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28 Best Trails For Hiking, Running, Biking in San Diego

Posted by: on July, 10 2014

Found on San Diego Magazine and written by Claire Trageser

If you’re a runner with zero experience, these trails are short, flat, and well maintained, just like a good crew cut.

   Photography by Richard Benton

1. Balboa Park trail #1
1.5 miles ✹ EASY
Start at Sixth Avenue and Upas Street and follow the #1 green circle markers.

This trail stays away from the busier areas of Balboa Park, so new runners can get their workouts in away from the curious eyes of tourists. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can extend your run about a mile by tracing the loop south of Laurel Street.
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2.  Lake Miramar
4.9 miles ✹ EASY
Follow the path around Lake Miramar, starting and ending at the parking lot off Scripps Lake Drive.

Like to count down how far you have left to run? (And really, who doesn’t?) This path offers markers every quarter mile for just that purpose. The lake makes for a picturesque view. There are usually plenty of other runners, walkers, bikers, and stroller-pushers along the path, so you’ll be in good company.
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3. Grasslands Loop
1.75 miles ✹ EASY
Off Mission Gorge Road on the Father Junipero Serra Trail in Mission Trails Regional Park.

For a beginner’s attempt at trail running (not on paved roads or paths), the Grassland Loop provides a friendly welcome. The wide trail only has a few small hills and provides a smooth—not rocky—running path. Take in the rolling green hills and pretty wildflowers as you run.
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Steeper and tougher than trail running routes, these are best reserved for experienced trail runners or those with hiking boots.

4. El Capitan
11.2 miles ✹ MOST DIFFICULT
El Capitan Preserve. The trailhead is on the right side of Wildcat Canyon Road.

This trail is hot, dusty, and steep, but the views are worth it. The trail to the top goes down as well as up and up and up, making this climb one of the few that actually is “uphill both ways.” Warning: The trail descends before the final ascent to the summit. Don’t turn back too soon. If—when!—you make it to the top, you are treated to a 360-degree view of San Diego and the satisfaction of knowing you really earned it.
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5. Mt. Woodson
6.4 miles ✹ DIFFICULT
Lake Poway

How could you not want to hike a path that includes something called “Potato Chip Rock”? Unfortunately, the rock is less mid-hike snack and more about-to-break-off piece of stone. Still, the precariousness will stop you in your tracks. Views along the way are gorgeous and far-reaching, although the very top can be a bit of a disappointment, unless you are really into radio towers. For a more serene place to celebrate your climb, take a turnoff to the left shortly before you reach the summit.
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6. Iron Mountain
6.6 mileS ✹ DiFFICULT
At the intersection of Poway Road and Highway 67 in Poway.

A pretty easy (read: not ridiculously steep and long) climb that still has those payoff views. Start off passing through a wooden gate and romp among the trees, then climb up and out of the woods as you head to the top. After reaching the summit, you can continue on a longer loop for your route down (totaling 9.5 miles instead of 6.6; take the third path that splits off about a mile from the summit). This route will bring you through some exotic-looking rock outcroppings and past a nice view of Ramona. End the loop tramping through a meadow, but don’t veer off the path—that’s someone’s backyard.
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7. Pacific Crest Trail
Out and back is 4 miles ✹ INTERMEDIATE
Start at the Penny Pines monument about 27 miles up Sunrise Highway and follow the Pacific Crest Trail to Garnet Peak through Laguna Recreation Area.

This is a small segment of the Pacific Crest Trail, which avid (or crazy) hikers can follow all the way from Mexico to Canada. But even this portion makes you feel like you’re in another country—or on another planet. Follow a path that crosses cliffs with 1,000-foot drops and provides views of landscapes that look like the surface of the moon. The elevation’s above 4,000 feet, so unless you enjoy hiking in snow or windstorms, check the weather before you go.
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Make a run for the (city) border. These trails are worth the drive.

8. The Train Run
16 miles ✹ MODERATE
Take the Coaster north from Solana Beach to Oceanside ($4), then run back on the Coast Highway.

If you’re sick of running the same out-and-backs or loops, this is a great way to spice up your routine. Of course, the views can’t be beat, but there’s also something about depositing yourself in Oceanside with nothing but your feet to get you back that makes this route feel like an adventure. And you know if you start the run, you have to finish—or call a cab.
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9. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
100+ miles of trails ✹ MODERATE
Off State Route 79 north of I-8.

This park has tons of trails, with mountains climbing over 6,000 feet, meadows, hidden waterfalls—everything to re-create your own Lord of the Rings/Lost/Survivor adventure. Or, you know, run in. One of the most popular trails is a 3.5-mile climb up Lookout Fire Road to Cuyamaca Peak, from which you can see the Salton Sea and all the way to Mexico. A longer option is the Harvey Moore Trail, which starts near the Sweetwater River Bridge and follows nine miles of trails.
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10. Palomar Observatory
4 miles ✹ MODERATE
Canfield Road in Palomar Mountain.

