Now’s the perfect time to get out and explore San Diego’s most family-friendly hiking trails with your kids. From loop trails and bursts of wildflowers to canyons and ocean views, read on to see where to go explore nature on the 20 best kid-friendly hikes in our fine city. Lace up those sneakers (or hiking boots!) and get to it!
San Elijo Lagoon Loop Trail
Need an easy getaway from the city? San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy is a beautiful place to enjoy the serenity of nature. The one mile, ADA accessible loop gives toddlers and preschoolers the chance to get their socks dusty and experience a first hike. The Nature Center is a perfect starting point with bathrooms for a last minute pre-hike potty break and shade. Bring binoculars for excellent bird sightings.
Pro Tip: The Nature Center’s Family Fun Days held the first Sunday of each month from 11:30 a.m.- 1:30 p.m. Enjoy a nature-themed, hands-on activity, then walk the loop trail to earn prizes.
2710 Manchester Ave.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007
La Orillo Trail
La Orilla Trail is a 3-mile out and back trail at the San Elijo Ecological Reserve that's probably best for school-aged kids. If you're new to hiking, you can stop at the first trailhead (St. Helena) which is .68-miles in. Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated and enjoy the wildflowers and birds that flutter about.
Pro Tip: Before you set off on your hike, stop by the nature center for a map and say hello to Franklin the turtle.
An urban adventure awaits in Tecolote Canyon where the trail is relatively flat and easy to navigate for all ages. You’ll find lots of lizards, birds and even hidden gems… golf balls! Since the canyon is adjacent to the golf course, treasure abounds. This is a popular spot for geocaching too. Your little monkeys will go wild for the great climbing trees along the trail. Pack a picnic, hang out in the shade and listen to the birds. Park on the side of the road near the Tecolote Canyon Golf Course to enter the trails from Mt. Acadia Blvd. and take a short walk (about 50 feet to the trail)
Pro Tip: Plan your route at the nature center. You'll find restrooms, binoculars to borrow and cool exhibits.
5180 Tecolote Rd.
San Diego CA 92110
Lake Miramar Trail
Cruise to the parking lot off Scripps Lake Drive where you can access the 4.9-mile Lake Miramar Trail that offers scenic views and is good for hikers of all skill levels. This trail is accessible year-round. Dogs are also allowed on this trail but must be kept on leash. Every 1/4 mile you'll find trail markers to keep track of your distance and time. Pack a picnic lunch and grab one of the many tables right by the water to eat.
Good to know: Kids will also love riding bikes or scooters on this paved trail.
Pro Tip: Cars are permitted on the road Sat.-Tues., so if you don't want to worry about cars, Weds.-Fri. is best.
10710 Scripps Lake Dr.
San Diego, CA 92131
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Some of the best views in San Diego can be seen from the easy trails here, along with caves and rocks for clambering around. The lot charges a $15 parking fee, but you can find parking along the beach if you wait long enough (but the steep climb from beach parking to the hiking trails may tire out young hikers). The simplest route to explore is the Guy Fleming Trail, perfectly-suited to youngsters.
Read more about Torrey Pines hikes here.
12600 North Torrey Pines Rd.
La Jolla, CA 92037
Mule Hill Trail
This historic 6.3 round-trip back and forth wide trail has a 131-feet elevation and is good for all skill levels. There are historic signs along the way explaining the battle of Mule Hill. If you want a shorter hike then just hike to Mule Hill which is about one mile in. Expect to see deer along the trail. Dogs are allowed on a leash. If you go on Sunday you can also tour the historic Sikes Adobe and visit the farmers market there. Trailhead is at Sikes Adobe Staging Area on Sunset Drive, off Bear Valley Parkway.
12655 Sunset Dr.
Escondido, CA 92025
Jack's Pond Nature Center
Spot the big red barn and you'll find this kid-friendly nature hike. Even more, there's a playground and critters to look at inside the nature center. The hike is paved close to the center, then turns into a trail hike all the way to the pond. If you decide to go all the way to the pond it's about 40 minutes. This nature hike and center is perfect for little kids.
986 La Moree Rd.
San Marcos, CA 92078
Iron Mountain Trail
A popular San Diego 5.4-mile loop trail that's best for bigger kids that are used to a good hike. The hike starts through a beautiful tree forest and be on the lookout for border collies herding the sheep. There are switchbacks and an elevation climb of 1,102 feet and it gets crowded on the weekend. Even more, when you get to the top the view is well worth it. Remember to bring plenty of water and snacks.
Cabrillo National Monument
Take a simple two-mile tour and see tide pools, Old Point Loma lighthouse and a breathtaking view of downtown San Diego... all with the kids in tow. History buffs will enjoy the statue of Cabrillo himself. The entrance fee per car is $15 (pass is valid for 7 days) and the park closes at 5 p.m. (tide pools close at 4:30 p.m.) An annual pass is $30.
Pro Tip: Check the tide schedules and arrive in time to see the tide pools teeming with sea life at low tide.
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr.
San Diego, CA 92106
Blue Sky Ecological Reserve
Take your time meandering along this wide, easy to navigate, flat trail located in Poway. The first mile of the hike begins under the shade of beautiful oak trees and is a perfect, comfortable jaunt for you and the kiddos, big and small. It’s time to stop once the trail begins to climb steeply uphill in full sun. Take a picnic to enjoy at the picnic tables at the end of the shaded trail. Stay on the path to avoid poison oak. Easy parking in the lot.
16275 Espola Rd.
Poway CA 92064
This wide, flat four-mile lagoon trail is great for little walkers, dogs and jogging strollers. More of a flat walk than a hike, it's a little more than 3 miles roundtrip and a perfect first “hike” for tots. Don’t be dismayed by the traffic noise. As you venture further, you’ll feel more in touch with nature as you meander along the water, through the eucalyptus and along the golf course and learn about local wildlife at the educational signs along the way.
