Looking for the best hikes in San Diego? You’ve come to the right place! Local hiking lover Charlotte shares seven of the best hikes in San Diego, along with expert tips and restaurant recommendations for refueling afterward!
Hey, everyone! Today, I’d like to introduce you to one of my very good friends. Meet Charlotte!
Charlotte is the super sweet and super inspiring runner, fitness coach, and coffee lover behind Stay Great My Girl. Between her running and lifestyle blog and her personalized and group fitness coaching, Charlotte works to help women find joy and confidence through fitness.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate that Charlotte came into my life eight years ago when she started dating my husband’s best friend, Chad. M and I knew she was a keeper right away and couldn’t have been happier when they tied the knot in 2015.
Chad and Charlotte moved out to San Diego soon after their wedding, and it wasn’t long before I was turning green with envy at all their fabulous hiking photos. Over the past five years, Charlotte has made it her mission to seek out the best hikes in San Diego. I really admire how passionately she has explored her new hometown and how she takes full advantage of the great weather and plentiful outdoor opportunities. The only thing I can’t believe is how long it took me to ask her to share her local hiking expertise with all of you!
This week, Charlotte has been kind enough to write a guest post sharing all the best hikes in the San Diego area. As an added bonus, she’s included local tips for each destination as well as suggestions for the best places to eat when you’re done with your hike!
Great hikes PLUS great eats afterward? Be still, my heart.
And so, without any further ado and in her own words, here is Charlotte’s list of the best hikes (and bites!) in San Diego!
1.) Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
The first time I hiked at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, I thought, “Now this is how I pictured California!” If you’re on vacation, too, hiking at Torrey Pines is not to be missed as part of the quintessential Southern California experience!
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve boasts 10 great hiking trails of various distances and difficulties, all with gorgeous coastline views. Some are very leisurely and family-friendly, while others are a bit more challenging with some cliff scrambles and steep inclines. My favorite trail in the park, the Beach Trail Loop, starts at the top of the cliff and ends – you guessed it – at the beach!
What makes this park so great is that you can do as many or as few of the 10 trails as you’d like. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker looking for a strenuous all-day workout, or you’re with little ones in need of some quick and easy family time outdoors, Torrey Pines has something for everybody.
Local Tip: Parking in the lot is $20, and most tourists pay this, but you can save your money by grabbing any of the free street parking spots along the beach on North Torrey Pines Road. You may have to wait a minute or two, but it won’t be long until a free spot opens up. Plus, you’ll get to stare at the gorgeous Pacific Ocean while you wait. No parking stress here!
Post-Hike Bites: Board and Brew Del Mar
After your hike, grab lunch or dinner at my favorite sandwich place in all of San Diego – Board & Brew! This is a local chain, but their Del Mar location is less than a five-minute drive from Torrey Pines. Board & Brew has a laid-back surfer vibe, uses high-quality ingredients, and makes everything in house. No matter what sandwich you get, be sure to order the Secret Sauce. You will not regret it! (My favorite is the Veggie Supreme.)
You can sit inside, on their shaded back patio, or out front as you people watch in the sunshine. And fun fact if you’re a football fan: Drew Brees lives right up the road and is often rumored to be spotted around the small town of Del Mar.
2.) Cowles Mountain
Cowles Mountain is by far the most popular and the most crowded hike in town, and for good reason! Only 20 minutes from downtown, 1,591 foot Cowles Mountain is the highest point in the city of San Diego. The 1.5-mile climb to the top is very rewarding: to the west, you’ll see the pretty San Diego skyline and gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. On a really clear day, you can even see Mexico and some islands. To the east, you’ll get great views of the desert and wide mountain ranges, sometimes with snow on top.
This 3-mile round trip hike is perfect because it’s long and challenging enough to check all the boxes of a great workout, but it is very beginner-friendly as well. You can be finished in 1-2 hours and still have plenty of time left to enjoy all that San Diego has to offer on your vacation. However, if you’re craving more, don’t stop at Cowles Mountain – check out the park’s 5-Peak Challenge and hit all five summits in one day for over 14 miles of hiking.
Local Tip: Go early for sunrise or late for sunset. Not only will the air be cooler and your chances of seeing rattlesnakes slim, but you’ll have more of the trail to yourself. Late morning and the middle of the day is when this trail is the most heavily trafficked.
Post-Hike Bites: Cowles Mountain Coffee Company
Get refreshed with a smoothie, protein shake, or acai bowl after your trip up Cowles Mountain! Just across the street, Cowles Mountain Coffee Company has everything you need to refuel. My favorites are the cold brew on tap and the date shake. Yum!
3.) Annie's Canyon Trail
Warning: if you are claustrophobic, this is not the trail for you!
If you love adventure and new challenges, Annie’s Canyon Trail is right up your alley. While this hike is on the shorter side at just 1.5 miles, this trail is unique because you get to find your way through slot canyons, aka “the narrows.” To get to the narrows, enjoy a 15-minute hike along the water to warm up. Once you get to the narrows, you can repeat the loop and go again and again as much as you’d like. Each time we’ve been, we couldn’t resist going through the canyons several times, because it’s just so fun!
