, but one that isn’t as long as some of the county’s other hikes. Near the end you’ll pass the famous potato chip rock, where you can snap an Instagram-worthy photo. Heads up: The rock has become so popular that you may have to wait in line. The hike has sweeping views along the way, but take them in while you can, because the top is clogged with radio towers.

Start here: Lake Poway Recreation Area on Lake Poway Road
Length: 6.4 miles
Level: Difficult

 

13. Iron Mountain | Poway

   

A medium-length hike with anything but medium views. The trail starts under a wooden gate, then climbs past trees and up onto bare rocks. The steep climb to the top ensures you get a workout, but if you still want more, you can take the third path that splits off about a mile from the summit. That longer route extends the hike to 9.5 miles.

Start here:  Poway Road and Highway 67
Length: 6.6 miles
Level: Difficult

 

14. Cuyamaca Peak | Julian

         

It’s surprisingly speedy to summit San Diego County’s highest point, unlike the much longer trail that leads you up El Capitan. This short and steep hike follows a paved trail up to the peak, making it perfect for a quicker workout. Reach the end and you’ll be on top of the entire county.

Start here: Paso Picacho Campground on Highway 79
Length: 7 miles
Level: Difficult

 

15. Pacific Crest Trail | Cleveland National Forest

 

Channel Reese Witherspoon, Cheryl Strayed, or better yet, any of the other dedicated hikers who follow the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada each year. This small portion of that much longer hike gives you a glimpse of its greatness. You’ll hike along cliffs with 1,000-foot drops to the ground below, where the land looks like it belongs on another planet.

Start here: Penny Pines monument on Sunrise Highway
Length: 4 miles
Level: Moderate

 

16. Sunset Trail | Mount Laguna

     

This trail through East County’s open space requires about an hour of driving time from downtown San Diego, but when you get there you feel like you’ve left the city far behind. There are endless trails around Mount Laguna, but Sunset Trail’s short loop is packed with sights of meadows, pines, lakes, and mountains. On a clear day, you can see as far as the ocean.

Start here: Sunrise Highway (SR-1) at mile marker 19.1
Length: 3.2 miles for the loop
Level: Moderate

 

17. Highway 56 Bike Path | Rancho Peñasquitos to Torrey Pines

     

This car-free path has rolling hills to give you a workout and beautiful views of canyons and mesas all along the way. As you get closer to the ocean, the path detaches completely from the highway and makes you feel like you’re running through people’s backyards. Follow it to the end and you’ll be at Torrey Pines State Beach, but without paying the parking fee. If you still want to reach the beach without covering all 22 miles, start at Carmel Country Road for 7 miles out and back.

Start here: Rancho Peñasquitos Boulevard and Azuaga Street
Length: 22 miles from Rancho Peñasquitos Boulevard to the beach and back
Level: Moderate

 

18. Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve | Rancho Peñasquitos

 

A short drive to this flat trail gives you that over-the-river-and-through-the-woods feeling without much effort to get there. The preserve is brimming with nature, so you may see deer or even coyotes along the way. Follow the river to a small waterfall at about 3 miles, then continue into more open space or turn back.

Start here: Mercy Road and Black Mountain Road
Length: 12 miles
Level: Moderate

 

19. Lake Miramar | Scripps Ranch

       

This flat, wide, and paved path around Lake Miramar has markers every quarter-mile, helping you keep pace as you run. It’s great for an after-work exercise session or a weekend tempo run. You’re also treated to a nice view of La Jolla when you cross the dam.

Start here: Scripps Lake Drive at the Miramar Water Treatment Plant, San Diego
Length: 4.9 miles
Level: Moderate

 

20. Sycamore Canyon | Poway

   

It’s a real workout—including a climb up the aptly named Cardiac Hill—but it also promises gorgeous views. In the spring you’ll see wildflowers and in fall you can take in autumn-colored foliage. You can also visit the Goodan Ranch building, which was rebuilt after it burned down in 2003.

Start here: Staging area on Sycamore Canyon Road south of Raptor Road
Length: 6.4 miles
Level: Difficult

 

21. El Capitan | Lakeside

 

A long and challenging climb up one of the county’s highest peaks that will leave your legs sore for days. But the panoramic views at the end are all the sweeter when you’ve really earned them. The trail is well maintained and has signs along the way updating you on your progress. But be warned: It’s closed in August because of the heat, and the parking lot closes at 4:30 p.m. in winter months.

