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Seven Best Mountain Hikes

Explore San Diego's Surprising Mountain Landscapes

These 7 best mountain hikes in San Diego County offer beautiful landscapes, spectacular views, and are just around an hour's drive from the beach.

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

Beyond the quaint mountain towns and historic gold mining districts, San Diego County's mountains contain some of its most surprising landscapes. These mountains, known as the Peninsular Ranges due to their association with the Baja Peninsula, rise gently from the inland valleys, attaining heights sufficient to support coniferous forests. The higher peaks offer commanding views across much of Southern California. On the mountains' eastern boundaries, the terrain falls away spectacularly into the arid expanses of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Few visitors expect to encounter lush meadows graced by a parade of wildlife or trickling streams under the cool shade of pines and oaks. Yet, you'll find all of that and more an hour's drive from San Diego.

French Valley - Seven Best Mountain Hikes in San Diego County


Difficulty: Easy - 3 miles
Fee: $8* fee for cehicles
Hours: Dawn to Dusk

A trail for inspiration, this easy loop travels through a forest reminiscent of California's central coast. You'll visit an old stone gauging site and travel through the habitat of a rare endemic banana slug before crossing a sprawling meadow graced by towering Ponderosa pines.

Observatory Trail - Seven Best Mountain Hikes in San Diego County


Difficulty: Moderate - 5 miles
Fee: $5
Hours: Dusk to Dawn

This National Scenic Trail connects a popular campground and the world-famous Palomar Observatory. Hikers will travel through oak and pine forest before reaching the Observatory campus, where you can enjoy the unusual trail destination of the Hale Telescope. This hike requires a National Forest Adventure Pass, which you can purchase for $5* at any outdoor recreation store. The trail is open dawn to dusk, although the Observatory is only open from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

Volcan Mountain - Seven Best Mountain Hikes in San Diego County


Difficulty: Moderately strenuous - 5.5 miles
Fee: Free
Hours: Dawn to Dusk

This steep trail winds through lush grasslands shaded by deciduous oaks before attaining the summit ridgeline. From the summit, you'll observe vistas that span the county from the Salton Sea to the Pacific Ocean. During spring, you'll experience an eruption of wildflowers, while fall brings shades of gold and red. Loop back on the Five Oaks Trail and see how many different types of oaks you can identify. Open dawn to dusk, although the reserve closes during and immediately after inclement weather.

Lake Cuyamaca - Seven Best Mountain Hikes in San Diego County


Difficulty: Easy - 2.5 miles
Fee: $8* vehicle fee to park near the Stonewall Mine
Hours: Dawn to Dusk

This gentle hike visits the shores of one of the county's oldest and most scenic reservoirs as well as the region's most profitable gold mine, the Stonewall Mine. Along the way, you'll walk under the cool shade of oak trees and butterscotch-scented pines before watching a variety of birds patrolling the lake's cool waters.

Stonewall Peak - Seven Best Mountain Hikes in San Diego County


Difficulty: Moderate - 4 miles
Fee: $8* vehicle fee at Paso Picacho Campground
Hours: Dawn to Dusk

A great introduction to San Diego's high country, this twisting trail climbs to the craggy summit of Stonewall Peak for an aerial view of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The 2003 Cedar Fire took a heavy toll on the oak groves along the trail, but a riot of fire-following wildflowers rewards hikers during springtime.

Garnet Peak - Seven Best Mountain Hikes in San Diego County

Garnet Peak

Difficulty: Moderate - 2.5 miles
Fee: Free
Dawn to Dusk

The wind-swept heights of Garnet Peak will take your breath away. From the summit, you will witness a spectacular 3000' escarpment (a long, steep slope) that drops from the forested Laguna Plateau into the arid expanse of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This east-facing slope is the county's premier sunrise viewing location.

Sunset Trail - Seven Best Mountain Hikes in San Diego County


Difficulty: Easy - 3 miles
Fee: Free
Dawn to Dusk

This gentle, looping trail travels through pine and oak forest to a sheltered corner of massive Laguna Meadow. Here you will find a serene pond, quaintly named "Water in the Woods." Nearby grinding stones (morteros) highlight this area's importance to the Kumeyaay people, while various waterfowl patrol the pond's waters for tasty morsels.


A Note About Mountain Climate

Unlike the rest of San Diego County, the mountains here experience traditional seasons. Snow is known to fall in depths of up to two feet, necessitating chains and also inspiring caravans of curious San Diegans to head up from the lowlands. Winter precipitation is often three times heavier than at the coast, so you will definitely want to check the weather reports before visiting. Fall brings with it golden foliage, while the vibrant wildflowers of spring arrive later (May and June) than along the coast and interior. Summer brings occasional intense thunderstorms, and during those times, lightning can be a concern.

*2015 Fees

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