Pro Tip: For a shorter walk, look for the parking lot on Batiquitos Road, just past Shoreline Lane.
73880 Gabbiano Ln.
Carlsbad, CA 92008
Work your quads along the sunny Lake Poway Loop Trail. You’ll trek along wide dirt trails and encounter some steep spots along the way. Take a load off at one of the benches along the 2.5 miles and enjoy a snack with a gorgeous view of the lake. Keep your eyes open for signs of wildlife including squirrels, lizards, hummingbirds and hawks. Coyotes often roam the trails and rattlesnakes too, so it's best if you leave your dog at home and stick to the main trails with your kiddos.
Parking: $10 for non-residents fee on weekends and holidays; free for Poway residents
14644 Lake Poway Rd.
Poway, CA 92064
Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve
Ready to discover a hidden waterfall in the largest canyon in San Diego? Los Penasquitos offers a mostly flat hike leading to an easily accessible waterfall. Sure-footed hikers will fare best since you’ll need to climb along the rocks at times and walk about 6 miles roundtrip to enjoy the falls. Or, you can park on Del Vino Ct. for the shortest route to the waterfall, shortening the trek to about 2.5 miles roundtrip (recommended for those hiking with young kids). Explore and scramble around to watch the water splash 2 feet over the rocks. Be sure to wear good hiking shoes and take time to notice the cool shade of the sycamores and chirp of songbirds.
Parking: In the baseball field lot or the Reserve lot $3 cash. Exact change only. Neighborhood street parking available on the shorter route.
Pro Tip: These trails are frequently closed in inclement weather, so call 858-538-8066 for up to date trail status before you head out.
12115 Black Mountain Rd.
San Diego, CA 92129
Navajo Canyon Open Space Adobe Falls Hiking Trail
At about two-and-a-half miles roundtrip, this leisurely hike is one of 18 open space areas in San Diego, completely free of development. It is well-maintained with small wildlife and a nice, big oak tree where kids can scrounge for acorns. Keep an eye out for poison oak.
6801 Easton Ct.
San Diego, CA 92120
Climb the highest peak in the county with kids? It’s possible! Elementary school kiddos who have proven their stamina on shorter jaunts love the challenge. Loose gravel fills these trails, so lace up your best walking shoes. Get an early start to avoid heat and crowds. Ready for a heart-pumping 3-mile steady climb? Bring plenty of water and a favorite snack as fuel. Be prepared for little climbers to need to stop along the way. This short trail takes about an hour to climb and leads to gorgeous views that stretch all the way to the ocean—worth every step.
Free parking in the lot and along Golfcrest Dr.
Golfcrest Dr. at the corner of Navajo Rd.
Mission Gorge Rd. and Mesa
San Diego, CA 92119
Annie's Canyon Trail
For a more adrenaline-fueled hiking adventure that's off the beaten path, more experienced climbers will get a kick navigating the slot canyons along Annie's Canyon Trail in the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve. The trail includes some rock climbing as it narrows and you have to scale rock walls to proceed to a cave and then carry on before ending up at a stunning ocean view. You can choose between moderate or strenuous trails, but this adventure is best suited for kids ages 7-8 and up because of the climbing required and the narrow trails.
Go on a virtual hike of Annie's Canyon here to see if your family is up for it!
450 Solana Hills Dr.
Solana Beach, CA 92075
Eagle Rock Hike
More reward than just a fun hike in and of itself––the Eagle Rock hike includes a spectacular rock formation shaped like an eagle with sprawling wings. Bonus: kids can pose in front of the rocks for an epic photo opp. Outside of San Diego in Warner Springs, this trail also boasts a small creek. The best plan is to hike early before temps rise for the day, and of course take plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen and wear hats. The mostly flat trail is ideal for hikers of all ages, but be prepared that it's a 3.2 mile journey in and a 3.2 mile journey out.
Balboa Park Trails
As if Balboa Park wasn't epic enough for being California's Best Attraction and home to some of the best museums, theaters and restaurants in the city––it also has an abundance of gorgeous hiking trails! If the kiddos still have energy after a day exploring Balboa Park, then take them to stroll down the easy 1.5 mile Trail #1. Start at 6th Ave. and Upas St. and follow the #1 green circle markers. There are 65 miles of trails in Balboa Park, so you'll have plenty of options to explore and can try a new hike with every visit!
Mission Trails Regional Park
With over 60 miles of trails, boating and camping, there’s something for everyone at Mission Trails. Easy parking, lots of animal life and a huge variety of trails to choose from make this the ideal destination for families. This is a dog-friendly park but watch for rattlesnakes.
Pro Tip: Keep your eye to the sky for military practice flights that often run overhead.
1 Father Junipero Serra Trail
San Diego, CA 92119
Chollas Lake Trail
Young hikers will enjoy the trail that loops around Chollas Lake in Southeast San Diego. It's 2.2-miles around the whole lake, but you can go as far as you'd like. You'll find cool eucalyptus trees plus fellow walkers and runners. There are plenty of butterflies and geese about. Even more, there is a small playground, drinking fountains and bathrooms and parking is free.
6350 College Grove Dr.
San Diego, CA 92115
Editor’s Note: There’s always a possibility of encountering wild animals on your hike, from rattlesnakes, bobcats and coyotes to mountain lions. Please use caution and be aware of your surroundings. Here are some safety tips on mountain lions.
–– Cherie Gough, Beth Shea & Nikki Walsh
featured image: Andie Huber