The Ten Best Trail Runs in San Diego

San Diego is is unique in that within the city limits we have lots of trail runs available.  This article will list the best trail runs in San Diego that you should explore.  Keep in mind there are plenty more out there but here is our top 10.

La Jolla Beach Trail

This is a visually stunning trail.  In the off season you can park for free at the bottom of the Torrey Pines Hill in the South Beach parking lot. During peak season they charge so if you want to avoid paying park just outside the overflow lot (North Beach Lot) on Caramel Valley Road.

Torrey Pines Beach Trail is fun and visually stunning

Torrey Pines Beach Trail is fun and visually stunning

Cut through the North Beach Parking Lot and head towards the beach.  There are bathrooms that open around 7am at the West end of the lot.  Go under the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and follow the pedestrian walkway onto the PCH.  Go South on the PCH heading towards the South Beach Parking Lot.  Follow the road up the hill going South until you get to the top.  Take the Beach Trail on your left.  There is a trail marker there and a water fountain.  Follow the trail down to the beach.  If your up for it take a quick swim then head back up the trail this time going right.  It will take you back to the top where you started but on a different trail.  You can also go back the way you came by simple making a left.  On your way back look for the Guy Fleming loop trail and take that for an additional .5 miles and stunning scenery.  Head back to your car and know you just experienced the best trail run in San Diego…..possibly the best trail run in the world.

Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve

This trail runs on both sides of the Penasquitos River for 6.5 miles with multiple chances to cross over.  There is a waterfall about 3.5 miles in.  You can park at the West entrance off Sorrento Valley Blvd or the East entrance at Canyonside Community Park off of Black Mountain Road.

San Diego Running Tours

Penasquitos Canyon has 20 miles of trails and a nice waterfall

If you want shorter miles leave from either side and head for the waterfall then cross over and return on the opposite side for some different scenery.  If you leave from the east cross at either Carson Crossing or Penasquitos Creek Crossing.  If you leave from the West cross at the waterfall itself of Wagonwheel Crossing.  Whenever possible try taking the single track along the river as it is only for pedestrians and horses….no mountain bikes allowed.  After you run here you will know why it’s one of the best trail runs in San Diego.

Los Penasquitos Preserrve is one of the best places to run trails in San Diego

Los Penasquitos Preserrve is one of the best places to run trails in San Diego

Lake Hodges North Shore Trail and Del Dios Gorge

Lake Hodges is one of the best places to run trails in San Diego

Lake Hodges is one of the best places to run trails in San Diego

Start at the Lake Hodges Visitor Center.  You can choose to run East or West from here.  I recommend heading West around the lake then South into Del Dios Gorge.  You will pass the Lake Hodges Dam this way and the Del Dios Gorge has lots of water features.  Save your strength!  You will be heading downward most of the time and the way out can be a little taxing.  This is an out-n-back trail so you can go as little or as far as you would like.  The lake, dam, creeks and bridges make this one of the best trail runs in San Diego.

Del Dios Gorge can be connected to Lake Hodges and are some of the best trails to run in San Diego

Del Dios Gorge can be connected to Lake Hodges and are some of the best trails to run in San Diego

San Clemente Canyon – Rose Canyon

This is a local gem that runs West to East on the South and North side of Highway 52.  You can park at the West Parking area off of Regents Road/Clairemont Mesa Blvd. exit off the 52 freeway.  There are bathrooms at the very West end of the Parking Lot.  From here you can either run West towards the 5 Freeway or Eats towards the 805 Freeway.  Either way you will not be disappointed.

Marian Bear/San Clemente Canyon is one of the best trail runs right near downtown San Diego

Marian Bear/San Clemente Canyon is one of the best trail runs right near downtown San Diego

If you head West immediately take the trail to your left side although if you miss it and take the right trail they will eventually merge.  The trail to the left is more scenic.  Follow the trail until you go up a short rise and see the 5 Freeway in front of you.  Look for the single track trail on your left and take it.  Follow it South until you cross a small footbridge and find yourself along the railroad tracks.  Follow the tracks North until you see a single track opening on your right.  Take it over the creek and look for a left turn onto more single track.  You will now have the chance to either go North on the bike path going under the 52 Freeway and into Rose Canyon or you can go right and head back towards where you parked.  It really depends on how many miles you want to do.

