Hiking trails highlight San Diego’s great outdoors

by Caitlin Johnson

It’s a brilliant spring afternoon in beautiful San Diego, a perfect day for a hike. The sun illuminates the cloudless blue sky, bathing the earth in a warm light as nature emerges from its winter sleep.

The sweet smell of sagebrush and eucalyptus infuses your senses as you take in the brightly colored flowers dotting the landscape. A red-tailed hawk wheels silently on the gentle breeze, whispering through the trees.

It’s true—we live in a springtime paradise. San Diego is home to many different open space recreational areas and countless trails. Hikers of all skill levels can find adventure just a short drive in any direction. With summer just around the corner, now is the perfect time to familiarize yourself with some of the best hiking and outdoor activities the county has to offer.

It’s impossible to choose one location and label it the best, as different trails will suit different tastes. But there is certainly something for everyone, depending on your desires. I’d like to highlight three regions that can be both fun and challenging: Mount Woodson, Cedar Creek Falls and Mission Trails Regional Park.



Mount Woodson Trail

Located in the northern region of Poway, Mount Woodson Trail is just one of many paths that snakes its way through the Lake Poway Recreation Area. Its most notable feature is Potato Chip Rock, a thin plank-like structure at the mountain’s peak, which juts out over a cliff. However, getting to one of the most unique photo ops in the county is no easy task.

As with any outdoor activity, it’s important to be prepared for the elements. Bring sunscreen and more water than you think you’ll need, because most of the trail is exposed and without much shade.


“It’s considered a medium difficulty day hike, but the steep climb can be grueling without proper hydration,” hiker Josh Wixom said. “Between two people, we drank a whole gallon (of water).”

The 6.4-mile round-trip trail is fairly easy at first, but as the elevation rises, you’re guaranteed to feel the burn. Don’t let the climb distract you from the gorgeous scenery, though. The views are nothing short of stunning, and once you reach the summit, the sense of accomplishment paired with the exhilarating feeling of being on top of the world is sure to suppress your exhaustion.



Cedar Creek Falls

When chlorinated pools have become boring and hearing “Hey, let’s go to the beach, brah” makes you shudder, it’s time for a new escapade. There’s no better way to beat the California heat than to go for a swim—so why not change the routine a bit?

Cedar Creek Falls, more commonly known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl, is a free-flowing waterfall that empties into a deep basin, creating the perfect natural swimming hole. Nestled in the Cleveland National Forest, the destination is its own reward. Following the river upstream to the falls is like discovering an oasis in the desert. The thunderous water reverberates off the steep cliffs as swimmers bask on sun-warmed rocks.

There are two routes to take to reach the bottom. Eagle Peak Road begins in Julian and is a long, dusty and somewhat-dangerous drive. The hike down is just as tedious, with winding pathways hugging the cliffs for what seem like an eternity.

The preferred method is the trailhead from the Ramona side, which reopened earlier this month after an unexpected closure in 2011. The descent to the falls is relatively easy, but keep in mind going downhill on the way there means a climb on the way back, so plan accordingly.

Now is the perfect time to make the trip, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the water is flowing at full strength. The only downside is the crowds of people that typically gather in the area. Fortunately, new procedures intend to regulate the location’s capacity. Guests are now required to obtain a visitor permit online before heading out, and no alcohol will be permitted anywhere in the vicinity. A $6 fee and a sober hike is definitely a small price to pay for an amazing and unique experience.


Mission Trails Regional Park

If you’re looking for a more relaxed outing, Mission Trails Regional Park is the perfect day-trip destination. Sprawled across nearly 5,800 acres of land, the park includes Lake Murray, Cowles Mountain, Kumeyaay Lake and the Old Mission Dam.

There are plenty of hiking, biking and horseback paths, so each trip can turn out to be a different exploration. The park even boasts special areas for rock-climbing and motocross bicycling. Guests are encouraged to stop by the Visitor and Interpretive Center off of Mission Gorge Road, where educational programs and free guided nature walks are facilitated by the staff.

Being a native Santee resident, I may be somewhat biased, but Mission Trails has always been my favorite backyard getaway. There’s just something about the quiet solitude that emerges when you find a spot off the main road. A slight chill tinges the air as the sun begins to set behind the rocky hills, and crickets hidden in the brush begin their nighttime chorus.

It’s sometimes difficult to imagine tranquility can be found within the boundaries of such a congested city, but it’s there if you know where to look. Just be sure to remember the basic preparations and precautions before you head out to ensure a safe and fun trip. There are enough great destinations and outdoor activities to be discovered in San Diego to make every weekend an adventure.

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