Need a Legoland detox day? Luckily, the are some legitimately fun hikes in San Diego to do with kids!
While San Diego certainly is not Yosemite or Lake Tahoe, there are a number of family friendly trails when you need a nature fix. With beautiful beaches and ample hiking trails it’s no wonder the residents of “America’s Finest City” are often ranked some of the healthiest in the country!
One of the best and worst things about many of the trails in the San Diego area is their proximity to the urban area. The upside of this is trailheads are easy to find, you’ll have cell coverage, and when you’re finished hiking you’re mere minutes away from a taqueria. The downside is that you won’t be finding yourself alone on the top of a mountain gazing out at miles of undeveloped desert landscape.
Nonetheless, what I’ve discovered about hiking with children is that they simply don’t care about big vistas and solitude. We will reach the summit and I’ll be gushing about the view and they’ll be looking at me like “this is what we get for hiking uphill for hours”?
Kids want exciting features along the way. Ladders, bridges, wildlife, caves, tide pools. Fortunately in a city that worships sunshine and fitness there are some great trails that will minimize kid whining and maximize family happiness. No grueling uphill trekking required…
Kid Friendly Hikes San Diego
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
It’s no secret that Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of the best places to hike in San Diego County. In other words, don’t go there expecting to have the place to yourself. However, even on the most crowded of days, you’ll still be wowed by the sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.
One of things that makes Torrey Pines so family -friendly is that all the trails are really short, mostly between 1/2 mile to 2 miles in length. This means that you won’t end up a few miles from the trailhead with a child who suddenly decides that they can’t simply take another step. We’ve all experienced this sudden kid hiking shutdown and it’s no fun for anyone. At Torrey Pines you can cover some ground while staying within a twenty minute walk to the car. So even if your child has a trailside meltdown, you’re less than a mile from the sanctuary of your SUV.
There are at least four or five different trails to chose from at Torrey Pines. My favorite trails to do with kids are the Razor Point trail and the Beach Trail.
It only requires hiking 2/3 of a mile on the Razor Point trail to reach a great big rock for climbing and some stellar views of La Jolla coastline. The Beach Trail is a 3/4 mile trail that take you across the bluff and down to the beach. The trail is mostly flat with a section of downhill and stairs that descend to the beach. Just remember that unless you’re looping back to the lower parking lot, the hike back have a little uphill.
Parking: Pay $15 to park in the main lot. (the pricing changes based on the demand and can be as high as $20) If you can park in the upper lot area you will be closer to the majority of the trailheads
Tips for Hiking Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- Only at low tide can hike the Beach Trail down to the beach and walk along the beach back the main parking lot.
- Often times if it’s been rainy the park is closed. Check the website if the weather has been wet.
- If you’re able to get a parking spot in the upper lot it will save you the walk up the hill and put you closer to the start of most of the trails. Getting a spot in the upper lot involves a bit of good luck.
- During the spring many of the cacti are in bloom which makes Torrey Pines extra beautiful.
- Wear a hat and sunscreen- the trails are very exposed!
Cabrillo National Monument
This is a great spot for families staying near the downtown area but looking to spend a mellow day enjoying the flora and fauna of San Diego.
There are two trails in Cabrillo National Monument. Both are easy hikes and offer endless views of the ocean. The Tide Pool Trail basically goes along the coast between the two parking lots and the tide pools. This doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy but in actuality it’s actually a very pretty walk along the coast. The Bayside Trail is a bit longer, 2.5 miles and treats hikers to views of the San Diego Bay.
Parking: Pay $20 to enter the park. Your entrance fee allows you to return at any point for a week.
Tips for Hiking Cabrillo National Monument
- Make sure to find out when low tide is (it’s posted at the entrance) and check out the tide pools at low tide. Getting sandy and wet is a fun post-hiking treat!
- Bring food, there isn’t much to eat at Cabrillo National Monument
- Check out my article on visiting Cabrillo National Monument for more info on what to do at this beautiful San Diego gem.
This is the hike that my kids never get tired of. In fact we once encountered a family that had done the loop three times in a row because their kids were having so much fun scamerping around the canyon. Needless to say, this is a favorite among local families and one of the best hikes in San Diego for kids!
Part of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, the trail to Annie’s Canyon starts off as a flat, easy walk through the wetlands. After about 3/4 of a mile you will come to a sign for Annie’s Canyon. Take the more strenuous route! If you take the moderate option you will merely be climbing a set of stairs to a lookout point. The harder option takes your through the narrow sandstone canyons and lets you climb a steep, but short, ladder. This is the fun part for kids. Even though you’re a stones throw away from Interstate 5, you’ll feel like you’re a world away.
Parking: Park at the end of N. Rios Street in Solana Beach.
Tips for Hiking Annies Canyon
- Go in the morning or evening when it’s cooler
- Have a post hike bite to eat at one of the many delicious eateries in the Solana Beach and Cardiff area.
San Dieguito County Park
This is the place to go if you’re looking for an exciting twist on your typical family hike. With five miles of hiking trails that weave through sandy hills and eucalyptus groves you can easily spend a few hours stretching your legs. But the real reason to go hiking at San Dieguito County Park is the “activity hill.” This section of the park has suspension bridges, look outs, and ladders that will thrill young hikers. When you’re done hiking check out any of the five playgrounds or have a picnic by the duck pond.
Parking: You can park on the road just outside the entrance (we parked along El Camino Real and walked in past the duck pond) or you can pay $3 to park inside the park. There are several different entrance points to the park.
