From the winding trails of Torrey Pines State Reserve to Iron Mountain Trail’s sweeping panoramas, San Diego is home to some impressive hiking trails. We explore a selection of San Diego’s best mountain trails, as well as the best time to visit and what to see when you get here.
San Diego’s Hiking Trails
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a 1,750-acre park dedicated to preserving the indigenous Torrey Pine tree. Nestled on the clifftop above Torrey Pines State Beach, this reserve boasts a plethora of indigenous flora and fauna, as well as some breathtaking Pacific views.
Torrey Pines incorporates some easier hikes, making it perfect for families. There are also some advanced trails for the more adventurous. The reserve is also a waterfowl refuge and is home to one of Southern California’s last remaining great salt marshes.
Iron Mountain Trail
Iron Mountain is one of the most popular hiking destinations in San Diego County. Beyond the ornate wooden gate at its entrance, the trail winds through a tunnel of oak trees, leading out into grasslands, before climbing steadily through tall brush to the mountain track that ascends Iron Mountain’s peak.
The summit of Iron Mountain offers sweeping panoramic views, from the ridge of the Cuyamaca Mountains to the east and Mount Woodson in the north. Hikers will find picnic tables and a telescope to enjoy the views.
Cuyamaca Peak Loop
As the second highest mountain in San Diego County, Cuyamaca Peak’s trails offer some astounding views. From the top of this 6,500-foot peak, on a clear day, hikers can look out across the Pacific.
The trail is well-maintained, with log benches for hikers to pause and enjoy the views. Cuyamaca’s Lookout Fire Road is a paved track that runs adjacent to the trail, allowing easy access for those with mobility issues.
Three Sisters Falls
Three Sisters Falls, also known as the Devil’s Punchbowl, is a challenging trail better suited to advanced hikers. The 4-mile trek is quite exposed in areas, so hikers must bring plenty of water as well as sun protection. For these reasons, it’s best avoided by those accompanied by children or dogs.
With a number of ravines and ridges, the trail offers impressive views across San Diego County. It takes approximately two hours to reach Three Sisters Falls, where hikers can rest on boulders to enjoy the stunning mountain scenery, before crossing Boulder Creek and commencing the return leg of their journey.
Getting to San Diego
By road: The 2.5-hour drive (without traffic) from Los Angeles to San Diego on the I-5 follows the coast for about half the drive, offering glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.
Both Greyhound and Flixbus offer regular services between San Diego and Los Angeles.
By rail: Amtrak Pacific Surfliner takes about three hours to reach San Diego from Los Angeles, stopping in several Orange County cities along the way.
By air: The flight from Los Angeles International Airport to San Diego International takes approximately 50 minutes and costs about $200 round trip, with a number of domestic flights running between the two airports daily.
San Diego’s Climate
With its year-round temperate climate, San Diego is one of the safest places in the world to hike. The county is particularly popular with hikers during the months of April and May, when they can enjoy the beauty of spring at a comfortable 65°F.
August and September are the hottest months, with daytime temperatures often exceeding 90°F, occasionally peaking at 120°F in San Diego’s deserts. Many still find summer hiking enjoyable, however, provided they take a few sensible precautions, such as wearing a hat and sunscreen and avoiding the hottest hours of the day. Even on seemingly cooler days, rangers recommend bringing more water than you expect to drink.
Wildlife in San Diego
The diversity of San Diego’s wildlife attracts hikers from around the world.
Covering 4,261 square miles, San Diego County boasts the most biologically diverse environment in the state. It features hundreds of species of mammals and reptiles, along with 500 bird species and over 2,100 species of plants.
Common mammals found in San Diego are American bison, California mule deer, striped skunks, bobcats, mountain lions, opossums, and the San Diego pocket mouse. Reptiles in the area include the San Diego alligator lizard and Cope’s leopard lizard, while birds such as the ladder-backed woodpecker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the lilac-crowned parrot, and the long-eared owl call San Diego home.