Maybe Palomar Mountain makes you think of the crusty Girl Scout camps of your youth, but it’s since had a serious makeover, and is worth another visit. Bring $5 for a Forest Service Adventure Pass, which is required to park at the trailhead. Once you reach the top, you can stop in the Observatory between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (or 4 p.m. during Daylight Savings Time). The trail is clean and well maintained and the views from the top are, of course, stunning.
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Places to do specific training workouts, like speedwork, hill repeats, and tempo runs.

11. Silver Strand
5.5 miles ✹ EASY
Highway 75 in Coronado (the 5.5 miles is one way, from the Hotel Del to the end of the Cays).

This completely straight and flat path has mile markers along the way, making it perfect for speed intervals or tempo runs. In fact, you’ll need to be doing some kind of speedwork to break up the monotony. Of course, time it right and you’ll get to run with a pack of Navy SEALs.
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12. Bankers Hill hills
0.5 mile ✹ MODERATE
Sixth Avenue between Elm and Laurel Streets, next to Balboa Park.

Really, any big hill is good for a hill workout, but this one prepares you specifically for the heartbreaker at the end of the America’s Finest City Half Marathon. This route doesn’t pass any intersections, so there’s nothing to break your stride, and it can be incorporated into a longer run in the park.
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13. Point Loma Nazarene track
0.25 miles/lap ✹ EASY
Follow the Peppertree Lane loop to the southeast side of campus.

This is probably San Diego’s most accessible running track for those who don’t belong to a gym. UC San Diego, Balboa Stadium, and San Diego State also have tracks, as do some other high schools, but there you are more likely to run into scheduling conflicts or just be kicked off the track by intramural teams and campus events. (Tip: this Christian university prefers that you wear modest workout attire.)
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14. Fiesta Island
4 miles ✹ EASY
Off East Mission Bay Drive in Mission Bay.

Totally flat and generally away from traffic and pedestrians, the Fiesta Island track is perfect for a solid tempo run. Although the island itself is fairly desolate, there are boats in the bay or dogs in the dog park to provide distraction if you need it. But if you’re doing a tempo run, you shouldn’t be distracted. So get in your groove and go.
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The most spectacular vistas San Diego has to offer—guaranteed to take your mind off the hard work you’re putting in as you run.

15. Sunset Cliffs
6.1 miles ✹ MODERATE
Start at Ocean Beach Dog Beach, run toward the Ocean Beach Pier and weave your way along Pescadero Drive to the ocean. Run up Sunset Cliffs Boulevard to Sunset Cliffs Park and then make your way back.

Sunset Cliffs offer one of the best ocean views in San Diego. After reaching the coast, this path will take you high above the ocean, with rocky cliffs and breaking waves below. Most of the path is off the street, and once you reach Sunset Cliffs Park, there are plenty of dirt trails to wind along, extending your run if you wish.
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16. Pacific Beach Boardwalk
6.1 miles ✹ EASY
Start at Ocean Boulevard and Loring Street and run along the ocean to the jetty and back. Or park at the jetty off Mission Boulevard and run the route in reverse.

This completely flat path stays away from traffic and takes you right along the beach and past Belmont Park. Get a close-up view of surfers, volleyball players, and beach bunnies, along with the crashing ocean waves. Parts of the path, especially around Belmont Park and Crystal Pier, can be overcrowded with tourists, so be prepared to people-dodge as you people-watch. If it’s too busy, you can always move your run to the beach.
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17. Torrey Pines
2 miles ✹ DIFFICULT
Start in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve lot on North Torrey Pines Road and walk the steep park road into the park. There you have multiple options for routes to trace, including the Guy Fleming Trail or the Razor Point Trail.

The trail up to Torrey Pines requires challenging climbs that will test both your bum and your heart rate, but if you make it, you will be rewarded with jaw-dropping views. All trails in the park come to the edges of sweeping cliffs that overlook the ocean and crashing surf below. If you time it right, you will see spectacular sunsets. It’s all completely worth the $10 parking fee. Edward Agunos, the head organizer of the San Diego Running Group, says these trails are his favorites, “hands down,” for a good view.
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18. Ocean path in La Jolla
Out and back is 3.3 miles ✹ MODERATE
Start at the intersection of Coast Boulevard and Prospect Street and run along Coast Boulevard, around Ellen Browning Scripps Park and then follow the Coast Walk Trail past the La Jolla Caves.

This path takes you along the rocky shores of La Jolla, past sights like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Children’s Pool. Absorb the gorgeous ocean views and watch swimmers, surfers, scuba divers, and seal-loving environmentalists—along with the seals themselves, for the time being—as you run. You can also extend your run to La Jolla Shores Park and through the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus.
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Three favorite places for moseying pedal pushers and hardcore speedsters alike.

