Hiking in San Diego is more than just a pastime for locals. Ask us what trails we recommend and you’ll likely end up with the AllTrails app on your phone and at least 10 great hikes on your phone’s notepad ranging from easy to “what did I just get into?”
With stunning views of the ocean, mountains, and desert (sometimes all on one trail), there are plenty of reasons to get out there and put some mileage into your trusty hiking boots. While isolated or challenging hikes are usually your cup of tea, sometimes you’re more interested in something a little more Instagram-worthy.
Sure, there’s the famous Potato Chip Rock photo op on the Mt. Woodson Trail (if you’re willing to wait in line), but there are plenty of other options too. We spoke with Katie Gardner, a photographer from San Diego who has extensive knowledge of local spots that produce amazing photos.
Here’s his list of some of the best hikes in San Diego to get the perfect shot.
Morley Field Trails in Balboa Park
Enter the Balboa Park Trails from the Dog Park or under the baseball diamonds, cross 28th Street and up the hill to the Balboa Park Desert Garden.
“The area is especially nice after a good rain because the yellow flowers come in everywhere and completely transform the desert landscape,” Gardner said. “The reason I like these trails for walking and photos is that it’s usually not crowded and there’s plenty of room to walk around.”
There are some great little pockets of trees, she added, and part of the trail leads directly to Balboa Park’s Desert Garden, which is also very pretty in the winter months with cacti blooms.
- Distance: 2.8km
- Difficulty: Easy
- Refueling point: Influx coffee
Juniper Canyon Trail in South Park
Beginning on Nutmeg Street, the trail ascends a short canyon and makes for a quick and easy hike to score great photos.
“There aren’t as many little pockets as Switzer Canyon and it’s shorter, but it also gets you to some fun neighborhoods that also have great little photo spots that overlook the canyon where I took pictures of people,” Gardner said.
Swiss Canyon Trail in North Park
Switzer Canyon to Palm Street is a short stretch, but with “a ton of little photo pockets,” Gardner said. And, you can extend the hike further into Balboa Park for more of a workout.
“A nature school often meets on one side under a large tree, so there are often small, specifically placed logs that make good props,” Gardner explained. “If you’re brave enough to walk through the giant tunnel that connects the two sides under 30th Street, it opens you up the other part of the long trail that runs along the golf course and down to the South Park dog park. There is a large wooded nature all along the way.
Marian Bear Park in La Jolla
When it comes to hiking in San Diego, the Marian Bear Park trail off Genesee Avenue and SR 52 is one of those that makes you feel like you’re not really in San Diego, Gardner said.
“[There are] tons of oaks and ‘no’ palms that I like to go to when I want the pictures to be less Southern Californian,” she said. “[It’s] a great straight trail that is wide and has plenty of room if a lot of people are there at the same time.” Be warned, if it is raining you may have to cross a stream to access the trail.
Spruce Street Bridge at Banker’s Hill
Climb the Maple Canyon Trail, then cross the Banker’s Hill neighborhood to this iconic suspension bridge, or take a longer hike by doing the full Seven Bridges Hike around Balboa Park.
“The Spruce Street Bridge is great as it often isn’t too busy and the area is easy to park and you can get both photos on the cool bridge – if you’re not afraid of heights – and below” , said Gardner. “The area is also very pretty and I took some nice photos in front of garage doors, in front of trees, etc.”
Kwaay Paay Peak Trail at Mission Trails
This trailhead right next to the Mission Trails dam has great open spots after and on the bridge for photo ops. “I go to this part of Mission Trails for photos, mostly at sunset, because it’s open and so beautiful everywhere you turn,” Gardner said. “There is water at the dam, but since this area is usually very busy, I tend to take pictures closer to where the bridge is a little further down the trail. And once you get past that you have mountains, another part of the creek, and more trails to use as your background.
- Distance: 4.7 miles
- Difficulty: Hard
- Refuel Place: KnB Bistro
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
This wide trail through wooded groves and open meadows offers plenty of great photo opportunities, but Gardner specifically recommends the Ranch House at the end of the road by the trail.
“This area is great for photos, as it’s free to move around if there’s no event and there are plenty of places to take photos: open fields, little mini trails, a cool house , pepper trees and a big barn,” she said.