It’s official! California is backpacking heaven, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on the fun.
Well, the perks of backpacking include boosting fitness through exercises. You slot in some physical activities that end up burning body fat and becoming healthier.
Backpacking is also an ideal way of getting in touch with nature and enhancing mental health. Nature has a way of healing our troubled minds and what better way to do it than jumping on a backpacking trip?
Without much ado, the following are some of the best backpacking trips in San Diego. Hop on and enjoy the ride!
- 1 Best Backpacking Trips San Diego
- 1.1 1. The Pacific Crest Trail
- 1.2 2. Smoke Tree Canyon & Natural Rock Water Tanks
- 1.3 3. Laguna Mountains
- 1.4 4. Agua Caliente Creek
- 1.5 5. Cedar Creek Falls
- 1.6 6. Three Sisters Water Fall
- 1.7 7. Anza-Borrego State Park
- 1.8 8. Dripping Springs Trail
- 1.9 9. Iron Mountain Trail
- 1.10 10. Santa Margarita River Trail
- 1.11 11. South Clevenger Trail
- 1.12 12. Garnet Peak-Champagne
- 1.13 13. El Cajon Mountain
- 1.14 14. Fortuna Mountains
- 1.15 15. Cowles Mountain
- 2 Final Word
Best Backpacking Trips San Diego
There are very little known facts regarding backpacking in San Diego and among them is on the question of ‘how long the Pacific Crest Trail is.’ The truth is that the trail does not start and end along the Mexico border with San Diego. Instead, it stretches from the Mexico border to the Canada border.
That translates to 2650 miles of fun and nature. Here are some of the best backpacking trips you can choose.
1. The Pacific Crest Trail
As a beginner backpacker, the Pacific Crest trail may prove one of your biggest challenges yet. It wades through three states including Washington, Oregon, and California.
Regardless, the trail has various portions that will give you a pleasant surprise. For example, the Laguna Mountains section following a path from Campo features some small lakes, alpine trek forest, and meadows. The more adventurous hikers will take the Sierra Nevada, and Cascade ranges to enjoy some of the best varied and scenic terrains in the United States.
The trail features dry, hot deserts and cold, snowy mountains, as well as, different types of vegetation along the way.
The Cleveland National Park is part of the pacific crest trail, and you can camp here. There are regulations against campfires on the campgrounds, and so it would be wise to abide by them. You should be aware that the trail often gets rerouted for several reasons including better scenery and to avoid wildfires.
Such rerouting can add or subtract several miles from the trail. Further, have a resupply strategy where you ship food and clothes to the towns you will be passing. Well, it is a long trail, and you cannot carry all the food you require in your backpack.
The Pacific Crest Trail is not without dangers, but that shouldn’t worry you too much. Bears and mountain lions are rare, but rattlesnakes may make occasional visits.
2. Smoke Tree Canyon & Natural Rock Water Tanks
The trail is under Anza Borrego Desert State Park, taking you to an elevation of 1300 feet. It is an 8-mile round trip and ideal for hikers and overnight backpackers. You will not require a permit but this is not an easy trail if you are a beginner, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.
It is on the Northern side of the state park, and there isn’t much of a trail. You will need to be keen and have the navigational equipment to make it around. Go north along the washed path until you come across a narrow canyon – the very narrow canyon will indicate that you are on the right track.
However, the canyon has a dead end, and you must use your climbing skills on the north wall and turn east. The natural rock water tanks are a ¼ mile east. The bighorn sheep are typical in this location, and you are sure to see some.
If you don’t see any of them, it’s probably because they saw you heading their way. The three natural rock water tanks look good in the middle of the desert.
The rock water tanks are only 3ft deep and fed by rainfall. They are a welcome feature in this trail. Even though the track is not that easy, it is a good one for beginner backpackers. What makes it a difficult path is the steep climb out and the rocky, as well as, the sandy terrain.
