SAN DIEGO — San Diego is a paradise for outdoor adventurists, with a diverse natural landscape that’s meant to explore. But with that comes dozens of trails that are not for the faint of heart — ones sure to exhaust and drain even the most experienced of hikers.
For those looking to take on more of a challenge this spring, here are some of the hardest trails for hikers in San Diego County, according to AllTrails.
El Cajon Mountain Trail
Length: 11 miles
Est. time of completion: 6 hours, 55 minutes
El Cajon Mountain Trail near Lakeside is regarded as the hardest trails in San Diego County. This out-and-back trail takes hikers up to the 3,648 ft. summit of El Cajon Mountain. The peak is also nicknamed “El Capitan” after the iconic Yosemite National Park granite rock formation, given similar formations seen at the mountain’s summit.
This is not a hike for those without experience and should NOT be tackled in the summer. The brutal trail has very little shade, according to AllTrails reviewers, getting very hot and arid. While dogs are allowed on the trail, it is not recommended.
Iron Mountain via Ellie Lane Trail
Length: 7.3 miles
Est. time of completion: 3 hours, 38 minutes
Iron Mountain is another one of the most popular hikes in San Diego County that leads to the second highest peak in Poway, according to AllTrails. Ellie Lane Trail is a connecting loop trail that is one of the several options available to hikers looking to tackle the mountain.
Considered rocky and decently strenuous, hiking shoes are recommended. Like with El Cajon Mountain, there is also not much shade, so hikers are encouraged to bring a hat, lots of sunscreen and water. Dogs are welcome, but must be on a leash.
Cowles Mountain to Pyles Peak Trail
Length: 8.1 miles
Est. time of completion: 4 hours, 32 minutes
One of the trails in Mission Trails Regional Park, the Pyles Peak Trail takes hikers to the second highest peak in the park. Hikers start off by reaching the Cowles Mountain summit, before setting off to the next peak that’s generally regarded as having some of the most serene views.
This is a two peak hike, so those setting out on the trail should be prepared for a thigh burner. Dogs are allowed, but only on a leash. Be careful though, AllTrails reviewers flagged that this trail gets a good deal of rattlesnakes.
Fortuna Saddle Trail
Length: 8 miles
Est. time of completion: 4 hours, 26 minutes
Fortuna Saddle Trail is a loop trail near La Mesa known for its use in military training, given the steep incline in the ascent to the top of the North Fortuna Mountain. At 1,291 feet high, North Fortuna is the third highest in Mission Trails Regional Park.
The first portion of the hike of the hike on Fortuna Saddle Trail is fairly shaded and moderate, up until the North Fortuna ascent. After that, it’s said to feel like a breeze. Depending on the time of year, however, there might be some waterflow, so be careful for slippery conditions.
Hot Springs Mountain Trail
Length: 9.8 miles
Est. time of completion: 5 hours, 20 minutes
Hot Springs Mountain trail is a challenging out-and-back trail on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation that takes hikers to the top of the highest point in San Diego County at 6,533 feet in elevation. At the summit, hikers can see stunning panoramic views — from the Salton Sea in the east to the San Diego skyline and the coast in the west.
It is recommended to avoid trying this trail during peak hours or the summer, given that there is little to no shade on long stretches of the hike. This hike is also on sovereign, tribal lands so they are not public. A $10 hiking permit is required for each person and can be bought online here.
Rabbit Peak and Villager Peak Trail
Length: 20.7 miles
Est. time of completion: 16 hours
One of the longest hikes in the San Diego area, the Rabbit Peak and Villager Peak Trail is an out-and-back hike that takes adventurers to two of the most beautiful peaks in the Santa Rosa Mountains of Anza-Borrego State Park. It’s a monster of a trail that offers gorgeous views of the sweeping desert wilderness in northeast San Diego.
This is a trail that only experienced hikers or backpackers should attempt. It is encouraged that those who attempt the trail split it up into two days — one for each peak. Do not attempt this trail during the summer, given extreme temperatures.
Miscellaneous Tips for Hikers:
- Know what your limits are and stick to them. Go at your own pace and listen to your body. If you feel weak, take a break or turn back around.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks. These trails are difficult for a reason and every year, people suffer severe dehydration or undernourishment. The challenge is not worth it if you’re not taking care of your body.
- Use the right gear. Whether it’s poorly fitted boots or heavy packs, trekking through difficult terrain with gear not suited for it will more than likely magnify the strain these hikes have on your body.