19. Bird Rock bike path
2 miles ✹ EASY
Between Nautilus and Turquoise Streets in La Jolla.

This path can transport a biker or runner from PB’s beach boardwalk to the shores of La Jolla. The bike path is frequented mostly by Bird Rock residents because it’s hard to find (from LJ, start near the fire station on Nautilus, north of Draper Avenue; it runs to Camino de la Costa just north of La Jolla Hermosa Avenue, and then continues along La Jolla Hermosa as part of the road). It’s perfect for a short run or ride, or for creating a longer route.
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20. Lake Hodges
San Dieguito River Park

This park recently won architecture awards both for its new headquarters and for its “stressed ribbon style” pedestrian bridge. Here’s your impetus to go check this place out if you haven’t already. There are endless options for trails and a whole range of distances, elevation changes, and single- or double-track trails.
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21. Bayshore bikeway
Down the Silver Strand and through downtown San Diego.

This circuit used to be called “The Bay Route,” but since that’s also the name of a popular college drinking game, it changed its name. Still, the long route and the challenges it provides remain the same. This path takes you pretty much around the entire perimeter of the San Diego Bay, from Coronado to Chula Vista to downtown. Bring $4.25 to ride the Coronado ferry, with your bike in tow, to close the loop.
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These dirt trails provide a run that’s challenging, but not quite as butt-busting as a trail up a mountain.

Photography by Richard Benton

22. Balboa Park trail #5
6.6 miles ✹ DIFFICULT
Start at Sixth Avenue and Upas Street and follow the red diamond #5 trail markers.

About half the trail is dirt—some of it with steep climbs—so don’t expect pristine white running kicks to stay that way. The route takes you past the park’s museums and fountains, so on a weekend you can watch the wedding, engagement, and quinceañera photo shoots. It will also carry you to places in the park you may not know about, like the winding dirt trails through Florida Canyon.
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23. Los Peñasquitos waterfall trail
10 miles ✹ DIFFICULT
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve

Deer have been known to crash through the brush along this trail, quickly jolting a runner out of “the zone.” The mostly flat path is shaded by trees and circles around a small creek, making the East County heat (slightly) more bearable. A waterfall trickles about three miles in, which is the perfect turnaround point if you only want to do a 6-mile loop (there are actually five places to cross the creek and cut your route short). Just watch out for rattlesnakes. And deer!
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24. Rose Canyon bike path
2 miles ✹ EASY
Between Genesee Avenue and Gilman Drive in University City.

This dirt trail rolls along a canyon, with a backdrop of cliffs and trees. Running this trail can make you feel like you’re traveling through backcountry wilderness, not on a path a few minutes from business parks and shopping centers. If you want a longer run, continue along the paved bike path south of Gilman Drive, or follow Gilman north up the hill to the UC San Diego campus.
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These paths are paved, flat, and loaded with fun things for kids to look at.

25. Balboa Park trail #4
4.1 miles ✹ EASY
Start at Sixth Avenue and Upas Street and follow the orange square #2 trail markers.

This flat and paved path heads away from traffic and will take you and your tots over the Cabrillo Bridge and past museums, the fountain, and up to the edge of the zoo. The paths can be crowded, especially on weekends, so if you’re looking to cruise, try walking at off hours.
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26. Around Coronado Island
6 miles ✹ EASY
Start from Tidelands Park and trace the path that borders the island, passing under the Coronado Bridge as you make your way back.

Who knew you could run around the entire perimeter of Coronado (at least the part that’s not occupied by the Navy base) in just six miles? This route passes iconic SD sights along the way, including the Hotel Del Coronado, the ferry landing, and the path under the Coronado Bridge. It follows alternating paved paths away from traffic and slow streets with wide sidewalks.
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27. Liberty Station to Harbor Island
7.7 miles ✹ EASY
Beginning on the esplanade behind Corvette Diner in Liberty Station, run south and cross the pedestrian bridge over the boat channel, along Harbor Drive and onto Harbor Island.

This run only crosses one intersection and follows wide sidewalks and paths. The flat and paved terrain makes it easy for stroller pushing, and the lack of traffic keeps it safe. The harbor and the bridge over the boat channel will entertain your kids, too. Rachel Laing, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ deputy press secretary, counts this run as one of her favorites.
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28. Inside track around Mission Bay
11.3 miles ✹ EASY
Start anywhere along the path that traces Mission Bay—the Santa Clara Recreation Center has parking lots—and run in either direction as far as you’d like.

This scenic run follows a wide path away from traffic, with views of Mission Bay’s boaters, stand-up paddleboarders, and beachgoers. While the boardwalk on the ocean side of the bay is usually crowded with people, the inner track is mostly clear and open.
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