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3. Laguna Mountains
It is part of the pacific crest trail but significantly shorter. San Gorgonio Mountain trail is 48 miles long and ideal for beginner backpackers, those that are learning the ropes. The good thing about the trail is that you can choose the perfect route depending on your experience level – the San Gorgonio Mountain trail has several trails, including the Vivian Creek trail that takes you as high as 11500ft.
The whole trail is an epic adventure in itself within the Laguna Mountains. There are more exciting trails with various terrains to enhance your hiking experience such as the Sun Set Trail. There are vast areas of meadows that are visually appealing, forested sections with refreshing air, and exceptional views of the mountains.
San Gorgonio Mountain trail features clear and crisp water straight from the woods, and ideal to quench your thirst. And if you have some hiking skills, you can backpack further northwards of the Cleveland National Park. The Laguna Mountains will take you to an elevation of between 4500 and 6000ft, depending on your choice of trail.
Specifically, the Sun Set trail is about three miles and features a couple of lakes, a pond, and a pine forest. On a clear day, there are pleasant views of the mountains, and you can take your photos here.
The mountain is an ideal spot for watching sunsets and stargazing. It is the best place you can be to connect and experience nature in a unique way. However, don’t forget to pick your visitor’s overnight permit from the Cleveland National Park.
4. Agua Caliente Creek
It is part of the PCT and is a 10-mile round trip. The difficulty of this trail is medium, and the beginners can attempt it. You will need a permit, but you can camp pretty much anywhere. The most fantastic camping spots are on the south bank of the creek.
It is under Cleveland National Forest and has an elevation of 900ft. The trail is close to Warmer Springs town and a perfect location for backpacking and overnight camping.
Agua Caliente Creek is has a sufficient supply of water and hence many refill opportunities, making your hike a little bit easier. It is one of the most user-friendly weekend backpacking trips in San Diego. The trail follows a good source of flowing water for around four miles under the shade of beautiful forests featuring Engelmann oaks, cottonwoods, coast live oaks, and sycamores.
It is next to the Creek bridge, and you can get there from highway 79.
The well-traveled trail is smooth and with no significant junctions to confuse you. The difficulty rating for this hike is moderate, with ideal spots for overnight camping. However, you may never find solitude during the high season of April and May, as numerous hikers make their way to Canada, via the Pacific Crest Trail.
To get there, you will need to head for the downtown Ramona, past Wild Animal Park. Take the highway 78 for around 14 miles to highway 79 junction. Drive for another 16.2 miles to Warmer Springs and locate a free parking area on the west side of the highway.
5. Cedar Creek Falls
Most people looking to hiking North San Diego County haven’t the slightest idea how popular the Cedar Creek Falls trail is. Without adding too much into it, the Forestry Service lists this track as among the most traveled, and so you will be in the excellent company choosing the trail.
The popularity of the Cedar Creek Falls is on various factors among them, the presence of a waterfall. You see, San Diego is a desert environment and waterfalls are a rarity, to say the least. The natural waterfalls are seasonal, and it is possible to find a dry patch where so much water flowed.
And even though Cedar Creek Falls is seasonal, it is a common feature for the majority part of the year. During wet seasons, the flows are nothing short of spectacular. Visiting area will require a permit.
Please note that there is a Forest service checkpoint where you will need to produce the permit. The volunteers and officials will turn you back if you do not have this permit.
Cedar Creek Fall area has well-marked and maintained tracks that it is almost impossible to get stranded. You can complete this hike from two routes: east in Julian and west in Thorndike road. It is a favorite hike, and you can never be alone, both on weekdays and weekends.
Some of the best sights on this hike include the Saddleback Mountain, and the San Diego River Gorge. There are black oaks and cottonwood trees for a mile along the Devil’s Punchbowl. The round trip on this trail is six miles and will take you to an elevation gain of 1000 miles.
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6. Three Sisters Water Fall
It is a four miles round trip and part of the Cleveland National Park. The level of the Three Sisters Water Fall is difficult and takes you to an elevation of 1000 feet. Despite seeming short, the trail has steep climbs.
