10 Best Hikes to Take Kids On in San Diego

San Diego’s nature parks, preserves, lakes, and valleys offer stunning backdrops for family-friendly hikes whether you’re on the coast or in the mountains.
Todd Sarouhan
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The Best Places for Families to Hike in San Diego

The San Diegito River with Hot Air Balloons in the BackgroundBeautiful Cactus at Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve

There are plenty of hiking spots around San Diego suitable for people of any skill level. Explore the most beautiful places around the county, including many regions that have remained practically untouched.

For nature lovers, you can’t go wrong with hiking through a preserve. Parks like Mission Trails Regional Park and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park are great places to start, as are more famous options like Torrey Pines and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.

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Explore Nature at Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve
Dive into the natural beauty of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve on its 7.5-mile flat trail. Enjoy highlights such as the Peñasquitos Creek Waterfall and a history museum. Encounter gardens, farmland, and diverse wildlife for an educational and enjoyable family outdoor experience.

More experienced hikers might like to climb to the summits of Black Mountain or Cowles Mountain, but there are also plenty of kid-friendly options that offer similar views. These include the more even trails of Iron Mountain and Crest Canyon.

No matter where you choose to hike, the most important factor is being able to spend time with family while experiencing exciting adventures. That’s why these hikes are among the Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids and an excellent addition to any vacation plan.

The 10 Best Hikes to Take Kids on in San Diego

It’s time to get active! Going on a hike is a great way to get the whole family to unplug from their phones for an afternoon and soak up the beauty of nature. And in San Diego, there’s no shortage of beauty.

Hike the cliffs along the coast, walk desert paths lined with sagebrush, and explore the forests at these top 10 hiking spots in San Diego!

Tree Covered Path at Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve
Tree Covered Path at Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve

1) Go on a Nature Hike at Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve

San Diego Parks & Nature: Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve

Hiking the trails at Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is an excellent way to keep active and take in the scenery. Encompassing the Lopez and Peñasquitos Canyons, this preserve is filled with unique features that accentuate its natural beauty and make it one of San Diego’s best hiking spots.

There are about 12 miles of trails in Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, with the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail providing the best hike for families. While the trail stretches 7.5 miles, it’s a fairly flat and easy trail that winds through many of the best sites in the preserve, including the stunning Peñasquitos Creek Waterfall that flows over volcanic rock.

The preserve is filled with gardens and farmland, with a museum on the property detailing the history of the area. Kids can learn about San Diego’s Native American tribe, the Kumeyaay.

Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve is also a habitat for many species of animals, with a stream and freshwater marshes that are the nesting grounds for more than 175 species of birds. You might spot raccoons, bobcats, mule deer, or coyotes around the preserve. There are also 500 different plant species, including a sycamore tree grove and California oaks.

Cliffs Overlooking Pacific Ocean at Cabrillo National Monument
Cliffs Overlooking Pacific Ocean at Cabrillo National Monument

2) Visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and Surrounding Areas in Cabrillo National Monument

San Diego Parks & Nature: Cabrillo National Monument

Step back in time to California’s earliest days with a trip to Cabrillo National Monument at the southern end of Point Loma.

A visit to Point Loma easily makes our list of the Best Things to Do with Kids in San Diego thanks to its unique monuments and the many opportunities for education around Cabrillo National Monument. This is a great way to get kids interested in history, as Point Loma is considered “California’s Birthplace” since it was where the first European explorers landed their ships on the West Coast.

Head to the Visitor Center for information about tours and a chance to learn about the role Point Loma played in World War I and II. Make sure to visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse as well!

Hiking paths include the Bayside Trail and the Point Loma Tide Pools and Bluffs Trail. Both trails are filled with a charming mix of wildlife and history. End your journey with a visit to Point Loma’s tide pools along the beach.

The Bay Boardwalk Goes Around Most of the Bay
The Bay Boardwalk Goes Around Most of the Bay

3) Walk and Bike Inside Mission Bay Park

Neighborhood: Mission Bay Park

Families looking to get outdoors in San Diego can’t go wrong with Mission Bay Park. One great area to take the kids to is Bonita Cove, a stretch of shoreline along Mission Beach. On top of being an ideal spot for a beach day with plenty of space to go for a swim or have a picnic, Bonita Cove also boasts excellent walking trails.

