I’ve lived in San Diego all my life and I thought I knew everything there was to do in America’s Finest City especially when it came to hiking in San Diego. That is, until El Nino’s onslaught of storms kept us our oceans polluted with runoff and the surrounding vicinity too wet to do much outside. We were forced to broaden our horizons and looked for adventures in the outskirts of the San Diego and found three hidden jewels that made for one epic weekend and a great birthday celebration for my daughter, Gabi. We combined these great San Diego hikes with a night of camping out under the stars for a fun weekend trip to fulfill our adventurous spirits.
After just returning from seven months in Costa Rica, Europe, and Hawaii (where we spent all our days hiking, climbing, or surfing), I wanted to make sure Gabi still had a special birthday adventure by finding some fun outdoorsy activity for us to do. There was no way I was going to be able to out-do our incredible adventures we just had traveling. In fact, I wanted to create the opposite. In this case, I wanted to withdraw to confines of your own backyard and see what nooks and crannies we hadn’t explored yet in our hometown of San Diego.
So for her sixteenth birthday, we decided to be adventurous at home and found three fun hikes that we had never done in San Diego.
Day 1 of Weekend Hiking Trip: Hike Corte Madera
The first thing we did on our San Diego weekend getaway was drive east on Highway 8 to Lake Morena and hike “San Diego’s Half Dome” also known as Corte Madera, which we found on The Outbound. Be ready for a workout. This hike climbs 1,400 feet in just over three miles, but the views at the top are worth the burning quads.
The first half hour is actually quite pleasant, as it winds through the forest of Oak trees. Soon you’ll arrive at open area where the path forks in three directions. You’ll want to go right (north) following the sign for Corte Madera Mountain. Stop for a moment to take in the beautiful view of Corte Madera, a popular rock climbing wall, before continuing up the steep, rocky trail past Manzanita trees.
When you reach the summit, be sure to scramble up the rocks and take in the views that stretch from Baja to Mount Laguna. On a clear day, you might even be able to see the ocean. I’ve lived in San Diego my entire life and driven Highway 8 close to a hundred times, but it’s not until you are standing at the peak, with the mountains extending as far as the eyes can see in every direction, that you really can comprehend just how mountainous and beautiful this area really is. Of all the hikes in San Diego, this one is my new favorite.
Directions to get here: Driving east on I-8 leaving Alpine, exit Buckman Springs Road and go right (if coming from El Centro, exit Buckman Springs and go left). Turn onto Corral Canyon OHV/Morena Stokes Valley Rd and drive almost 5 miles to a green gate with a red heart on it. There is a $5 Adventure Pass fee to park here that you must buy from the Descanso Ranger Station in Alpine or at a nearby grocery store.
Day 1 Continued: Camp at Agua Caliente
Next, we continued east on I-8 and dropped down into the desert, leaving the mountains, along with the cold weather, behind us. We exited at Ocotillo and followed the road to Agua Caliente campground. This county park makes camping easy with partial or full hookups, clean bathrooms, cheap showers, picnic tables in each site, and a fire pit. You can go frog catching at night or wake up early and catch the sunrise from the peak of the hill. There are fun rocks to scramble and even a swimming pool and hot tub filled with water from the hot springs.
My favorite part of camping in the desert is the star gazing and the night sky did not disappoint when we were there. We traveled light for this trip by choosing to sleep in our van. Seriously all we had was chips, dip, sausages (with a skewer), firewood, a few sleeping bags, and a bottle of wine. That’s it.
If you don’t need the amenities like water or electricity, I’d recommend driving twenty more minutes and camp at Anza Borrego Springs. It only has a pit toilet but the seclusion and stillness of the desert night make it better in my book. If you like this idea better, check out the Anza Borrego State Park website.
Day 2 of Weekend Hiking Trip: Hike Eagle Rock
The next morning we headed off to hike Eagle Rock via the PCT. We continued on the S2 and enjoyed the scenic roads all the way to Warner Springs and parked at the fire station where you can access the PCT by walking through the green gate. Click here for exact beta on how to get here (it’s pretty simple though).
This is a 6.4 mile round trip hike. It’s a fairly easy hike as it only gains 850 feet in a little over three miles. To start, you will follow the creek bed (since it’s usually dry) walking past huge, beautiful trees for about 50 min.
Keep following the signs for the PCT. The trail will wind through a desert-like environment for five minutes and then turns into a huge meadow of cows. Stay on the PCT and in another 30 minutes you will get to a big pile of boulders (they are pretty hard to miss). When you walk to the other side of the rocks you will be able to tell exactly why it’s called Eagle Rock.
Day 2 Continued: Julian
On your way home, stop in the historic mining town of Julian and while there, pick up a pie at the Julian Pie Shop. Another local favorite is the fresh baked bread from Dudley’s in Santa Isabel.
If it hadn’t been for all the rain, personally I would’ve ended this trip by Camping at San Elijo in Encinitas, our favorite place in all of San Diego County. A surf session to wash off all the dirt and a cold beer at Lost Abbey would definitely be the icing on the cake to a weekend exploring San Diego’s backyard.
- Outdoor Adventure Guide to San Diego
- The Locals Guide To San Diego: What To Do, Where To Stay, and More!
- Best Coffee Shops In San Diego
- The Best Southern California Road Trip
Got questions about this San Diego hiking trip? Let us know in the comments section below!