If you head East follow the trail under Clairemont Mesa Blvd. and pick it back up just on the other side.  Follow the trail East until you get to the 805 Freeway.  There are a few opportunities to take a few side trails.  Don’t be afraid to explore them they all go South for about .5 miles and then dump into streets. You can just turn around and come back to the main trail at that point.  They are worthwhile though as you feel like you are in a forest which is not typical of San Diego trails.  The proximity to Downtown makes this one of the best trail runs in San Diego.

Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP)

Located about 30 minutes East of Downtown San Diego.  Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP) is a trail runners dream.  The only reason I did not rank this as the #1 best trail run in San Diego is for 2 reasons.  The first reason is it’s 30 minutes away so I have to add an hour drive time to my run and day.  The second is it gets really hot in the summer months.  When I say hot I mean really hot.  So if you decide to run here in the months of May-October be prepared with hydration.

Mission Trails offers miles and miles of unique trails.  Whether you want technical trail, hills, double track or single track it will not let you down.  Some of the trails are marked with sign posts to help direct you.  There are essentially two parts to this park.  The East side and the West side and they are separated by two 1000 foot + mountains called North and South Fortuna Mountains.  You can connect both sides of the park via the trail that splits these two mountains (called the saddle trail) or via the one way cement road called Father Junipero (much easier than the saddle).

Mission Trails Regional Park is the best trail run in San Diego

Mission Trails Regional Park is the best trail run in San Diego

My favorite place to start is to take highway 52 east and exit Mast Blvd.  Turn right and park.  Take the trail out into the Grasslands and follow the signs for either the 5K, 10K, 15K or 21K courses.  *****Warning***** The 15K and 21K are no joke!  Follow the Dirt Devil credo……”Don’t be sorry be prepared”!  While these trails are spectacular they are the site of the infamous Stairway to Heaven Half Marathon and 15K and will throw hill after hill at you in addition to the 796 steps of South Fortuna Mountain (Stairway to Heaven).  If you are not up for hills and one of the most demanding runs of your life opt for the 5K course or run Father Junipero road through the park and back for an additional 5 miles.

Between December-April MTRP has many creeks and falls

Between December-April MTRP has many creeks and falls

This park can offer amazing and dramatically different landscape depending on the time of year.  In the rain season it can offer a rushing river and even a few waterfalls.  I In the dry season it will give you classic desert trails.  If you love hills than this is easily the best trail runs in San Diego.

During the rain season MTRP has waterfalls and even a little cliff jumping

During the rain season MTRP has waterfalls and even a little cliff jumping

Mule Hill Trail/Raptor Ridge

The Mule Hill trail is technically in Escondido but I will include it as one of San Diego’s best trail runs.  It is found in the San Pasqual Valley which is the gateway to San Diego wine country and home of the Wild Animal Park.  It also happens to be a historic location and was the site of a battle during the Mexican-American war.  A well known frontiersman named Kit Carson was said to have ran 30 + miles from here to Old Town San Diego to beg for reinforcements.

The Mule Hill trail is one of the best trail runs in San Diego

The Mule Hill trail is one of the best trail runs in San Diego

This trail is easy to find (it’s on google maps) and is an out-and-back so you really do not have to worry about getting lost.  You can run for 10 miles out and 10 back or 3 miles it’s up to you.  In order to get to the top of Raptor Ridge you will have to run at least 5.2 miles out and 5.2 back so bring plenty  of water because Escondido can get hot.  The view at the top of Raptor Ridge is incredible and worth the effort.  It is easy to see why there is a Trail Half Marathon and 15K at this location in August.

Otay Lakes

Upper and Lower Otay Lakes are found in the Southeast area of San Diego and is probably the best trail run down that way.  The lower lake offers 12 miles of flat and fast single track with lake views while the upper lake will test your trail running mettle with hills…..lots of hills.  They are connected via a tunnel at about 3.1 miles into the run if you start at the lower lake boat launch.