You will find a favorable camping spot at the top, where you can watch beautiful sunsets with your group. What makes the destination quite popular is the scenery that includes the beautiful waterfall.
However, the waterfall in San Diego has been a source of numerous injuries for hikers. It is incredibly steep and may not be the best for beginners. However, such factors as difficulty do not seem to draw people away from it – it is a popular trail.
The route guides down to a steep slope and then flattens to poison oaks. It is usually best to check with the weatherman as temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, down at the gorge.
Ideally, you should avoid the hike during summer. Start the hike early to beat the crowds and prevent the strenuous and hot climb downs. And because of the associated heat and steep descents, try to avoid bringing your dog.
Dogs tend to heat faster than human beings, and it will be a little difficult for them to scale the gorge. Bring along electrolyte supplements and a lot of water for this hike. Please note this is not the kind of hike you bring several beer bottles or stuff with questionable legality for a party.
You will also need sturdy shoes with a decent grip. Leave your running shoes at home and wear a good, durable and breathable boot, made for such conditions.
7. Anza-Borrego State Park
Backpacking at Anza-Borrego State Park trip is as easy as it can get. You don’t require a permit, and you set off to the site any day you are free. However, you will need to carry sufficient amounts of water since there are only a few spots for a bottle refill.
Covering about 1000 miles, the park is among the largest in the state of California. Anza-Borrego State Park has so much to experience ranging from palm tree oasis, narrow canyons, badlands, and snow-capped peaks. It is the ideal place to experience nature especially, work out and relax your mind, away from the stressful city life.
The 500 miles of dirt roads and undefined trails will take you to the Californian desert. There are various private land holdings within the desert, and it is not strange to come across gas stations and visitor center.
Regulations only allow campfires in metal containers to avoid forest fires – reasonable. Most people may not fancy the idea of carrying a metal container all the way and so it is best to avoid campfires altogether.
The hiking spot is home to wild horses, mountain lions, 200 species of birds, raccoons, foxes deer and a variety of reptiles that may make your skin crawl. You may also come across desert bighorn sheep if you are lucky.
Various camping services at the trail will adequately cater for your camping needs. But the park has an open policy on camping, and you can set camp on any spot that interests you.
Navigation is a little tricky as there are no trails. If not careful, you can go round in circles. Have a compass with you and make sure you have sufficient time to backtrack if necessary. It is not so bad to make mistakes and learn from them.
8. Dripping Springs Trail
The trail is 12.8 miles long, and you should start early and come with a significant amount of water. Dripping Springs is for those looking for a little challenge as it features a stretch of vistas that go as far as San Bernadino Mountains.
The trail starts among granite boulders, a forest of sycamores and coast live oaks and willows. The particular location has a seasonal stream. The route goes through a ridge characterized by thickets of Manzanita, whitethorn ceanothus, and chaparral.
It also leads to Agua Tibia Mountain, forested by black oaks and big cone Douglas Fir.
The trailhead is at the far end of Dripping Springs Campgrounds. The Wild Horse Trail is a short distance from the campgrounds and leads to Arroyo Seco on the way to the mountain. There’s a series of switchbacks as the trail leaves the creek onto the canyon.
The first mile of the track leads to buckwheat, numerous California sagebrush, yerba santa, mission Manzanita, and coastal sagebrush. Others that will be in bloom during the season include honeysuckle, blue aster, and golden yarrow.
Agua Tibia Mountain is where the trail ends, 6.9 miles from the campgrounds, where it all begins. There are beautiful live oaks, Coulter pines, and Douglas fir. It is an ideal place for overnight camping.
9. Iron Mountain Trail
The six miles hike will take you about four hours to complete. It ranges from easy to moderate difficulty, and it is ideal for hikers learning the basics and families. The trail is only 1067 feet of elevation gain.