Start here: Wildcat Canyon Road and Shenma Road
Length: 11.2 miles
Level: Difficult

 

22. Lake Jennings | Lakeside

       

Trace the edge of Lake Jennings for a peaceful country run. The trail is relatively flat and has some paved portions, making it easier than other East County trail runs. The lake also has camping, fishing, and picnic spots, so you can bring the family for an afternoon. Or for a different kind of relaxation, stop at Alpine Beer Company after you’re done.

Start here: 9535 Harritt Road
Length: 5.1 miles
Level: Moderate

 

23. Crestridge Ecological Reserve | El Cajon

     

A hike through this conservation area can be a great  for kids. The nonprofit Earth Discovery Institute operates educational programs at the reserve, but you can also go anytime for a hike. Start at the straw bale kiosk designed by famed architect James Hubbell. Then head up the fairly easy trail for a scenic stroll and sweeping views.

Start here: 1171 Horsemill Road, El Cajon
Length: 4 miles
Level: Easy

 

24. South Fortuna Mountain | Mission Trails

   

This hike is another way to take in Mission Trails Regional Park without the crowded Cowles Mountain climb. The route also includes the “Stairway to Heaven,” a set of wooden stairs toward the end. Once your heart rate slows, you’ll have expansive views that rival the park’s most popular peak, and you may even get to enjoy them with just your companions instead of large crowds.

Start here: Mission Gorge Road and Jackson Drive
Length: 4.4 miles
Level: Difficult

 

25. Cowles Mountain Loop | Santee

   

Take this loop to avoid the large crowds that make the main route up this mountain feel more like standing in line. But the view from this peak—the highest in the city of San Diego—shouldn’t be missed. Instead of taking the packed Golfcrest Drive, start instead at Mesa Road, follow the trail for 1.5 miles, and turn right onto a service road that goes to the top. You can loop back on Barker Way Cowles Mountain Trail for a slightly longer hike.

Start here: Big Rock Park on Mesa Road near Mission Gorge Road
Length: 5 miles
Level: Moderate

 

26. Lake Murray | La Mesa

         

Yes, it’s annoying that you can’t run the entire lake perimeter, but use the dead stop at the end of this trail to force yourself to log some extra miles. The path around the lake is flat and wide, so it’s great for dogs and strollers, and you’ll pass through picturesque Lake Murray Park along the way. Once you reach the dam, turn around and go back the way you came.

Start here: Kiowa Drive off Lake Murray Boulevard
Length: 5.8 miles
Level: Easy

 

27. Torrey Pines State Beach | La Jolla

   

Running or hiking through this park really shows off the best of what San Diego has to offer. It’s a steep climb up the road in the park, but once you’ve done it, you can loop around a network of trails, all of which offer fantastic views. To make a loop, take the Razor Point Trail to the Beach Trail and then run back along the shore. It can cost as much as $15 to park in the lot, but you can try parking along North Torrey Pines Road or Carmel Valley Road.

Start here: 12600 North Torrey Pines Road
Length: 3 miles for the beach loop
Level: Moderate

 

28. Rose Canyon Open Space | University City

 

Few runners seem to know about this hidden path, so it can offer a solitary run without having to leave the city. Follow it along the edge of the canyon to get surprisingly beautiful views. It’s also mostly shaded and near the ocean, so you can get your trail running in even during the summer months. If you want to explore by bike, start instead at Gilman Drive and ride south on the bike path.

Start here: Genesee Avenue and Centurion Square
Length: 5 miles
Level: Moderate

 

29. La Jolla Tide Pools | La Jolla

   

Walk along the beach at low tide and you can explore tide pools brimming with sea creatures hidden among the rocks. Make your own path as you head north from La Jolla Shores past the Scripps Pier to more remote beaches protected by cliffs. You can dip your toes in the ocean or stick to drier land by walking carefully on the rocks. Keep going as far as you please, but you may want to turn around after 2 miles. Go a little farther and you’ll get a different kind of view at Black’s Beach.

Start here: Camino Del Oro and El Paseo Grande
Length: 4 miles
Level: Easy

 

30. La Jolla Cove Loop | La Jolla

     

Follow the rocky shores of La Jolla. The beauty compensates for the sea lion smells on this run. Start on Coast Boulevard at Prospect Street and follow it north along the ocean, past the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Children’s Pool. At La Jolla Cove, you can extend your run with Coast Walk Trail, which hugs the cliffs to Torrey Pines Road. Then go back the way you came.

Start here: Coast Boulevard and Prospect Street
Length: 3.5 miles
Level: Easy

 

31. Bird Rock Bike Path | Pacific Beach to La Jolla

     

This mostly dirt trail feels like a hidden passageway that takes you from Pacific Beach to La Jolla. It’ll bring you through the cute Bird Rock neighborhood on a path only locals seem to know about. Enjoy a rustic trail run without the drive to East County, and use it to get to La Jolla without having to look for parking.

