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The Seven Best Inland Hikes

Panoramic views, oak woodlands, and pastoral valleys

As you move east from San Diego's coast, the landscape takes a turn for the rugged. These seven hikes feature the best characteristics of the inland area.

By: Scott Turner, Co-author of the 5th Edition of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County

As you move east from San Diego's coastal mesas and canyons, the landscape takes a turn for the rugged. Boulder-studded peaks carpeted with evergreen chaparral towering over broad valleys and canyons characterize the inland region between Interstate 15 and the Peninsular Ranges. Hiking opportunities here are extensive, and this region contains some of the county's most popular trails. These routes feature the best characteristics of the inland area, including boulder-studded peaks with panoramic views, oak woodlands, and pastoral valleys that hum with life during springtime.

Best Inland Hikes in San Diego County - Cowles Mountain

COWLES MOUNTAIN

Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous - 3 miles
Fee: None
Hours: Dawn to Dusk

This short, but steep route up to the highest peak within city limits receives an impressive volume of hiker traffic. Cowles Mountain features the best views of the city, while sunrises and sunsets from the top are hard to beat. For visitors and local alike, this is a perfect introduction to San Diego hiking. Parking can be a bit of a challenge, so arrive early if you can.

Best Inland Hikes in San Diego County - Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain

Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous - 5 miles
Fee: None
Hours: Always Open

Iron Mountain's summit receives only slightly less visitation than Cowles Mountain, although some might argue that its rewards are more impressive. Iron Mountain features expansive views of the western half of the county from the coast to the Cuyamaca Mountains. Parking can also be a challenge, so arrive early if you can.

Best Inland Hikes in San Diego County - Los Penasquitos Canyon

Los Penasquitos Canyon

Difficulty: Moderate - 6.5 miles
Fee: West Trailhead - Free. East Trailhead - $3* per car
Hours: West Trailhead - 6:00 AM to Sunset. East Trailhead - 8:00 AM to Sunset

Two separate trailheads on the western and eastern end grant access to a small waterfall in the center of this serene coastal canyon. Penasquitos Creek is one of the few perennial creeks in the county, and the falls are always running - even though they only whisper during the summer. Beautiful oak woodlands, gracefully curving, grass-covered hillsides, and numerous historical sites add an element of old Southern California beauty.

Best Inland Hikes in San Diego County - Woodson Mountain

WOODSON MOUNTAIN

Difficulty: Strenuous - 6.5 miles
Fee: $5* entry fee for non-Poway residents on weekends and holidays
Hours: 6:00 AM to Sunset

This challenging route from Lake Poway winds through a maze of cream-colored boulders to the mountain's antenna-covered summit. Potato Chip Rock, a flake of granite jutting out into space, is a popular attraction, and hikers travel far and wide to have their pictures taken atop it. The views here can be exceptional.

Best Inland Hikes in San Diego County - Lake Hodges

LAKE HODGES

Difficulty: Moderate to Moderately Strenuous - 3 to 7 miles
Fee: Free
Hours: Dawn to Dusk

Lake Hodges is a highlight of the county's Coast-to-Crest Trail, which travels from the beaches of Del Mar to the crest of the Volcan Mountains near Julian. This large reservoir sits within the scenic Del Dios Gorge, and the area hosts a number of significant cultural sites of the native Kumeyaay people. Adventurous hikers looking for a tougher workout can bag nearby Bernardo Mountain for outstanding views.

Best Inland Hikes in San Diego County - Daley Ranch

Daley Ranch

Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult - 4 to 11 miles
Fee: Free
Hours: Dawn to Dusk

This sprawling network of trails samples the best features of the inland region. The steep Boulder Loop trail traverses a beautiful boulder garden. The Jack Creek Meadow Loop travels the rim of a long, narrow, oak-studded meadow. Most beautiful of all, the Engelmann Oak Loop visits the rare and picturesque Engelmann Oak.

Best Inland Hikes in San Diego County - El Cajon Mountain

EL CAJON MOUNTAIN

Difficulty: Very Difficult - 11 miles
Fee: Free
Hours: Dawn to Dusk. Closed during August

Are you the sort of hiker who likes a challenge? The route to El Cajon Mountain follows granite-studded ridgelines up, down, up, down, and then back up again to reach a spectacular aerial view directly above the San Diego River Gorge. This hike is consistently rated as the most difficult hike west of the mountains, and for good reason: you hike uphill about 800' on the way back! For serious hikers only.

*Fees based on 2016 prices

A Word on Inland Climate

As you travel further from the coast, the ocean's moderating influence on temperature begins to wane. If it is 75 degrees on the coast, it may 90 to 95 degrees inland. For that reason we caution against hiking most of these routes during July, August, and September. If you do hike here during summer, we recommend an early start to avoid the heat of the afternoon. Conversely, inland hiking is delightful between the months of November and April. Santa Ana winds clear the atmosphere to enhance the views, and winter’s rains propagate a profusion of spring wildflowers.

The Seven Best Inland Hikes Map

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