San Diego has so many incredible hiking trails, but not all of them are fun for the whole family. Choose right, and you'll have a great time. You choose wrong and it ends in skinned knees, tears, and probably you carrying your kids back to the car.
Melissa from San Diego Adventure Kids is here to share some of the most incredible hikes all around San Diego from secret swings to fairy gardens, to the animal friends you can make along the way.
Let's go all in on San Diego family-friendly hikes!
Tips for Hiking with Kids in San Diego
Melissa said her family tried several times to become a hiking family and it wasn't until COVID that they finally did. “I'll tell you first how we failed. It ended in a Facebook side-by-side, how we imagined it would look - this happy family holding cans and hiking, probably singing songs- and then how it ended was my then five-year-old daughter sobbing.” It was a disaster, but in her defense, it was a full-sun, very boring hike.
Melissa has some musts when searching for hikes for her family.
- Flat and easy to keep the little legs going
- Any water or bridges, that is exciting for them.
- If there's any opportunity, to see animals like horses, crawdads, tadpoles – or just something of interest whether it’s swings or fairy houses (see below!)
- Geocaching for bigger kids (but little kids like it too) is like treasure hunting. Geocache is where you download an app in your phone and you go find little treasures that other people have hidden along the trail.
Hikes in San Diego with Little Kids
A lot of people might not even think hiking is an option with little kids, but it is!
Melissa said “this is the first hike that I took my kids on years ago and it's in Felicita Park in Escondido.” For parking, you can park in the neighborhood if you'd like, or you can park inside Felicita Park for $3. There are a couple of different trails in there, so you can do the easy one. It's about a half a mile, it's so easy and it starts from the entrance and then it veers left. Then you're just going to stay along that creek the entire time. And it's nice cause it's shady. There's a bridge there and you cross over the creek and then you go on the other side and then there's a little dam as well. There's a second bridge, but by that bridge there's a set of stairs so this part isn't stroller-friendly, but this hike in general is stroller-friendly. You can easily go around the stairs, back into the parking lot if you want to. But if you go up the stairs, you’ll find this tiny trail, and it's going to lead you to a native American kitchen with grinding holes. It’s a big flat rock and there's a bunch of little grinding holes, like maybe 10 of them. It’s super fun for the kids to play with. There's also two playgrounds in Felicita Park.
Blue Sky Ecological Reserve
Blue Sky Ecological Reserve just started their storybook hike. It's about a one-mile hike, but it's out and back. So, you can turn around at any point if you get tired, and it is a creek-side hike so it's shady. There's a lot of trees and basically you just hike along until you see a little storybook and you stop and you can read it. Sometimes there is a question like “how many bunnies do you see on this page?” and little things to keep kids engaged and reading these little stories along the way.
Fairy Garden Hike
This hike is in Carlsbad and it is on Tamarack Avenue between Hibiscus Circle and Garfield Street. It is right parallel to the train tracks there. This is really fun for all ages and it’s stroller-friendly because it's a paved trail and it's an out-and-back trail.
What’s fun about this hike is there are fairy doors built in to trees along the walk there. Melissa said “we totally dorked out because we actually have tiny fairies and we brought all of our fairies and they knocked on the doors at each house. This hike is only a mile and a half, but it took us over an hour to knock on every single fairy door.”
The incredible artist who made these doors is Carlsbad Village Fairies. You can buy these fairy doors for your front yard or for your backyard. And there's an artist that painted a wall mural there of a butterfly and you can stand in front of it for a cute picture.
Hikes for Bigger Kids in San Diego
San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center,
One favorite is San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center, on Manchester in Cardiff. They have a parking lot there but if it's full, you can park there on the street. This hike is about one mile and they recently put in some new bridges and trenched the little streams and rivers going through this area. So, they're expecting some more water life and maybe some seals to come through there. It's so beautiful there.
On this hike, you might see Franklin, the tortoise. He lives in a really cute enclosure behind the nature center. He's easy to miss if just there to hike, you would maybe not even know that Franklin is back there. Also, there are so many types of birds - really unique birds. Birdwatchers go to this specific spot because there's so much to see. If you continue over the bridges and then you go through the tunnel and there is an owl that has been living there.
