An uphill hike beats an hour on the treadmill any day. It’s time to clear your head, get a fit body and do even more exploration of America’s Finest City? Let’s get to it.
There’s a trail for everyone in San Diego, from the picturesque walking paths of Torrey Pines State Reserve to the plunging hills of Three Sisters Falls. Lace up those hiking boots and pack some extra trail mix for Onyx’s best and most instagramable hikes in San Diego.
Iron Mountain Trail
Location: Roughly 5 miles east of Poway
Best for: Breaking a quick sweat, midweek hikes, bouldering, getting well-acquainted with the UV Index
Just outside Poway, Iron Mountain can — fittingly — feel a lot like a hot iron skillet when you’re on it due to the lack of shade on the peak. That said, the roughly 6-mile loop is a perfect hike for those looking to get in a good, quick workout that still packs some technical hiking.
As it’s manageable for hikers of most any skill level (as long as you pack sunscreen and water), the dusty trail can get pretty busy on the weekends, so you should try to hit the hike midweek, early morning, or late afternoon if you can. With mostly stable, easy footing, the trail offers fantastic running opportunities, while the granite boulders that line it make up some of the better bouldering terrain in the county.
The trail itself starts off flat before gradually gaining pitch as it builds into the eastern mountains and finishes with a wonderful, 360-degree view of the surrounding hills and San Vicente Reservoir. It’s a great way to sneak in an outdoor workout, while still feeling like you’re truly out in nature.
Torrey Pines Beach Trail
Location: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Best for: Ocean views, casual strolls, the occasional visit to the nude beach
Again, this one is far from a hidden gem, but Torrey Pines is iconic for a reason. Truly one of the most beautiful locations along the entire California coastline, the Natural Reserve has multiple miles of adjoining trails within it — none of which rate higher than moderate difficulty — that allow you make your day on the trails a lot longer than this 3-mile loop, if you feel so inclined.
As for the Beach Trail loop, it’s a breeze of a hike, with a gradual trek up a well-maintained (and at times, paved) road that leads into crisscrossing dusty trails through the wildflower bushes atop the Reserve, before driving down the bluffs that the Reserve sits upon to the wide, beautiful beaches of Torrey (all of which can be hiked in reverse order). The views are jaw-dropping, even if you’re sharing them with scores of others, and when you get to the beach, you can head over to Blacks Beach to enjoy some surfing and clothing-optional suntanning, steep ascents up trails like Ho Chi Minh, and vistas of hang-gliders launching off the Torrey Pines Gliderport.
Potato Chip Rock
Location: Mount Woodson, 5 miles northeast of Poway
Best for: Instagram junkies, bucket listers, anyone who loves steepness
Potato Chip Rock is probably the single most Instagrammed hike in the county and, as such, is hardly a secret. If you go, expect crowds — particularly at the top, when you get to the titular potato chip granite diving board. Wait times of 15 minutes or more to actually step out onto the rock for a photo aren’t unheard of.
Still, the hike to Potato Chip is a good one, particularly if you’re into steep climbs. There are two routes to get to Potato Chip: an 8-mile out-and-back along Mount Woodson Trail that starts at Lake Poway, and a paved, straight-up, straight-down four-mile out-and-back hike from Highway 67. The former provides more of a traditional hiking experience, while the latter is steep from start to finish on paved roads. Regardless of which route you choose, you’re going to feel the burn if you want to get that Instagram shot.
Three Sisters Falls Trail
Location: 14 miles north of Descanso
Best for: Waterslide enthusiasts, anyone who enjoys a good valley view, lovers of wildflowers
Three Sisters Falls is perhaps the most unique hiking experience in San Diego. A fairly simple 4-mile, out-and-back, the hike actually starts as a descent. After 2 miles of an easy downhill approach, you get to the waterfalls — and, simply put, they’re unlike anything else in the county.
With a naturally occurring waterslide that feeds off the main fall, Three Sisters is like nature’s waterpark allowing you plenty of opportunities to beat the summer sun by getting wet. When you reach the falls from the initial descent, you’ll be greeted by amazing valley vistas and copious opportunities to go scrambling on the rock faces and boulders strewn throughout the canyon. Make sure to stay dry while scrambling, as the rocks are very smooth (particularly on the east side of the falls) and slipping on them can mean sliding 10-20 feet.
When you’re finished at the falls, the 2-mile climb back to your car will certainly be more difficult than the initial descent. Take your time and make sure of every step, and you’ll be fine.