The well-marked and well-maintained trail wades uphill to mountains covered with wildflowers. The scenery at the top is quite satisfying and marvelous. You can also choose to run to the top but watch your footing.
Iron Mountain Trail is excellent for those looking for a great work out and enjoy a fantastic view from the top. You can take your dog, but it often gets very hot during the summer. Preferably, hike during the cold seasons or afternoons, when it is cooling down.
You will need to carry sufficient water for you and the canine. Watch out for the coyotes. You can also bring the kids but only if they have some experience. Otherwise, it may not be ideal for them to start hiking on this trail.
There are bathrooms at the trailhead but no place to refill your water bottles throughout the route. To start the hike, you head for the Poway Road East off Poway Road Exit. Head straight to Highway 67 and directly across is the trailhead.
You can use the main trail which mazes through a grove of trees and head for the long dusty, rocky trail. It split four miles away and chose any of them. It doesn’t matter whether you go left or right as both will lead to the main trail which goes through rocky terrain and scrub brush.
10. Santa Margarita River Trail
Santa Margarita River Trail is a 5.7-mile trail that is home to various endangered birds and plant species. The elevation for this backpacking trip is 150ft and the ideal family backpacking Northern California trip.
The river gets its water from numerous creeks before draining to the Pacific Ocean. Typically, the hike will lead along the banks of this gem of a stream, and through lush growths of wildflowers and grapevines. Santa Margarita pools up along the sandy shores where you can take a dip of the water to cool off.
The trailhead takes you past the gate and information desk. It doesn’t take too long before you find the river, lined with numerous cottonwoods and willows that feed on it.
The washed trail then takes you through to a shade of poison oaks and several trails on the left used by the locals to the fishing grounds. If you have your fishing backpack and you want a few swims, then you can use these trails, but don’t forget to be wary of the poison oaks.
Stay on the main patch, ignoring any branching, and you will end up on the sandy banks where you can enjoy some splashes and sunbathe. For many hikers, especially those with children, the spot is a great turnaround. If you after a long hike, you can cross the river and continue on the northern bank. You will pass through wilder grapevine and woodlands.
11. South Clevenger Trail
The trail is among the few that you are free to enjoy the company of your dogs. It is quite dog-friendly. The path splits at the further head with one trail leading east and the other, west. You can hike both forks of you want your hike to be a little bit longer.
However, the eastern side is more scenic and thus better. The east eroded and rock-free trail takes you to a culvert closing. It then climbs to abundant chaparral, typical of San Diego desert. There are laurel, sagebrush and coffee berry.
What makes this adventure worth it is not only the work out that you get but also the beautiful views of the San Pasqual Valley, with outstanding vistas. Continue up the switchbacks until you come to a trail split.
The west fork is shorter and will lead to a rocky patch. While the east fork us longer and take you to some summit. You are free to choose both forks.
The trail is easy to follow uphill through the scraggy bush that may prove irritating. Ascend for about 1.4 miles to another trail split sign. The right side takes you to a rocky outcropping where you will find a trail register in a green box. Sign it and proceed.
Return to the other trail split and take the other fork. It will lead you uphill through overgrown brush. Climb up the rocks, enjoy the view and even take some photos for your friends back home.
12. Garnet Peak-Champagne
Depending on preference, you can complete this trail as a day hike or overnight backpacking. The best thing about this hike is the beautiful view you get atop the Garnet Peak – memorable is quite an understatement. Garnet Peak provides the best view of the Anza Borrego Desert, and the magnificent sunsets.
There are various trails you can take, but you need not worry as the hike is quite easy to follow. You can set camp at Oasis Springs and eat to your fill before getting on the hike. It is a 10.5 miles hike and takes you to an elevation of 900ft.
Alternatively, you can opt for the short approach that will give you an elevation of 500ft and 2.4 miles, making it a popular trail. As such, it can have numerous visitors, especially during the weekend.
