Travelers are getting more active and adventurous. While for many the idea of a vacation conjures up images of sun-drenched beaches and long, lazy lunches, the prospect of strapping on your hiking boots and conquering challenging trails is an increasingly popular one. Hiking is now the 4th biggest outdoor activity in the US, and over 45 million people choose to go on a backpacking vacation every year.
Part of the reason for the growing popularity of backpacking is the trend for wellness travel. For many, wellness might just mean yoga and quinoa bowls, but the more strenuous activity that comes with a serious hike has a hugely positive impact on stress, cortisol levels, and blood pressure, and is a great way to get fitter and healthier as well.
For travelers looking to embrace a more rugged vacation, California’s stunning and varied scenery makes it a wonderful destination for outdoor adventurers. While San Diego is a big cruising port and surf destination, the mountains and trails of Southern California are well worth exploring as well, and it makes a wonderful base for a backpacking adventure. Here are ten of the best backpacking spots near San Diego.
Mount Woodson is one of the most recognizable SoCal hiking trails, thanks to the picture-perfect ‘Potato Chip Rock’ on the way up. Grabbing a photo at this iconic rock formation is a must, but the real attraction is the challenging ascent and staggeringly beautiful views over the Californian countryside. The trails are steep and can be tough, but the breathtaking views around every corner make it totally worthwhile.
Cedar Creek Falls
The Devil’s Punchbowl, the endpoint of the Cedar Creek Falls trail, is one of the most spectacular hiking destinations that Southern California has to offer. A deep, inviting pool at the base of the falls themselves, the Punchbowl is a dramatic sight with its 75-foot cliff surroundings. The Cedar Creek Falls trail is a tough one (it is all uphill on the way back!) and it can get pretty warm in the heat of the summer, so be prepared with plenty of water.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park gets pretty high at points, and it’s one of the best places to guarantee snowy views in the colder months. There are plenty of trails to choose from within the state park, with the best and most challenging ending up taking on Cuyamaca Peak itself. The Azalea Glen Loop is seven hard miles that will take you to the summit and back, and offers the best mountain panoramas in the state.
The Barker Valley in the Palomar Mountains is a great overnight hike, with a steady, gentle descent down around 1,0000 feet to the river camp, followed by a steep trek back up to the trailhead the next morning! With pretty meadows, a descent cascade, and a lovely riverside atmosphere it makes a great option for newbie backpackers. Just make sure you get a good night’s sleep to be able to tackle the ascent the following day.
Torrey Pines State Park is everything that is good about La Jolla, with sweeping coastal views, rugged cliff edges, and dark pine forests (the eponymous Torrey pine trees are the rarest in the US). There are a bunch of great backpacking trails here, from easier, shorter jaunts like the Razor Point Trail or the Guy Fleming Trail, to the longer full Torrey Pines Trail loop. In addition to the breathtaking scenery, lucky hikers might catch sight of Gray whales and Bottlenose dolphins in the waves below the bluffs.
The Los Peñasquitos Canyon is a great trail for backpackers of all ages and abilities, from kids and total beginners right the way through to hardened hikers. The route is pretty relaxed, but offers up some really beautiful scenery along the way, with some great river crossings and plenty of wildlife.
Known locally as ‘El Capitan’, El Cajon Mountain is one of the most serious and hardcore hikes you can find around San Diego. Seasoned hikers use the trails up El Capitan as training for Mount Whitney ascents, and even for Pacific Trail thru-hikes. The backpacking trails are steep and exposed, all bleak granite and dramatic all-round views, and the wilderness atmosphere is reminiscent of Yosemite. The main peak is just shy of 2,000 feet and represents a real challenge, as well as providing a real sense of achievements for those who conquer it. Overall it is one of the finest and most strenuous backpacking spots in Southern California.
The Three Sisters
Another hiking trail for more experienced backpackers, the Three Sisters trail offers bouldering, rope-led ascents, and even a bit of actual rock climbing before discovering the reward of the Three Sisters cascades. It is one of the largest waterfalls in the country, in a really remote spot, which makes it a real treat for adventurers who make it to the end of the trail. The route has some interesting switchbacks, slick granite slabs, and very pretty wildflower meadows.
Iron Mountain Trail
Despite the scary-sounding name, the Iron Mountain Trail is a popular weekend destination for San Diego residents, and a pretty gentle hike suitable for backpackers of all levels. It offers some pretty special vistas as it hits the eastern mountain ranges, and connects up with a range of other trails that can take you to further, more challenging peaks.
Balboa Park is the central park of San Diego, and might seem like an odd recommendation for hikers and backpackers. But this marvelous, iconic urban greenspace boasts 65 miles of excellent walking trails which offer an excellent combination of natural beauty and architectural sights. Balboa Park might be best known for its human-made attractions, and the museums, designed gardens, and bridges and structures are certainly worth exploring. But it is also a wonderful way to explore nature, a mini-wilderness that just happens to be a short taxi ride to great bars, restaurants and hotels as well!
Beyond its famous beaches and family-friendly attractions, Southern California offers plenty of opportunities for sportier visitors to get active in nature. We hope that this roundup of 10 of the best backpacking spots near San Diego gave you some ideas of outdoor places to check out on your trip to the area.
And don’t forget: San Diego is not dubbed “The Craft Beer Capital of America” for nothing! So if you’re a beer lover, you’ll be able to relax and reward yourself with some great brews after your outdoor adventures.
Do you have any other favorite spots for active travelers in the area? We’d love to hear about it – let us know in a comment below!