Tips for hiking San Dieguito County Park
- This hike is extra beautiful in the late fall. There aren’t many places in San Diego where you can experience autumn colors but there are some relatively spectacular oak trees in San Dieguito County Park that will give you a little taste of fall foliage.
- Bring a picnic or snacks. Between the playgrounds and the trails you might find yourself spending more time then you anticipated exploring the park.
Daley Ranch, Escondido
If you’re looking for a longer hike or just want to escape civilization for a day, this is your best bet. Even on a crowded day the twenty- five miles of trails provide enough space to keep the park from feeling too busy.
When we hiked with our 7 year- old we took the Creek Crossing trail to East Ridge trail to the ranch house and then looped back on Sage trail to Diamond Back trail to East ridge and Creek Crossing trail. (I promise this isn’t as complicated as it sounds!) It was an approximately four mile loop. Along the way we visited the historic ranch buildings, passed a few picturesque ponds and had paused to take in the views of the surrounding desert. It was a pleasant surprise how many of the views were natural and not marred by urban sprawl, a real treat in Southern California!
Even if you chose to do a different trail or loop, I would recommend stopping by the ranch house. At the ranch there are picnic tables, some nice shade trees and bathrooms. It’s definitely the best place for a break or picnic since along the trails there aren’t many benches or shady spots to recharge.
Parking: Park in the dirt lot at the end of La Honda Drive. There are a few other access points to the park but this is the most popular. Parking is free.
Tips for Hiking Daley Ranch
- Daley Ranch allows dogs and horses so feel free to bring along four-legged hiking companions.
- There isn’t much shade and Escondido can be sweltering, especially in the summer, so plan accordingly.
Los Penasquitos Canyon County Preserve
Nestled amidst newly built sprawling neighborhoods, this park doesn’t immediately impress. From the trailhead located at the end of Camino Del Sur you can chose whether to follow a shaded trail along a creek or take the trail that cuts across an open grassy field. All trails lead towards the falls. Head west and you will be fine. The power lines and adjacent neighborhood are a glaring reminder that you’re hiking in the middle of suburbia. Nonetheless there are some pretty spots along the trail. It gets infinitely more rugged and beautiful as you approach the falls. Keep your expectations low for the size and magnitude of the falls and you will be pleasantly surprised. Cool your feet in the water, have a snack on a bench and then head back.
Parking: There are several spots you can park to access the Los Penasquitos Canyon County Preserve. If you park at the end of Camino Del Sur it gives you a five mile roundtrip walk to the waterfall and free parking. If you’re using google enter “Penasquitos Creek Park Trail Head” and it will direct you to the correct spot.
Tips for hiking Los Penasquitos Canyon County Preserve
- If you park on Camino Del Sur parking is free. It’s also one of the shortest ways to get to the falls
- Watch out for poison oak if you’re hiking the trail that goes along the creek. When we hiked here in the spring the poison oak was taking over the trail making contact with it almost unavoidable. We opted to hike on the more sun-baked trail rather than risk the misery that is poison oak.
Encinitas Rail trail
To be entirely honest, this is not really a hike. It’s actually a newly created paved pathway that stretches between the North County communities of Encinitas and Cardiff. The 1.3 mile rail trail made the list because it’s a mostly flat, smooth walkway that’s unequivocally the perfect place to push a stroller. It also happens to be perfect for young children to ride scooters, skateboard, or bikes, making it an easy option for families. So if you have a hankering to move your legs but your kiddos are happiest rolling rather than walking this a fantastic option.
You’ll have big ocean views the entire walk and legendary VJ’s Bakery in Cardiff is a nice spot to have a cup of coffee and the world’s best donut. Seriously, the donuts are amazing.
If you want to walk back to Encinitas along the Highway 101 pedestrian path, cross the highway and follow the cliffside pedestrian walkway back towards Encinitas. Just a head up, the pathway along Highway 101 has more traffic noise and gets crowded. Also, the concrete isn’t quite as smooth (ie scooter friendly) and while you’re closer to the ocean, the campground and the vegetation that lines the path blocks the view of the ocean for much of the walk.
One of the big perks of going back along Highway 101 is that you will pass by Swami’s beach, a legendary Souther California surf break and an absolutely gorgeous beach. Even if you don’t feel like walking down the steep staircase to the beach it’s worth it to stop and enjoy the view.
To get back to where you started on San Elijo Ave, walk north from the Swamis parking lot and you will see a traffic light/ crosswalk. Go across the road and under the pedestrian underpass to get to San Elijo Ave and the start of the rail trail.
Parking: Park on San Elijo Ave near Santa Fe Drive. You will see the paved pathway. Parking is free.
Tips for Hiking in San Diego
- Timing is everything. Avoid being fried by the desert sun and start your hike earlier in the day. Or hike during the winter when the sun isn’t as strong and a midday hike will leave you feeling sun-kissed and not sun burnt.
- Gear up. Make sure to bring the basic hiking essentials: hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and water.
- Keep an eye out for rattlers. Don’t let all the swaying palm trees fool you, San Diego is a desert. And in the desert there are rattlesnakes. Take extra care in the spring months when they are most active. Keep yourself, your dog, and your children on the trail and you should be fine.
The Bottom Line: The trails in San Diego aren’t exactly world class. However, there are some very easy and enjoyable family friendly hikes in San Diego to do with kids.