Hiking in Mission Bay Park, also referred to as Mission Bay Playground, is fun for all ages. The pathways are flat and easily manageable for kids. This also makes them well suited to biking, as there are few bumps or uphill sections to worry about, and the path is paved. There are public restrooms located throughout the park.

If you’re also planning to spend some time on the beach while at Bonita Cove, make sure to grab a Go City San Diego pass with our discount code, GVSD5OFF. This pass nets you discounts on beach gear rentals so you can save on surfboards, kayaks, bikes and other equipment. An all-inclusive pass also grants access to SeaWorld which is right nearby!

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Family Going for a Hike at Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve
Family Going for a Hike at Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve

4) Explore the Easy Trails at Torrey Pines

San Diego Parks & Nature: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Southern California is filled with desert landscapes and well-preserved ecosystems. One of the most appealing options for exploring San Diegan wildlife is walking the trails at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

Torrey Pines State Reserve is filled with practically untouched nature ranging from sandy paths lined with desert shrubs to sandstone canyons. The park is named after the Torrey Pine tree that can be found along the trails. Local laws have protected the natural beauty of this area, making it a top-tier hiking spot in San Diego.

While there are a few challenging trails in the reserve, there are also plenty of paths that are suitable for younger kids, making a trip to Torrey Pines one of the Best Things to Do with Kids in San Diego overall. In particular, the Guy Fleming Trail is a short and easy hike that provides incredible views of the landscape, including its native cacti and wildflowers.

Families can also take the Beach Trail to Torrey Pines State Beach. While this hiking trail is a little steeper, being able to visit a fairly secluded beach is well worth the trip, especially if you rent beach gear with the Go City San Diego pass beforehand.

5) Take a Moderate Hike Up Iron Mountain

Many people choose to stay along the shore when vacationing in San Diego, but for active families, there’s lots to enjoy once you move away from the coastal regions too. Iron Mountain is a natural landmark in Poway, which is just a few miles inland of Del Mar.

Iron Mountain features a 6-mile trail that winds its way up the mountain. On the trail, you’ll pass rolling fields, shrubbery, and distant mountains, all of which make for incredible scenic views.

Iron Mountain can be a little challenging for younger kids, so it’s recommended for older kids and families who are used to hiking off the beaten path. However, the sights are well worth it for those who choose to embark on this moderately challenging hike.

The view from the summit is among the best in San Diego, with an uninterrupted line of sight that stretches miles in every direction. This is an excellent hike to take just before sunset, as the view of the sun sinking past the horizon is incredible from the summit. Just remember to bring flashlights or headlamps so you can safely climb back down the trail.

6) Take a Leisurely Stroll Along the Batiquitos Lagoon Trail

San Diego Parks & Nature: Batiquitos Lagoon

Families who love animals are right at home in San Diego. Grabbing a Go City San Diego pass and visiting the San Diego Zoo is always fun for kids and parents, but it can be even more rewarding to see animals in their natural habitats. Visit Carlsbad’s own protected nature reserve at Batiquitos Lagoon, which is situated on a unique wetland habitat.

The hiking trails through Batiquitos Lagoon are easy and only take about an hour to complete, which makes them ideal for families. Batiquitos Lagoon Trail is about 1.6 miles long and surrounded by gorgeous views of the lagoon and surrounding wetlands. Leashed dogs are welcome to walk the trail as well, so feel free to bring the whole family!

Keep an eye out for wildlife as you walk. Many species of birds make their nests in the trees of the wetlands, including a few endangered species. There are also over 60 different species of fish in the lagoon, as well as roaming wildlife like deer, coyotes, and the occasional bobcat.

7) Visit Doane Valley Nature Trail

Hiking a kid-friendly trail and seeing spectacular views aren’t mutually exclusive in San Diego. You can be completely surrounded by nature and soak up the incredible sites at the trails around Doane Valley. Drive over to Palomar Mountain State Park for an exciting trip down the Doane Valley Nature Trail.

