A female hiker drinking Arrowhead

Mountain air, big views, and refreshing spring water. Photo: Arrowhead

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: This feature is presented by our partners at Arrowhead Water.

San Diego has long been a destination for surfing. From the Beach Boys singing about San Onofre, La Jolla, and Swamis, to iconic surfers like Rob Machado hailing from its beach communities, San Diego and surfing have grown to become the perfect match. But overshadowed by the fame of surf culture is a vast expanse of wilderness, mountains, and trails. 

San Diego, unbeknownst to many, is also a paradise for hikers. San Diego County has dozens of peaks that tower over a mile high, terrain that stretches from bone-dry desert to snowy winter pine forests, and, of course, 70 miles of pristine beaches, often flanked by stunning, vertical bluffs. 

Thus, when those flat spells inevitably hit for the San Diego surfer, hitting the trails is an excellent way to stay in shape and enjoy the outdoors. Here are nine hikes that surfers should try in San Diego. 

Torrey Pines State Reserve. Photo: Rick McCharles

Torrey Pines State Reserve. Photo: Rick McCharles

1.) Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines Reserve and State Beach is the perfect location to take your significant other on those days of no surf. With a network of trails that ascend a bluff with ocean views, unique sandstone erosion, and several miles of undeveloped beach, it’s a unique way to enjoy the beauty of San Diego’s coastal ecosystem. You can connect the various trails together in the reserve as you please, and even turn it into a loop if you descend and return via a walk on the beach.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 1-3 miles
  • Restrooms: Yes, at trailhead and near visitor center.
  • Dog friendliness: No dogs allowed in the reserve or state beach.
  • Parking: There is a parking lot available at the entrance, but it fills up fast, especially on weekends. Additional parking can be found at an overflow lot to the north as well as free street parking on the adjacent streets.
Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain. Photo: Creative Commons

2.) Cowles Mountain

Hiking Cowles Mountain can be likened to navigating a crowded summer lineup when a nice south swell is running. It may very well be the most popular hike in the county, and for good reason. Its elevation of 1,593 feet makes it the highest point within the San Diego city limits, providing 360-degree views of Mexico, the downtown skyscrapers, and the ocean. Cowles is a great, quick hike to get the blood pumping, just don’t expect to be alone, as this one is a San Diego favorite.

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: Three miles
  • Restrooms: Yes, at trailhead.
  • Dog friendliness: Dogs allowed on leash.
  • Parking: Small parking lot available at trailhead, plenty of street parking.
Arrowhead water

A hiker preps to explore Blacks Beach. Photo: Arrowhead

3.) Blacks Beach

Every San Diego surfer has made the hike down to Blacks Beach – oftentimes in the predawn darkness with a surfboard under their arm to catch a few waves before work. Blacks is known as one of the best (or perhaps the best) surf spots in San Diego. But even when the surf isn’t firing, it’s a wonderful, short hike where you can see peregrine falcons diving from the 350-foot tall vertical bluffs or spot dolphins frolicking in the waves. 

Blacks Beach can be accessed via two main trails, either a paved fire road on its south end or a dirt trail with switchbacks via the gliderport at the north end. Don’t be surprised if you see a few unclothed people down on the beach, as Blacks is a nude-friendly zone. 

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 1-2 miles
  • Restrooms: There are restrooms at the bottom of the fire road entrance, but not at the gliderport entrance.
  • Dog friendliness: According to the City of San Diego, dogs are not allowed on the beach between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. from Nov. 1 through March 31 and between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. from April 1 through Oct. 31. Outside of those hours dogs must be on leash.
  • Parking: Free parking is plentiful at the gliderport. The fire-road entrance in the La Jolla Farms neighborhood has two-hour parking on weekdays.
Hot Springs Mountain

The peak of Hot Springs Mountain. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

4.) Hot Springs Mountain

High altitude training is a great way to build lung strength and capacity, crucial for the surfer who wants to be able to hold their breath longer during heavy hold downs. While San Diego doesn’t exactly have the highest mountains, it gets high enough to feel the thinning of air and to give your lungs a nice workout. The highest point in San Diego for such training is the 6,500-foot Hot Springs Mountain, located on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. 

It’s a solid hike with 2,500 feet of elevation gain, and you can expect snow and ice near the top if you’re there during the winter months. There is a $10 entrance fee, which can be paid in person at the trailhead or purchased in advance online.

  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Length: 10 miles
  • Restrooms: Restrooms at trailhead.
  • Dog friendliness: Dogs are allowed on leash.
  • Parking: Yes, at trailhead.
Sunset Cliffs

Low tide opens up new areas for exploration at Sunset Cliffs. Photo: Creative Commons

5.) Sunset Cliffs 

When the tide gets very low in San Diego, it exposes a whole new arena for hiking and exploring. One such place is Sunset Cliffs, where extreme low tides expose a gateway to hidden beaches and coastlines that are otherwise inaccessible. Park in the dirt lot at the end of Sunset Cliffs Blvd. (in Sunset Cliffs Natural Park), find a trail down to the beach and hike south as far as your heart desires, enjoying tidepools and getting a new perspective on the fun reefs to surf. Note that the tide must be exceptionally low to make this viable, so be sure to check the tide charts and time your trip so as to not get caught by the rising tide.  