Graffiti Tunnel at Lower Otay offer s access to Upper Otay

Graffiti Tunnel at Lower Otay offer s access to Upper Otay

Cut through this tunnel and head to the upper lake for some glute and quad punishing running.  If your not up for the hills just continue past the tunnel staying on the single track around the lake.  Eventually you will end up at a picnic bench where there is a port-o-pot.  Stop for a rest here and soak in the views.  If your lucky you might see the Olympic rowers practicing out on lake.  Look towards the sky and you might see some skydivers too!  The flat and fast single track makes this one of the best trail runs in San Diego and also happens to be the site for the Wildhorse trail Half Marathon and 10K.

Otay Lakes offer some of the best trail runs in South San Diego

Otay Lakes offer some of the best trail runs in South San Diego

Tecolote Canyon

Tecolote Trail is one of the 10 best trail runs in San Diego in part because of it’s close proximity to just about everything.  Take Sea World Drive East until it dead ends at the Tecolote Nature Center.  From here go explore the trails.  There are technically 3 different canyons that you can run for up to 14 miles.  If you followed the instructions you are in Tecolote #1.

Tecolote is close to downtown and Sea World and is one of the best trail runs in San Diego

Tecolote is close to downtown and Sea World and is one of the best trail runs in San Diego

Tecolote 1 spans from Sea World Drive/Tecolote Road to Genesee Ave.  There are multiple routes to get there but as long as you continue East you will eventually run out of trail.

Tecolote 2 is just North of Tecolote #1 and spans from Mt. Acadia Road to Balboa Avenue and is approximately 2 miles.

Tecolote #3 is just North of Tecolote #2 and spans from Balboa Ave to Clairemont Mesa Blvd and is approximately 2 miles.

You will often see wildlife in Tecolote Canyon

You will often see wildlife in Tecolote Canyon

You can link all three Canyons for a out and back run of 14 miles.  MAP

Sweetwater Reservoir

This place is virtually unknown to those that live outside of South San Diego.  That’s actually a good thing because when you run here it is unusual to see anyone!  You can run from either the Steel Bridge on Campo Road or from Sweetwater Summit Regional Park on the West side.  The distance to connect them is about 7 miles.

Sweetwater is one of the best San Diego trail runs and hosts the Chupacabra Half Marathon

Sweetwater is one of the best San Diego trail runs and hosts the Chupacabra Half Marathon

Sweetwater offers single and double track, technical trails, rolling hills and great lake views.

The colors at Sweetwater can be incredible in the rain seasons

The colors at Sweetwater can be incredible in the rain seasons

Try camping at Sweetwater Summit, running and even fishing if the lake is open!  This is a great place for the family and a San Diego Staycation.

Chollas Lake

Chollas Lake qualifies for the tenth best trail run in San Diego for one simple reason.  It is short, has shade, close to downtown and flat.  Chollas lake offers two trail running options

Cholas Lake is the tenth best trail run in San Diego

Cholas Lake is the tenth best trail run in San Diego

You can run the Chollas Lake loop for .8 miles for as many miles as you like.  This is a well groomed double track, flat trail that winds around the lake, has plenty of trees and shade and even offers a 1/4 mile single track offshoot right before you cross the dam.  Some runners don’t like loops as it can be a mental challenge but Chollas Lake is scenic enough that this won’t be a problem.

Your second option is to add in the 2 miles of trails just to the West of Chollas Lake to get in a 3 mile loop.  Just before the dam take the double track trail down the hill towards North Chollas Community Park.  Run the upper trail around the baseball and soccer fields to enjoy amazing views or Downtown then circle back to Chollas Lake, up the hill and back across the dam.

Beautiful views of Downtown from Chollas Lake

Beautiful views of Downtown from Chollas Lake

Chollas Lake is the site of the Dawn Till Dusk 10 hour Endurance Run in January

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4 Responses to The Ten Best Trail Runs in San Diego

  1. Karl Manly says:

    Love it! Its been some time since I have been to Torrey Pines, now I am going to have to verify how stunning this trail is. Also, this bridge at Del Dios Gorge looks cool, I dont think I have ever been and now you forced me to put that on my list. The rest…I fully agree

  2. Already did like half of them and really are great trails! will try the rest starting with La Jolla, looks great
    I would add about the Mule Hill that in summer it is really hot, there is not a lot shades so be prepared with plenty of water

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