Local Tip: Wear pants or high socks, as shorts with bare lower legs may result in you getting some scratches/irritation from sliding along the canyon walls. Also, although you may see some dogs on this hike, I recommend not bringing your dog. Over the years, I saw several dogs get stuck and panic in the canyons. While it’s possible for some small breeds to make it through without a problem, it honestly seems like a stressful situation for both dog and owner. There’s also a ladder at the end that some dogs have difficulty navigating, and at that point, there’s no way out but to use the ladder. Better to leave your pup at home and just enjoy the experience with your two-legged friends!
Post-Hike Bites: Flower Child
Flower Child has a beautiful and relaxing atmosphere. Whether you are vegetarian, vegan, paleo, or eat everything, Flower Child has healthy options for every preference. Having trouble choosing? I can’t recommend the Mother Earth bowl enough! They have kombucha on tap, too – another must when in Southern California. 🙂
4.) Iron Mountain
If you’re looking for a challenge and a satisfying climb, head east to the beautiful Iron Mountain! Located just outside San Diego in Poway, Iron Mountain is a six-mile, out-and-back trail.
Local Tip: There is zero shade on this trail – nothing but that beautiful California sunshine! Be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen. Starting early and bringing plenty of water will also keep you safe in the direct sun and heat.
Post-Hike Bites: Rigoberto's Taco Shop, Poway
Is authentic Mexican food on your San Diego checklist? If so, Rigoberto’s has you covered! Grab a California burrito on the drive back from your hike. It’s a carne asada burrito with french fries inside. Yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds. And you deserve it after all of that hard work on the mountain!
5.) Three Sisters Falls
Three Sisters Falls is by far my favorite hike in all of San Diego County. I think it is definitely the hardest, too – but perhaps that’s what makes it so great! While the hike itself is only 4 miles, it’s two miles down into a valley and canyon, then two miles back up. A series of ropes have been installed to help you make your way down to see three waterfalls. There you can picnic by the waterfalls, dip your toes in, and – if you’re feeling really adventurous – go cliff jumping!
If you plan to swim, pack a bathing suit to change into and out of so you’ll be more comfortable during the really hard part: getting back up. The climb back up is challenging, with lots of rock scrambles and even some time spent on all fours because it is so steep at certain points.
Local Tip: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate in advance and bring plenty of water with you. You may not think you need much water for a 4-mile hike, but this trail lacks shade and gets extremely hot in the spring, summer, and fall months. As you go down the trail, it gets even hotter. There are several rescues made here each year because hikers are underprepared. Don’t let that be you!
I also recommend wearing true hiking boots or trail running shoes. For most San Diego hikes, you can get away with wearing a pair of sneakers. But the terrain and incline at Three Sisters definitely requires a good grip, or you’ll be sliding!
Post-Hike Bites: Alpine Beer Company Outpost
Alpine Beer Company is one of the most popular San Diego breweries, so why not celebrate your accomplishment at their restaurant? We ate here after our first time hiking Three Sisters, and their delicious food and ice cold IPAs hit the spot!
Note: As of late 2022, it appears that the Alpine Beer Company Outpost has closed.
6.) Mount Woodson (aka Potato Chip Rock)
Many come to Mount Woodson for the unique photo op, but they’re treated to an awesome 7.3-mile workout along the way! Once you’re up at 2,119 ft., you can take a picture at the famous Potato Chip Rock – a super flat and thin rock that juts out to overlook the valley. This is a moderate to difficult hike that will take several hours, so be sure to carry some water and trail snacks!
Local Tip: Go early and/or on a weekday to avoid lines. When we went, we left at around 7:00 a.m. and there was already a small line at the top waiting to take a photo when we arrived. I’ve heard that on weekends during peak hours, some hikers wait up to two hours just for the photo.
Post-Hike Bites: Bring a Picnic!
Sadly, there is not much around Mount Woodson, but its remote location definitely adds to its beauty. Since most of the food options in the town are chains, I’d recommend packing a picnic and eating at the top of Mount Woodson. Why not stick with the theme for the day and pack a sandwich and a bag of potato chips? Some popular sandwich joints in San Diego are Ike’s Love & Sandwiches, Mendocino Farms, Chris’ Liquor and Deli, Which Wich, and the previously mentioned Board & Brew. No matter what part of town you’re staying in, you’re bound to find a great sandwich on your way to Mount Woodson.
7.) Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Whether for a sunset, dip in the ocean, or a full-on hike, Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma/Ocean Beach is a must when visiting San Diego! You can walk the cliffs along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard while admiring gorgeous mansions and oceanfront homes, or you can explore the recently renovated park with multiple trails at the end of it on Ladera Street. Most of these trails are flat and easy, which is great because you’ll be busy admiring the ocean views. Some trails are a bit more treacherous, but lead you down from the top of the cliff to the beach. Several ropes are available to guide you, but be prepared to scramble on your hands and knees and encounter some rocks along the way. It is well worth it though!
Local Tip: My favorite “secret” spot is No Surf Beach, located below Hill and Froude Streets. It is not marked so you’ll have to walk carefully along the cliff until you see the cut through. Be sure to go slowly on your way down, and make sure it is low tide.
Post-Hike Bites: South Beach Bar & Grill
Enjoy South Beach Bar & Grill‘s world-famous fish tacos (I highly recommend the Mahi Mahi and Baja!) while overlooking the OB pier and watching the surfers.
Thanks again to Charlotte for this fantastic guide to the best hikes in San Diego!
All photos provided by Charlotte.
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