While San Diego may be known for it’s beautiful beaches and it’s endless miles of waterfront paths and boardwalks, there’s also an extensive set of trails to run and mountains to climb if you venture eastbound.
Trail running can provide great variety in your normal running routine, offering new views and softer ground. Whether you are a beginner on trails or as comfortable on a mountain as a billy goat, there are a few ground rules to trail running that you should know.
- Be prepared. With practically year-round sunshine, it’s important to be prepared for the heat. Wear sunscreen, bring a hat, and carry plenty of water with you.
- Have the right equipment. Road running shoes do not work well on most trails. In loose dirt, rocks, or gravel you need to wear shoes with excellent tread. Invest in trail running specific shoes for the most safety, comfort, and protection of your feet.
- Know your surroundings. Some trails are heavily trafficked by not only people, but animals. In San Diego county it’s common to have mountain lions, coyotes, and rattlesnakes on the trails (especially during the summer). Educate yourself on what to look for and what to do if you see one of these animals.
- Take extra measure to be safe. You should run with your phone in case of emergency, always let someone else know where you are running if you run alone, take care in early morning or evening hours, and never run with headphones. You need to be able to hear what is happening around you (people, bikes, or animals) in order to be safe.
- Respect other runners. Don’t blast your music when you are running. People go into nature to experience nature, not your 90’s hip hop. Always stay to the right of the trail and pass on the left, announcing your presence if you come up behind another runner. If you see trail markers (for a race, for example) leave them alone! Tampering with trail markings can lead to other runners or mountain bikers getting lost. Most importantly, be pleasant. Smile and say hello.
- Last, but definitely not least, respect the trail. The trail does not belong to you, you are a guest on it and should treat it that way. Stay on marked trails only, going off trail leads to erosion and can damage native habitat. Don’t run on trails (especially cliffside) after the rain. Wet trails are dangerous and heavy foot traffic can lead to landslides and trail erosion. Graffiti is a serious no-no, whether it’s carving your initials in a rock or spray painting, you are ruining nature. And lastly, do not litter. Whatever comes on your run with you should also go home with you. As they say: pack it in, pack it out. Nature is not a renewable resource and what you do has a permanent impact.
Now that you know the rules of the road (er, trail), where can you go to get your fill of dirt?
If you are a beginner trail runner, the following trails will be perfect for you.
Los Penasquitos Canyon – Located between I-5 and I-15, just south of the 56, this preserve offers miles of well manicured trails, mostly dirt with some rocky sections, and minimal hills. There is also a great waterfall off the main trail, that currently has water in it! Beware, rattlesnakes are a common sighting during warm hours and the summer months.
Sunset Cliffs – Just south of Ocean Beach you will find this park with some of the most beautiful ocean views in San Diego. The trail is dirt and well travelled, but runs cliffside so take care to watch your step and mind the signs protecting you from dangerous areas.
San Elijo Lagoon – This county park can be found in Solana Beach, east of I-5. It boasts great flat trails with views of the lagoon. Most trails are narrow (single track) and are sand/dirt for minimal difficulty. Depending on where you start or finish, you may get to run under the I-5 overpass. While this is a unique experience, take care as the footing is uneven.
Balboa Park – The large park in the center of the city offers more than museums. With excellent markings, there are trails of many different distances and difficulties through all sorts of landscapes. The best resource is the website (balboapark.org) which has descriptions of different trails and trail maps.There are a few safety concerns in evening and early morning, as the park is less crowded, not policed, and there is a large transient population. As always, run with a friend if you are unsure of safety.
Torrey Pines State Reserve – Torrey Pines offers many very well traveled trails, some that even end down on the beach. There are many different types of vegetation that are unique to that area and be sure to enjoy the views of the ocean and the hang gliders you might see over the cliffs. This area is very popular with both locals and tourists, so your best bet is to visit on a weekday or early in the morning to avoid crowds.
Are you an experienced trail runner, or looking for climbing and vertical challenge? Head east!
Mt. Woodson – Located in Ramona and probably best known for “Potato Chip Rock” at the top of the trail, Mt. Woodson presents a 6.6 mile round trip trail to the summit, with 2000’ of elevation gain. There is also a nice picnic area around the lake, which provides great views during the run. Two pieces of advice: it gets hot so come early and bring water and skip “Potato Chip”, the hour long line for that selfie isn’t worth it.
Iron Mountain – Iron Mountain is located in the city of Poway. It provides you with a rocky trail that is 6.6 miles round trip with 1000’ of elevation gain, but the view from the top is beautiful. This trail tends to be less crowded than others nearby, but also gets hot during the summer.
Cowles Mountain – Probably the most popular climb in San Diego, the south side is very busy all days of the week and all times of the day. This trail is primarily dirt switchbacks and is 3 miles round-trip with 1200’ of elevation gain. If you’re looking for the path less traveled, the north side has a few options, most of which end up being about 4 miles round-trip with 1200’ elevation gain. The view from the summit is one of the best, with ocean views on clear days.