With the sun shining and not a drop of rain to be found, hiking season is in full swing in San Diego. For experienced hikers and those in good physical shape, there is no better time than now to jump in your car, lace up your boots, and hit up one of the toughest trails southern California has to offer. Whether you’re hiking up rocky inclines, gaining thousands of feet of elevation in a short distance, or trekking over 12 miles, you’ll find the hardest hikes in all of San Diego County on this list. Keep in mind, these trails aren’t for the faint of heart and require ample planning before your hike. (Note: I can’t take credit for stronger muscles, higher endurance, and improved self-esteem from completing these hikes; you’ve got this!)
El Cajon Mountain
El Cajon Mountain gives you small glimmers of hope, before completely killing your dreams. This 11 mile beast is considered by many to be the hardest hike in all of San Diego with its 4,100-feet elevation gain. There are points in time where the trail levels out, giving your feet a welcome break only to test you with an even tougher, longer incline immediately after. Placards posted at every mile only make you feel more hopeless, an unwelcome preview of the torture that is to come. Just when you think you’ve reached the summit, you’ll have about a mile more to trek. Once you reach the true summit you’ll finally have the views to justify why you just hiked nearly six miles and have another six to go.
One might seem skeptical about Three Sisters’ difficulty when only taking mileage into consideration. The entire hike itself is 4-miles in length; the first two heading down to the falls will hardly get your quads burning but those last two miles trekking up a steep uphill grade will leave you gasping for breath. Even the most conditioned hikers will need to take a break from climbing up ropes, pulling their bodies up rocks, and keeping firm footing required to get back to the trailhead. The falls, especially after heavy rainfall, are truly a wonder to see and worth every arduous step of the journey.
Goat Canyon Trestle
Whether you’re taking the legal 4-mile route or the illegal 12-mile route, getting to the world’s largest wooden trestle is a difficult feat. The legal route will have you scrambling rocks and navigating your way across unmarked trails in the desert. Getting lost at some point is almost imminent, which only extends your journey. The illegal route takes you through pitch-black tunnels and across old, rickety wooden planks that feel ready to break beneath your feet at any given moment. Either route, albeit we advocate for the legal one, is worth it to see this historic site.
The hike to Villager Peak may be the longest day hike you take in your life. A 2-hour drive to Anza-Borrego followed by a 13.5-mile hike is enough to leave even the most experienced hiker exhausted. The elevation gain isn’t anything to laugh over either: 5,100’ total. Therefore, most people turn this into a two-day backpacking trip to include the nearby Rabbit Peak. Add a pack to your shoulders and this only increases the difficulty of this hike. While this might seem daunting, if you can muster up the courage and strength you will be among a small pool of hikers to complete this journey.
Agua Tibia Loop
The Agua Tibia Loop Trail is nearly as long as the hike to Mt. Whitney—a trail in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park people spend months training for. At 20-miles in distance, or 13.6 if you hike only the Dripping Springs Trail, this hike will leave your legs shaking and heart pounding. Many make this a two-day hike because of its difficulty and long-distance but those than feel up to the challenge can make it a grueling one-day event with an early enough start. For those who do complete the Agua Tibia Loop you can successfully boast to your friends that you completed quite possibly the hardest trail in San Diego.
5 Peaks Challenge
Why hike one strenuous peak when you can hike five? Mission Trails Regional Park originally designed the challenge to expose people to all the peaks the park had to offer. The trails include: Cowles (1,592 feet), Pyles Peak (1,379 feet), Kwaay Paay (1,194 feet), South Fortuna (1,094 feet), and North Fortuna (1,291). All together these trails account for nearly 11.5-miles of rough, strenuous uphill climbs. The goal is to complete all five trails, however there is no specific time frame set to complete them. To make this more challenging we suggest tackling all five in one day, if you dare.
Resources: Trail Map
At first glance, Viejas doesn’t look or appear to be anything out of the ordinary. It should be easy enough, at under 4-miles in length but it is the antonym of the word “easy”. In fact, it is difficult, strenuous, hard, and soul-crushing at times. It doesn’t give you hope like El Cajon Mountain, with its constant ups and downs, but instead shoots it to you straight from the start. Most the hike requires traversing up loose, slippery rocks on an entirely uncovered trail, with the sun assaulting you at all times. Additionally, you will gain close to 1,000’ for every mile you climb. Yet once you reach the top, you’ll realize why the pain was worth it.
Photo Credit: pdpolena