A Guide to Hiking in San Diego

Kwaay Paay Peak, Oak Canyon Waterfall, and Mission Trails Regional Park are some of the best San Diego hikes.
Written by Olivia Rose
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
Updated on Jun 01, 2022
Kwaay Paay Peak, Oak Canyon Waterfall, and Mission Trails Regional Park are some of the best San Diego hikes. 
San Diego
might be best known for its beaches, but this coastal town has loads of hiking options, too. Whether you are looking for the best hike for views, pictures, dog walks, or a fiery workout, we’ve got the recommendation for you. 
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The best hikes in San Diego 

Just a few miles north of the U.S./Mexico border, San Diego boasts year-round California sunshine and moderate weather. Since this southern California city is packed full of enviable hiking routes, we narrowed it down to the best and most memorable for you. 

Best for views: Kwaay Paay Peak

Distance: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Trail type: Out and back 
Elevation gain: 875 feet
Parking: On-site and nearby
Dogs: Yes 
Starting point: Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA 92119
Kwaay Paay Peak Trail is one of the many trails in Mission Trails Regional Park. This short and sweet out-and-back trail will have you working up a sweat, but the trail itself isn’t too time-consuming—you’ll be done in about an hour.
Kwaay Paay Peak Trail is almost entirely unshaded, so be sure you pack lots of water and sunscreen. San Diego can be warm any time of the year, but the summer months are especially sweltering. 
Dogs are allowed and encouraged! Just be sure to keep them on a leash to protect them from surrounding wildlife. 
Pro Tip The last section of the trail leading up to the peak is steep—so be extra cautious if you have kids with you. And watch out for rattlesnakes!

Best for dogs: Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve

Distance: 6.8 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Trail type: Loop
Elevation Gain: 157 ft
Parking: Street
Dogs: Yes
Starting Point: 12020 Black Mountain Rd, San Diego, CA 92129
Sycamores, giant California live oaks, a freshwater marsh, a cascading waterfall, mule deer, and raccoons—these are only a handful of the natural wonders you can see on a simple hike through Los Peñasquitos!
Los Peñasquitos (“the small canyons”) is known for breathtaking topography—ancient rock formations in a tucked-away valley with a babbling stream running through. 
This moderately wide and flat trail is a great place to bring your pup—just make sure to keep furry friends on a leash at all times to protect both your dog and the wildlife. 
The trail is also a birding hotspot—the area is home to over 150 different bird species! So if you’re into that, make sure to bring a pair of binoculars. 

Best for Instagram: Oak Canyon Waterfall

Distance: 3.0 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Trail type: Out and back
Elevation Gain: 246 ft
Parking: Nearby, separate hiking trail
Dogs?: Yes
Starting Point: Father Junipero Serra Ave, San Diego, CA 92119
San Diego isn’t particularly known for waterfalls, but Oak Canyon Waterfall will quench your hiking thirst.
Get the feel of being a rock climber without the high difficulty—moderate rock scrambling to the waterfall will throw you straight into the trail’s natural glory. Note that the scrambling might be a challenge for children or anyone who struggles with balance. 
Go in late winter or early spring to increase your odds of seeing the waterfall—it’s not uncommon for the falls to be dried up in the summer and early fall. You’re best off going right after heavy rain
Pro Tip We promise it’s not overkill to wear some good hiking shoes on this trail—the water near the trail makes for slippery conditions, so wear shoes with good traction. 

Best for families: Visitor Center Loop Trailhead

Distance: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: Beginner-friendly
Trail type: Loop
Elevation Gain: 167 ft
Parking: On-site
Dogs?: Yes
Starting Point: Unnamed Road, San Diego, CA 92120
The wide and relatively flat trails on this loop make it accessible and super family-friendly—dogs on leashes are welcome, too.
This wooded trail will bring you shaded solace in San Diego’s sunny heat, and your walk will be accompanied by the peaceful sound of running water. 
You’ll be able to access Visitor Center Loop Trail year-round, making it an ideal spot for a simple and easy walk in nature. The trail sees lots of visitors at all times of the year, so if you’re one for super-secret private hikes, this probably isn’t the one for you. 
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Best for a challenge: Climbers Loop South Trailhead

Distance: 1.8 miles
Difficulty: Challenging
Trail type: Loop
Elevation Gain: 452 ft
Parking: On-site
Dogs?: Yes
Starting Point: 9051 Father Junipero Serra Trail, San Diego, CA 92119
Climbers Loop is short and steep—less than 2 miles long with an elevation gain of almost 500 feet. The trail is named after its various climbing trails adored by outdoor climbers and boulderers. 
For an extra vigorous workout, try completing the loop more than once in one go!
Pro Tip Be prepared to walk a little further if parking at the trailhead isn’t available. 

Best for dates: Mission Trails Regional Park 

Distance: 65 miles of total trail/7,200 acres
Difficulty: Varies from easy to advanced
Trail type: Varies
Elevation Gain: N/A
Parking: Street
Dogs?: Yes
Starting Point: 1 Father Junipero Serra Trail, San Diego, CA 92119
As one of the largest urban parks in the country, Mission Trails Regional Park has something to offer for anyone, making it the perfect date spot. The park sits only 8 miles from downtown San Diego, so you can easily pop on over for a morning hike before brunch in the city or a summer evening stroll after cocktails. 
We recommend looking into the various
trail route options
to find a route with the length and difficulty you want—but hiking fanatics can make it a spontaneous adventure.

Tips for hiking in San Diego

We’ve got you covered with everything you need to keep in mind when heading out for a hike in San Diego. 
  • Watch out for the sun! Southern California is known for its sunny weather, and San Diego is no exception. Avoid hiking in peak sunny hours (10am-2pm) and always wear sun protection (like a good sun hat and high-SPF sunscreen). Don’t forget to bring sunscreen with you to reapply!
  • Drink lots of water. Especially in the late spring and summer, San Diego gets hot! Pair that with vigorous exercise, and you could get dehydrated quickly. Dehydration and heat stroke are no joke, so be sure you always have water with you on a hike. 
  • Keep dogs on a leash at all times. It’s tempting to let your dog off its leash, especially when they look so joyful frolicking around a hillside. But it’s dangerous for your dog to be off-leash, especially when natural predators like mountain lions or coyotes are around. It’s also bad for surrounding wildlife to veer off hiking trails. Keep your furry friends leashed and hydrated.

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