10 Best San Diego Winter Hikes
Winter is prime time for hiking in San Diego. Not only does the weather dip below 70 degrees (with the occasional sprinkle of rain!), we also finally get to experience a true change of season in some parts of the county. If we drive far enough, as in 40 minutes from downtown San Diego, we even get the chance to experience to frolic in snow-covered fields. For native Californians snow, cool weather, and leaves of varying color are a rarity, and something that should be properly celebrated. What better way to experience true winter in all its glory than to take a hike?
I’ve hiked many miles throughout San Diego during my hiking tenure, and have selected 10 trails that deserve to be trekked during winter months. Check them out and add them to your winter calendar!
1. Lower Doane Valley and French Valley
Located at the top of Palomar Mountain, about an hour and a half from downtown San Diego, the Lower Doane Valley Trail combined with the French Valley Trail is an ideal destination during winter months. This short 4-mile trek takes you through a thick forest of trees and through pine-rimmed meadows, sights that are rarely seen on other San Diego trails. During the winter, this trail often experiences some snow fall but not enough to deter a Californian hiker. It’s just the right amount to make you grateful you took the time to change up your scenery.
2. Thunder Springs to Upper Doane Valley
Also located at the top of Palomar Mountain by the Doane Valley campground is the Thunder Springs Trail which connects and loops around the meadow to the Upper Doane Valley trail. Similar to the Lower Doane Valley Trail, this trail often experiences snowfall in the winter. Families will caravan their children to this hike for a chance to sled down snow-covered hills or build a snowman near the Doane Pond. Despite the trail being a bit busier with families at the beginning of the trail, the remaining 3 miles you’ll experience relative solitude during winter months.
3. Three Sisters Falls
Most native San Diegans who have hiked Three Sisters Falls has made the brutal mistake of attempting this trail in the warm months. It’s often forgotten that Descanso experiences much higher temperatures than other parts of the county. That being said, the 2-mile uphill trek back up the trail after you’ve visited the falls is grueling at best during warmer months. This is why a visit to Three Sisters Falls is ideal during winter months, when temperatures are more manageable. You’ll also have a better chance of seeing water run down the falls.
4. Viejas Mountain
A hike up Viejas Mountain may be a mere 3-mile roundtrip trek; however, it can feel double that length when attempting this hike during summer. This trail is entirely uncovered, therefor you are exposed to the sun’s blaring heat throughout the entirety of this hike. During winter months Viejas Mountain turns into a very pleasant trek, with temperatures averaging in the 70’s. This trail is also not heavily trekked, making it a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
5. El Cajon Mountain
If you are up for the 12-mile challenge, this hike can be highly rewarding once you reach its peak. However, it is difficult to reach that peak when temperatures are soaring and you’re constantly feeling dehydrated. Hiking El Cajon Mountain is a true staple and a must-do hike for San Diego and SoCal hikers. Yet it is only truly practical to hike here during winter months for both your safety and your sanity.
6. Garnet Peak
Another location that experiences a true change of seasons in San Diego is Laguna Mountain. One of the most popular trails to hike here is the short 2.3-mile Garnet Peak Trail, which features expansive views of the Anza-Borrego Desert below. The viewpoint at the summit is reason enough to hike this trail, however during winter months you’ll have the opportunity to see the leaves changing colors and experience crisp, refreshing weather.
7. Big Laguna Trail
Another popular, albeit much longer, hike on Laguna Mountain is the Big Laguna Trail. During winter months this trail takes you through snow-dotted oak and pine woodlands, meadows, and a large lake. In the winter the lake may be frozen over, only amplifying the beauty of this destination. You’ll also be treated to fall leave colors even during the winter months.
8. Cedar Creek Falls
The Cedar Creek Falls Trail has dramatically improved in recent years by the massive reconstruction that took place and imposing a small permit fee which helps upkeep the trail. This trail is entirely uncovered until you get to the falls, which can put a damper on a five-mile roundtrip hike when the sun is blazing overhead. It is best to save this trail for winter months, when the weather is much more enjoyable and water is actually flowing at the falls.
9. Stonewall Peak
Despite its relative popularity, many hikes are often neglected at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Stonewall peak is certainly less forgotten than the others but still doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This easily accessible, 4-mile hike offers some of the best views of Julian, Palomar Mountain, and the surrounding peaks. During winter months, this trail has a special feature: snow. While snow is a welcome addition, please note that this attracts more people than usual to the nearby campgrounds and therefor it can be difficult to park.
10. Azalea Glen Trail
Another trail often overlooked at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is the Azalea Glen Trail, a short, 3-mile loop through some of the most beautiful portions of the park. Although the Cedar Fire destroyed most of the surrounding area, rebirth has made this trail worth trekking. In the winter, snow can often be found along this trail and is easier to walk through given the limited elevation gained. Just like Stonewall Peak, the parking lot for this hike can get highly impacted during winter months due to the appeal of snow so plan your hike accordingly.
Have any trails you’d add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!