With miles of pristine beaches, rolling chaparral covered hills, and a constant semi-arid desert climate, San Diego will never be identified as one of the hot spots for waterfalls or hikes to waterfalls. However, unbeknownst to many people, from December through Memorial Day, San Diego does have a number of great seasonal waterfall hikes that highlight some of the best features of the county’s backcountry. As all of these waterfalls are seasonal, timing is everything, and also somewhat dependent on the weather pattern for the year. During wet winters and springs, these waterfalls will have high flows, and creek crossings; and during drought years, there may only be a trickle and dry stream beds. Similarly, with respect to timing, at the right times, these waterfalls can and will appear spectacular – but at the wrong times, may be a letdown after a hot, dusty trek. Keeping all that in mind, these hikes can also be great gateways to explore other regions of San Diego County, and again, at the right times, great spots to view spring wildflowers. I’ve listed the below hikes in order of difficulty, and let me know your thoughts about them, or any additions you have to the list below!
Julian is one of the most popular destinations in all of San Diego County for a number of reasons – in the winter; it is one of the few spots in the county that receives regular snowfall. In the fall, it is also one of the few spots in the county that allows apple picking. Year-round, however, it is popular for its distinctive – and tasty pies. While there are a number of trails one can select in the area in an attempt to mitigate the damage from pie and donut consumption in town, the easiest and most family-friendly with the best view is at Inaja Memorial Park, which is located some six miles to the east of Julian.
With windswept sandstone cliffs, and stunning year-round views of the Pacific Ocean, Torrey Pines State Reserve is one of San Diego’s most popular parks. Even though it is a park that is popular with locals and visitors alike, few people realize that the park was established to protect the Torrey Pine, which is one of the rarest trees on the planet, as it only grows in and around the confines of the park and on Santa Rosa Island. While there are many spots within the park where one can walk under, view, and get close to the pinus torreyana, there is only one spot that demonstrates the risks that these rare trees still face, and that is the Parry Grove Trail.
Outside of the big three hikes in San Diego – “Potato Chip Rock”, Cowles Mountain, and Iron Mountain - the Cedar Creek Falls hike is one of the top five most popular hikes in the entirety of San Diego County. And, unlike many claims made about hiking in San Diego, this is not blogger hyperbole, this is a verified fact. The Forest Service website for the area even states that this trail is “...possibly the most traveled trail in the Palomar District”. As Cedar Creek Falls is so popular, no description of the hike would be complete without getting into why the trail and the waterfall is and has been so popular.
Although a variety of great outdoor options exist in North County San Diego, one of the newer outdoor multi-use areas is the Del Dios Highland Preserve. Comprising some seven hundred and seventy four acres of coastal sage scrub and mixed chaparral habitats, the preserve also straddles the San Dieguito and Escondido Creek Watersheds. From 2002 to 2004, the area was restored by the County of San Diego and its partner, the Escondido Creek Conservancy, and from 2005 onward, has been a preserve that has been open to the public. The preserve features one trail, the Del Dios Highland Preserve multiuse trail that is accessible by mountain bikers, joggers, and hikers alike, which also connects the preserve to the nearby Elfin Forest Preserve.
San Diego is a hiker’s mecca. From the trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve on the Coast, to the city’s highest point at Cowles Mountain, and through the East County trails of Iron Mountain and El Cajon Mountain, there is literally a hike for every person, and for every skill level. In addition to all of these trails, and the thousands more I didn’t mention, San Diego is also a great location for overnight camping, from backpacking to car-camping and everything in between. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve been lucky enough to explore much of San Diego’s backcountry in a number of ways, and am thrilled to be working with Expedia.com on this article to recommend some of the best overnight wilderness hiking areas. While overnight wilderness activities have innumerable perks, the locations within the confines of San Diego allow visitors the added benefit of a little extra wilderness solitude to recover from the hustle and bustle of everyday Southern California life. The locations listed below provide a great starting point for overnight wilderness activities in the County, and hopefully provide inspiration for many nights in some of the most pristine backcountry that can be found in Southern California.
San Diego is a city that in many respects is unparalleled for its outdoor and wilderness opportunities. Within the confines of the county there is terrain that ranges from coastal to alpine, and covers everything in between. While much of the coastal wilderness areas are well known to locals and visitors alike, one of the wilderness gems of San Diego is not as well known, the Laguna Mountains.