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 1-2 miles
  • Restrooms: Portable restrooms at parking lot.
  • Dog friendliness: Dogs allowed on leash.
    Parking: Parking lot and street parking available.
Potato Chip Rock

Potato Chip Rock attracts hikers from all over San Diego. Photo: Creative Commons

6.) Potato Chip Rock

If you’re looking for a San Diego hike to please a group of friends or family, Potato Chip Rock is a nice option. It has sweeping views and is a solid leg burner, but it’s not so difficult that the entire family can’t do it. On weekends this is among the most busy hikes in San Diego, as trekkers line up to get one of the most iconic San Diego hiking photos on the Potato Chip Rock, a thin slice of granite on the peak that protrudes into the air. 

If you’re hiking on a weekend, be prepared for crowds. Weekdays should be more manageable. The peak can be approached from the west at Lake Poway Park, or the east from Highway 67. The Lake Poway route is longer with more elevation gain, while the eastern approach is shorter with less climbing.

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 4-6 miles
  • Restrooms: Available at Lake Poway trailhead. There are no restrooms if you approach from Highway 67.
  • Dog friendliness: Dogs allowed on leash.
  • Parking: Parking lot and street parking available.

Hikers pause to scope out a vista and enjoy the fresh air. Photo: Arrowhead

7.) Big Laguna Lake, Mount Laguna

Breathing in the fresh air of a San Diego alpine meadow can be just as relaxing as going for a surf in the crystal-clear water of La Jolla. Many people don’t know that such an experience can be found in San Diego, but if you head up to the town of Mount Laguna in the summer months, you’ll find lush meadows, shallow lakes, and fresh, pine-scented air. 

Hiking to Big Laguna Lake is a great way to wash off the stress of the work week when surfing isn’t an option. There is a web of trails that weave around the lakes, thus you can make your hike as easy or difficult as you please. Keep an eye out for signs of ancient Kumeyaay villages (the Native American tribe from this area) via rock shelters and morteros ground into granite outcroppings. And one last pro tip: If you have some time, make a detour after your hike to the mountain town of Julian to try the world-renowned apple pies and ciders.

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 4-6 miles
  • Restrooms: Available at campgrounds.
  • Dog friendliness: Dogs allowed on leash.
  • Parking: There’s ample road-side parking at the various trailheads. Beware that within Cleveland National Forest, a $5 Adventure Pass is required to park. It can be purchased online or at certain locations.
Rabbit Peak — hot, dry, and looming large. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

Rabbit Peak — hot, dry, and looming large. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

8.) Rabbit Peak

For the hardcore, adventure-seeking surfer who’s looking for a serious challenge in their conditioning regimen, consider hiking Rabbit Peak. Located in the far northeast corner of the county, in Anza Borrego State Park, Rabbit Peak is perhaps the most formidable test that San Diego has to offer. Starting on the desert floor, the trail scales a cactus-riddled mountain ridge, climbing more than 5,500 feet to the peak. 

It’s not for the faint of heart, and unless you’re in ultra-runner condition, it might be best attempted as an overnight trip. While it may seem like torture to some, the raw, desert landscape with glorious views over the Salton Sea and Colorado Desert make the trip well worth the effort. This hike is best attempted outside of the scorching summer months, and make sure to bring loads of water, as there are no water sources available on the trail.

  • Difficulty: Extremely difficult
  • Length: 20+ miles
  • Restrooms: None
  • Dog friendliness: Dogs are not allowed on trails or wilderness areas in Anza Borrego State Park.
  • Parking: Parking is free in the dirt lot at trailhead.
Mt. San Jacinto towers over the SoCal landscape. Photo: Kit Conn

Mt. San Jacinto towers over the SoCal landscape. Photo: Kit Conn

9.) Idyllwild

If the mile-high elevations of San Diego are not cutting it for those surfers looking for some high-altitude training environments, you don’t have to look far beyond San Diego for some thinner air. Idyllwild, located just 60 or so miles from north San Diego County, features some of Southern California’s highest mountains and dozens of trails for outdoor recreation. 

The premiere attraction is Mt. San Jacinto, reaching a height of 10,834 feet. No matter how you chop it up, all routes to the top are long and difficult, but the reward is some of the best views atop one of California’s most prominent peaks. And for those who want to get the high altitude experience without all the effort to lug yourself up there, you can take the aerial tram in Palm Springs that will cut a good chunk off the elevation gain.

  • Difficulty: Extremely difficult
  • Length: 14 miles
  • Restrooms: Available at parking areas and trailheads.
  • Dog friendliness: No dogs allowed in San Jacinto State Park except for in the town of Idyllwild and Stone Creek campground.
  • Parking: Parking lots at trailheads.


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