Start here: Colima Street and La Jolla Hermosa Avenue
Length: 3.2 miles
Level: Easy

 

32. Mt. Soledad | La Jolla

       

There are no dirt trails up this mountain, only a steep pavement climb, making it a great hill workout on your bike. You can also run or walk up it and take in ocean views along the way. When you reach the summit, you’ll be able to see as far as Mexico. Plus, you can add in a stair workout at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial.

Start here: La Jolla Mesa Drive and Colima Street
Length: 4.8 miles out and back, 6.15 miles loop
Level: Difficult

 

33. Pacific Beach Boardwalk | Pacific Beach

       

When the tide is low, you can do this run on the hard sand above the crashing waves. At high tide, you can run the paved boardwalk next to the beach. Either way, you’ll get ocean sights, smells, and sounds during the entire stretch. Run from the pier to the jetty and back, or extend it by going past the parks north of the pier.

Start here: Pacific Beach Pier at Garnet Avenue and Mission Boulevard
Length: 5.25 miles
Level: Easy

 

34. Fiesta Island | Mission Bay

   

The flat and paved road circles a mostly empty island in the center of Mission Bay, making it a favorite place for cyclists to work on their speed. It can also be a good tempo run, or you can use it to add distance to a longer run through Mission Bay. Depending on the time of day, you may see horses and speedboats as you circle the road, but also watch out for cars.

Start here: Fiesta Island Road and East Mission Bay Drive
Length: 5 miles
Level: Easy

 

35. Mission Bay Loop | Mission Bay

         

The flat and wide path around Mission Bay offers a wide variety of distances, making it perfect for training for longer races. The changing sights, from the Sea World Bike Path to the inner bay beaches and the protected wetlands, break up the monotony of a long run. The eastern portion of the path is also lit at night, so you can still get a run in after dark. For non-marathon runners, this is also a great path for a leisurely stroll, bike ride, or workout on roller skates.

Start here: Clairemont Drive and Mission Bay Drive
Length: 11 miles for the full inner loop
Level: Moderate

 

36. Tecolote Canyon Trail | Bay Park

   

Unlike some of the county’s more hidden canyon routes, this one is well marked. The route has a few steep hills, but they’re pretty short, making it a good introduction to trail running. It’s also a way for trail running regulars to get their fix without driving too far.

Start here: Tecolote Nature Center at 5180 Tecolote Road
Length: 6 miles
Level: Moderate

 

37. Old Sea World Drive | Mission Bay

   

A less-used dirt path along the San Diego River gives you a run with ocean views and sea breezes without the crowds of the Pacific Beach boardwalk. When you reach the turnaround point that sticks out into the ocean, you’ll feel like you’re standing at the edge of the world.

Start here: Friars Road and Sea World Drive
Length: 4.5 miles
Level: Moderate

 

38. Ocean Beach Bike Path | Mission Valley to Ocean Beach

       

A no-hills cruise along this hidden path deposits you in Ocean Beach, where you can dip your toes in the ocean without having to find a place to park. The path is mostly separate from traffic—rare for a bike path in San Diego—and is pretty well maintained, making it an easy run or ride.

Start here: Hotel Circle Place along I-8
Length: 7 miles
Level: Easy

 

39. Sunset Cliffs Trail | Ocean Beach

   

This run along the cliffs above crashing ocean waves is romantic, whether it’s sunset or not. Take a date or an out-of-town guest if you want to impress them. You can extend the run into the looping trails in Sunset Cliffs Park, or stop and sit on the cliffs to watch the ocean. An actual sunset is a bonus, but not required.

Start here: Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Adair Street
Length: 3 miles
Level: Moderate

 

40. Cabrillo National Monument | Point Loma

   

A bike ride from Spanish Landing up Catalina to the Cabrillo National Monument is a great workout, and the views at the top will make the hills worth it. The path has a dedicated bike lane for most of the way, and keeps your legs pumping with rolling hills. When you reach the park’s entrance, it’s $3 to ride down to the tide pools, as long as you’re sure you can make it back up again.

Start here: Spanish Landing Park on North Harbor Drive
Length: 12 miles
Level: Difficult

 

41. Harbor Island | Downtown

       

 This sidewalk path is a great option for running with a stroller. The views of the bay aren’t bad, either. For a longer run, start at Liberty Station, cross the pedestrian bridge and head through Spanish Landing Park. For a shorter run, park at the end of Harbor Island near C Level and take the sidewalk to Tom Ham’s Lighthouse.

