San Diego is a popular destination for families, with a world famous zoo and multiple theme parks within a short drive of the city center. But it’s also the perfect place to get outside and enjoy the almost year-round sunshine and mild temperatures on San Diego’s best hiking trails. Take a look at some of the best hikes in San Diego with kids, from the easy to the more adventurous, and see what locals already know all about: San Diego is an adventurer’s paradise!
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Kid Friendly Hikes in San Diego
Note: San Diego’s weather is lovely, but it can also get quite hot. Make sure you’re prepared with plenty of water (even for a short hike), hats, sunglasses, and snacks to keep everyone’s energy up. Here are some day hike lunch ideas if you’re planning to explore most of the day.
Before heading out, check for any potential trail closures online, as the rare bouts of inclement weather and fire activity do occur, closing some trails to hikers. If you need ideas, check out this list of what to wear hiking so you’re completely equipped. Finally, have fun!
Mission Trails Regional Park
Mission Trails is one of the most accessible parks in San Diego. Just a short drive from downtown, you’ll find nearly 65 miles of trails at varying levels of difficulty. The trek up Cowles Mountain is certainly the most popular, and at only 3 miles roundtrip, it may sound easy enough to do with the whole family. Cowles Mountain is kid friendly, but know that those 3 miles will take you up over 900 feet of elevation, which is a solid workout for any age.
For a more accessible hike, head into Oak Canyon. The approximately 3 mile trail will take you past the Old Mission Dam, an old creek bed, and a waterfall. This is a waterfall by San Diego standards, so don’t be too disappointed if you don’t see much water in the dryer months. Kids will enjoy scrambling over the rocks along the trail and playing in the water. Be sure to take a snack break under the majestic oak trees since they provide ample amounts of shade.
Time your hike during the spring months and you could be treated to some spectacular wildflowers along the way.
If your kids can handle a longer hike, Eagle Rock boasts an impressive payoff at the end of its 6.2 mile trail with a giant rock shaped like an eagle. You will have to get close to the large rock formation to see the resemblance, but once you’re there, you can’t miss the fact that it looks like an eagle with an impressive wingspan.
The trail covers about 800 feet of elevation gain over the course of this longer hike, but the slope is very gradual all the way to the rock. Bring enough snacks and even novice hikers will feel good about completing this one!
Eagle Rock runs along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. You need a car to reach Warner Springs, and you drive through Ramona on the way there. The town of Ramona makes for a great pit spot as needed, with dozens of eateries and shops to choose from depending on your group’s needs.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Families looking to make room for pie on a visit to Julian will want to stop at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, about 40 miles east of San Diego.
The most popular trail in the park is the hike up to Stonewall Peak. The trail is nearly 4 miles with about 800 feet of elevation gain, but ambitious kids and adults will find the climb quite gradual. Those with a fear of heights may have some trouble toward the top where guardrails offer some support for those not wanting to look down. The views from the top are spectacular.
Those with younger children may prefer the much flatter hike around the Cuyamaca Reservoir. Depending on how far you go, the hike can be as short as 1 mile or as long as 3 miles. Keep your eyes peeled along the way for waterfowl, wild turkeys, and deer that love to frequent the watering hole throughout the day.
There is a day use fee of $10 per vehicle at this park. If you’d like to avoid the fee, there are legal turnouts along the highway as you head into the park, but that will add mileage to your hikes. With more time, take a ride on Lake Cuyamaca in one of the rented motor or paddle boats. Kids are sure to love this too.
Seven Bridge Walk
If you’re not able to get out of the city, you can still enjoy the best of San Diego’s urban trails. The Seven Bridge Walk is 5.5 miles from start to finish, but you can pick and choose which of the bridges you want to visit which is especially helpful with little ones in tow.
The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge will likely bring the most delight to little kids thanks to its subtle sway back and forth as you cross. The bridge, which crosses Kate Sessions Canyon, is an iconic San Diego spot, popular with locals and photographers.
Quince Street Bridge nearby is also impressive. The 236-foot bridge that crosses Maple Canyon may not sway, but the wooden trestle bridge has been around since 1905. You will likely need to cross this one and return from the direction you came if you’re tackling any of the other bridges on your walk.
If you’re plotting where to start this urban hike, the seven bridges include the following in addition to the two mentioned above: Park Boulevard Bridge, Cabrillo Bridge, First Avenue Bridge, Vermont Street Bridge and the Georgia Street Bridge near the North Park neighborhood.
As you’ll be strolling through some of San Diego’s best neighborhoods on this one, you may be coaxed into an ice cream stop or two along the way.
Balboa Park is home to some of the city’s best museums and the world famous San Diego Zoo. As you’re traveling with kids, you’ve likely already added Balboa Park to your San Diego with kids itinerary.
The park is also the center of an impressive urban trail network with 65 miles that start at one of the five gateways in and around the park. To head into the park’s best-known features, head to the Park Boulevard gateway. Three miles of flat surface from here will take you through Balboa Park’s historic features, including the most important structures built for the 1915 Panama California Exposition.
Head to the Marston Point Trails gateway to take the kids into the surrounding canyons. The shortest hike from here is only 1 mile, and the longest is a little over 3 miles.
No matter which trail you choose in Balboa Park, you will have easy access to food and drink stops if the mood strikes.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines is already on most San Diego trip itineraries, as it has some of the best views you’ll find anywhere in and around the city for not much effort.
There are several trails to choose from, but the most popular is the Beach Trail, which, quite expectedly, takes you from the lookout points at the top to the beach below. The descent is easy, but keep in mind that you will need to climb the 300 feet back up to the parking lot. Once you hit the beach (one of our favorite San Diego beaches for families), spend some time exploring. This is a great spot for tidepooling, or just taking a breather before your slow ascent.
Back at the top, the Guy Fleming Trail is a popular ⅔ mile-loop that takes you to some spectacular viewpoints Torrey Pines is famous for. Expect to spot beds of wildflowers on your short trek if you visit in the spring months.
There is a fee to enter the park. Expect to pay $10-25 per vehicle, depending on demand that day, unless you have a valid California State Parks pass.
Kitchen Creek Falls
While not as thundering as waterfalls in regions of the country with less desert-like conditions, the base of Kitchen Creek Falls just begs for a picnic lunch and some time spent jumping from rock to rock, avoiding the water below.
The roundtrip on this hike near Pine Valley is about 4.5 miles, with a gradual ascent to the spot where you’ll have to choose your own way down to the falls. The path at this point isn’t marked, and while it isn’t difficult to find your personal rocky steps to climb down, it does get sandy in some sections. Shoes with good traction are a must.
This trail is very dog-friendly, with a furry friend or two likely at the bottom, splashing around and enjoying the views. Kitchen Creek Falls is part of the Cleveland National Forest, so a valid Adventure Pass or national park pass is required.
These are just sampling of some of the best San Diego hikes in and around America’s finest city. Part of the fun is finding the outdoor activities that suit you and your family best, whether that’s a hike that involves some rock climbing or an easy stroll around a lake.
*All photos courtesy of Agnes Groonwald.
About the author: Agnes is the regular person behind Travel on the Reg, a place for people who travel regularly and in a regular fashion. She is currently living the dream in San Diego, America’s finest city.