If you keep going on the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center hike, you’ll reach the entrance to Annie's canyon. If you have littler kids, you might want to save Annie's Canyon for a second day. But if you have bigger kids who like longer hikes, then you can, can continue.
Or you can park on North Rios and that’s the trailhead for Annie’s Canyon. The parking is kind of hidden and hard to find. Annie’s Canyon wouldn’t be considered stroller-friendly - it starts off with a few steps, which you can't avoid. But it is an easy walk.
It's a wide trail and it has a nice nature exploration area in the beginning for little kids just to kind of balance and hop and get their wiggles in sillies out before they walk a little further. Then you'll see the entrance to Annie’s Canyon, which is a slot canyon. Melissa’s describes it as “very narrow going through and, for my daughter and I, it was very exhilarating. It's very exciting! We went through and she was scared and then she wanted to do it again.”
San Dieguito County Park
This hike is good for something more challenging. It's in Solana beach and it's right there on El Camino Real. The upper entrance takes you straight to the playgrounds, so if you want to hike then go in through the lower. You can park for free on El Camino or you can drive in and it's just $3 to park inside. There are two ponds where you can see ducks or turtles, and there’s a butterfly garden.
If you need to use the restroom, it's to the left of the entrance. This hike has two activity hills. You go gradually uphill, and then see ladders bridges up there. And then there are two patios that are built and they have buttons that you can press to hear sounds of the animals that you'll find in this area.
Rancho Penasquitos Canyon Preserve
This canyon is really big and it is great for hikers and bikers. There are several starting points in to get through PQ canyon, so it just depends on what you want to see on this day. There are two favorite places to start and they'll give you completely different experiences.
One place to start is at the end of Park Village, which is a long street. At the end of park village, you'll park in the neighborhood there and one place to start. If you follow the trail down, you'll get to Carson's crossing. It has a really beautiful bridge and a really shady trail that goes along the creek there that will take you all the way to the waterfall. Now, if you haven't been to the PQ canyon waterfall, let me temper your excitement, just a little, because it's not really a waterfall. Some people were expecting this Yosemite-size, 70-foot waterfall. It's not, it's basically water splashing on rocks.
You can also start at Canyonside Community Center. Park in the last parking lot there by the softball fields, and there's an entrance directly to your left. You'll see a horse trail and a human trail. If you take the trail for people, you'll hop over some rocks. It's a really slow stream. Melissa said “sometimes we just stop right there and we just splashed in the water and enjoy that, especially last summer when beaches and pools and everything were closed down.” If you want to make this a three-mile hike, you can continue over that bridge and take a right, and that will eventually circle back to the Ranch House. If you have littler kids, you can backtrack just a little bit and you'll see the entrance to the Ranch House. There are also goats and chickens nearby!
Torrey Pines (but not That Torrey Pines)
Everyone knows about Torrey Pines. Melissa says “It's my favorite hike… but not with my kids.” That walk up that paved street is brutal and I've tried several times and had to turn around. You can check out the hike that's across the street that a lot of people don't know about called Torrey Pines Extension West Ridge. For this one, you park there on Carmel Valley Road or on Del Mar Scenic Parkway, which is a small street. You go gradually up until you see the same beautiful ocean view at the top. It just really beautiful, nice, easy family-friendly – a great alternative to Torrey Pines.
Warnings for Hikes with Kids in San Diego
Definitely something that you need to check for and keep your eyes open for on any hike is snakes. And after each hike, especially ones that are more like shady or skinnier trails, check for ticks as well. You should be checking as soon as you leave, before you get in the car. Spot check everyone and consider dressing everyone in light colored clothing so that the ticks are easier to spot on your clothing.
Melissa does a deep dive into all these spots, with lots more tips and information in the podcast! Check out the whole episode here: https://www.allinsandiego.com/all-in-on-family-friendly-hikes/
Melissa from San Diego Adventure Kids is a great follow on Instagram for fun stuff to do with your kids in San Diego.