Garnet Peak creates the boundary between Borrego Desert below and the alpine mountains making it the perfect spot for viewing these places. Other views include San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, and Stephenson Peak. If you hike on a clear day, you can see across the Mexico border.
You will find the main trailheads along highway 1. From the Sunrise Highway, go north. The main trailhead is on the east of Sunrise Highway and the second one is shorter, a small dirt road along the Sunrise Highway, 27.8 miles away.
Alternatively, you can climb the mountain from the Borrego desert, on the North or West sides. You will, however, need a permit to complete the hike
You can hike the mountain at any time, but summers can be scorching. Carry sufficient water.
13. El Cajon Mountain
The trail is around 10.6 miles with less traffic than the other hikes in San Diego. It is near a river and rated as difficult. It may, therefore, not be ideal for beginner backpackers.
It is also ideal for dogs, but you will need to bring a decent amount of water for you and the dog. The trailhead is only 246ft at the trailhead, 0.5 miles away. You can take the trail from there or follow the road.
The junction between the road and the trailhead is 0.4 miles away. However, if you chose the trail and head to the intersection, the distance will be about 0.5 miles. The perks associated with taking the trailhead include appealing switchbacks and beautiful view – something good to start you off by serving as motivation.
The following 1.4 miles is a series of ascends and descends. There various steep spots but the beautiful views make it all worth the effort.
The trail takes a deep descent of 2.2 miles from the southeasterly turn. The water from the surrounding hills focuses into this drainage, and as such, the vegetation here is lush and beautiful. Among the hardest part of the hike is the steep ascent, 2.8 miles from the parking lot.
The trail becomes rutted and rugged around this area, and only those with good boots can make it through comfortably. As you go higher, the views become more spectacular, and you may even see the whole ocean at some point.
You can rest at the sandal as you rehydrate and ready yourself for the final push. The sandal is 6 miles away and between two peaks, the big and small one.
14. Fortuna Mountains
The backpack trip is easily one of the most satisfying backpack trips that you can take, and a favorite of many people. The best thing about the trip is that you can scale two peaks in one – a feat to sing about for months.
The view from the Fortuna Mountains is what we can refer to as breathtaking. To start the hike, you will have to drive to East Fortuna Equestrian, and you will find parking on a dirt surface.
There are two routes you can take: the North Perimeter Trail and Spring Canyon Trail. Both trails head west, and you are free to take either.
Trail distance is 7.1 miles and the elevation gain, 1354ft. It will take you around four hours to complete this hike, and you can bring your dog, as well. You will not need a permit for this one, and the cell phone reception is exceptional.
The well-marked and well-maintained trail has some steep sections and depending on the season; you may walk on water – some decent waterproof boots will come in handy.
The trailhead is at the Spring Canyon Trail which intersects after 0.4 miles into North Perimeter loop trail and Grasslands loop trail. If you chose the grasslands loop trail, follow it to Oak Canyon Trail. Be careful not to miss it. Keep on it until you reach the Fortuna sandal trail intersection and head east to Fortuna Saddle. Choose the summit you want to climb first from here.
15. Cowles Mountain
The Cowles Mountains trip is a moderate level hike that a beginner can attempt. It is 4.3 miles and takes about 2 hours to the top.
The highest elevation on this trip is 1593 feet with fantastic views of Orange County and Mexico, across the border. It is among the most popular, and there may be a bit of crowding.
The parking is free but avoid parking outside people’s driveways. Start your hike early to avoid the crowds.
Bring a map and a GPS equipment to help with the navigation and start your hike at the Big Rock Trail and follow the well-marked and maintained the trail. Follow the signposts to mesa trail and turn right to the big rock trail. The trail is steep, but it will lead you to the mountain.
Backpacking trips are some of the best ways to relax your mind from the stresses associated with giving our best at work.
Well, backpacking southern California – we wrote another article on this – gives you the best views in the states to have a refreshing effect on your mind. San Diego backpacking trips, such as the above, are ideal getaways that help you reenergize.
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