This trail travels through the heart of a forest, passing by Doane Creek and bordered by a dense woodland filled with pine and cedar trees. After walking through the woods, the trail emerges into a sun-soaked meadow, then loops back around to the forest. The trail is about 1 mile long with few hills and valleys, so even the youngest family members should have little trouble on this hike.

Palomar Mountain State Park is a natural habitat for all kinds of animals, many of which are commonly spotted on the wilderness trail. Look out for deer hiding among the trees and birds flying past overhead. This is a great trail to bring a camera and a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at the wildlife.

8) Walk or Bike Along the Lake Hodges Trail

Neighborhood: Escondido

Lake Hodges in Escondido is a man-made reservoir originally constructed in 1918. Today, it’s an outdoor-lover’s paradise boasting beautiful natural landscapes and a wide variety of walking and biking trails.

If you’re looking to hike with kids in tow, the Bernardo Bay Trail is an excellent choice. This 2-mile trail follows Lake Hodges’ southern shoreline, so hikers get great views of both the hills and lake. Attached trails like the Kumeyaay Way and Hodges Cut Over are a bit steeper but still manageable if you’re looking to head deeper into the wooded area.

Lake Hodges also has many trails that are commonly used for mountain biking. Cross-country trails might be a little challenging on foot, but it’s a breeze to traverse this natural playground on a bike. Rent a few for the family with a Go City San Diego pass discount and watch the scenery as you cruise through the trails.

Sign Leading to the Coast to Crest Trail at the San Diegito River Park
Sign Leading to the Coast to Crest Trail at the San Diegito River Park

9) Make the Effort to Get to Crest Canyon

San Diego Parks & Nature: San Dieguito River Park

Just past the Torrey Pines Nature Preserve in Del Mar lies the San Dieguito River Park, a series of trails and sprawling nature in the San Dieguito River Valley. Visiting the San Dieguito Lagoon and doing some bird watching is a great way to introduce younger kids to the charms of San Diego’s natural beauty, and it’s also an excellent family-friendly hiking destination.

The real highlight of the San Dieguito River Park is Crest Canyon, which is filled with sagebrush native to the coast along its easy to walk dirt paths. Follow the gentle incline to the rim of the canyon, where you’ll want to snap a few pictures of the view looking down into the canyon and out across the landscape.

The trail is a little over 2.5 miles from start to finish, but there are many connecting trails that allow you to shorten the hike if desired. Crest Canyon’s trails are also dog-friendly as long as pets remain on-leash.

10) View the Sunset at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve

San Diego Parks & Nature: San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center

See one of the biggest coastal wetlands San Diego has to offer at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center. This reserve is a must-see stop for nature lovers, with multiple types of habitats around the park, each home to its own ecosystem. Salt marsh, freshwater marsh, coastal strand, sage scrub, and chapparal all make San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve one of the most biologically diverse locations in San Diego.

There are 7 miles of trails in the 979-acre park, with difficulties ranging from easy to moderate. There is an ADA-accessible trail looping around the Nature Center, ensuring that everyone can enjoy San Elijo.

The Nature Center also houses interactive exhibits that are a great way for kids to learn about nature inside the park. Additionally, San Elijo Reserve has a scavenger hunt kids can complete during their hike through TRACK Trails, and those who finish their hunts can even win prizes.

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Attractions that you can visit with a Go City San Diego pass include:

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Tips on How to Stay Safe with Your Kids While Hiking in San Diego

How Do You Go Hiking for Free with Kids in San Diego?

The vast majority of San Diego’s best hiking spots are completely free, whether you choose to visit a dedicated nature park like Mission Bay Park or just to walk around the trails at Balboa Park. Some spots like Torrey Pines have paid parking, so be sure to check before you go to avoid any surprise fees.

What Should You Avoid?

Hiking is a lot of fun, but safety comes first. Make sure all kids stick to the trails, and never try to feed or approach wildlife. As long as you follow these common-sense rules, hiking is completely safe.

What Should You Bring?

The best way to ensure your family has a safe and fun trip when hiking San Diego’s trails is to come prepared. That means bringing plenty of water, sunscreen, and bug spray. It’s also a good idea to wear a comfortable hiking outfit including a sun hat and sturdy sneakers or boots.

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