Start here: Cushing Road and Roosevelt Road
Length: 7.7 miles out-and-back from Liberty Station
Level: Easy

 

42. Maple Canyon Trail | Bankers Hill

   

This short trail is a well-kept secret in Bankers Hill, and a perfect addition to a run through Balboa Park or a way to get in a quick workout. Stumbling upon the trail entrance makes you feel like you’ve been transported out of the city. Once you climb the hill, you can pretend you’re tromping through a giant treehouse as you run across the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge.

Start here: West Maple Street and State Street
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: Moderate

 

43. Balboa Park Trail #1 | Balboa Park

       

This paved path winds through the western half of Balboa Park, taking you past lawn bowlers and the occasional pickup soccer game. It’s mostly flat and completely paved, making it a good stroller run, or just an easy run with things to look at to pass the time. You can extend your run over Cabrillo Bridge to the fountain at the other end of the park, passing through the park’s iconic Plaza de Panama along the way.

Start here: Sixth Avenue and Upas Street
Length: 1.5–4 miles
Level: Easy

 

44. Balboa Park Trail #5 | Balboa Park

   

This path provides a tough trail run without having to leave the city, ideal for getting a good workout in after work. The entire route is marked with red diamonds, so you can follow the trail as it loops and weaves through the center of the park and the more remote Florida Canyon trails, then finishes on the hidden Bridle Trail.

Start here: Sixth Avenue and Upas Street
Length: 6.6 miles
Level: Difficult

 

45. Florida Canyon | Balboa Park

   

This run takes you to the less-traveled side of Balboa Park and offers surprisingly beautiful canyon views. You can follow the bike path along Florida Drive, or wind your way through the dirt trails on the cliff above. Make it a loop by taking Golf Course Drive and then running up 30th Street over Switzer Canyon in South Park. Then use your run as an excuse to visit the craft beer tasting rooms around 30th Street in North Park.

Start here: Upas Street and Florida Drive
Length: 4.8 miles for the loop
Level: Moderate

 

46. Waterfront Run | Downtown

       

Check out all the developments along San Diego’s harbor with this breezy bayfront run. Start at the new Waterfront Park at the San Diego County Administration Center, then loop around the two Embarcadero parks and through Seaport Village. Follow the wide path around the Convention Center and head back on the Martin Luther King Promenade.

Start here: Sixth Avenue and Upas Street
Length: 1.5–4 miles
Level: Easy

 

47. Coronado Island Loop | Coronado

       

This completely flat route follows the perimeter of Coronado Island, minus the off-limits Navy base. It’s wide and mostly away from cars, so it’s perfect for strollers or kids on bikes. You’ll go underneath the Coronado Bridge and past the iconic Hotel Del Coronado.

Start here: Fourth Street and Glorietta Boulevard
Length: 6 miles
Level: Easy

 

48. Silver Strand | Coronado

       

This long stretch of land from Coronado to Imperial Beach is flat and smooth, offers a separate bike path, and surrounds you in natural beach beauty. It’s part of the longer Bayshore bikeway route, a 24-mile trip that involves a Coronado ferry ride, but it can also be run or biked on its own. Take the route for some alone time, a workout with a friend, or to practice your speed on foot or your bike.

Start here: Ocean Boulevard and Highway 75
Length: 11 miles
Level: Moderate

 

49. Sweetwater River Trail | Rancho San Diego

   

For a run in South Bay, nothing beats this meadow trail and its picturesque views. It takes you along the bank of the Sweetwater River, then brings you across the water after 2 miles. If you cross, you’ll get great views of what looks like miles of open green pastures. At the end of the trail, there are picnic tables and a shaded shelter where you can rest before turning back.

Start here: Singer Lane and Campo Road
Length: 9 miles
Level: Moderate

 

50. Tijuana River Valley | San Ysidro

     

The park sits right next to the U.S.-Mexico border and has more than 20 miles of trails to explore (no, you don’t need a passport!). The dirt trails and wooden footbridges are in good shape, and the park has a few walls with peepholes set up for bird watching. Try the Beach Trail from Monument Road, which you can follow to Border Field State Park.

Start here: 2721 Monument Road
Length: 8 miles
Level: Easy

 

Additional photography by: Ken Katz, Lee Sie, Richard Benton, Jay Reilly, Jesse Childers, J Easley, Nate Lehman, Andrew Wagner, Fox Searchlight/Entertainment Pictures/Zumapress.com, Greg Bishop, Jesse Lazaro, Scott Hoffman, Cheryl Strahl, Alexander S. Kunz

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