San Diego’s Best Lake Walks and Hikes

When you think of San Diego and large bodies of water, obviously the first thing that comes to mind is the ocean. 

Did you know that San Diego also boasts an impressive number of lakes for a city in such a dry climate? Many of these lakes are actually reservoirs that serve as open-air holding tanks for our water supply, but they also create some beautiful scenery and serve important ecological roles too. 

These lakes and reservoirs are great places to go for a walk, run, hike, or bike ride. 

Below are some of our favorite San Diego lake walks and hikes. Some may be closer to where you live than you might expect. 

How many have you visited?  

North County

If you’ve ever driven Del Dios Highway or the I-15 between Rancho Bernardo and Escondido you probably noticed the large winding reservoir that makes up Lake Hodges

There are over seven miles of trails around Lake Hodges, covering almost every shore of the reservoir. On the north side of the lake you can summit the 1145 ft Bernardo Mountain and walk a portion of the Coast to Crest Trail, which connects the mountains outside Julian directly to the ocean. From the south side, you can hike out to Fletcher Point, which looks like the head of a partially submerged turtle in the lake. 

On the other side of the 15, you can explore the many trails around Lake Poway. For an easier walk, stick with the 2.5-mile loop around the lake. If you’re feeling more adventurous you can use the lake as a starting point to do the more strenuous 7-mile western approach to the top of Mount Woodson and the infamous Potato Chip Rock (be sure to bring lots of water if you attempt this approach).

There are also trails that connect Lake Poway to the Blue Sky Ecological Preserve directly to the north, with more trails to the top of the dam that creates the Lake Ramona reservoir. 

In Scripps Ranch you can visit the jewel that is Lake Miramar. The paved five-mile path around the lake is perfect for walking, running, biking, or roller skating

Closer to the coast in Carlsbad you can achieve the double whammy of walking around a beautiful lake AND summiting a volcano in one hike

Mount Calavera and the neighboring Lake Calavera are situated within 4.8 miles of meandering trails, both paved and unpaved. The “volcano” (technically a volcanic plug) was last active 22 million years ago, so it’s in no danger of erupting anytime soon.  In fact, it’s a relatively easy hike to the top to get a view of the lake and watch the sunset. 

East County

Mission Trails Regional Park boasts two beautiful lakes. 

Lake Murray is the larger of the two. Located just outside the main area of the park, it’s accessible on multiple sides and has an approximately three mile trail that goes around almost the entirety of the lake (but does not loop all the way around, so plan accordingly!) The marsh grass and natural habitats on the northwest side of the lake are especially beautiful. Sharp eyes may spot an osprey nest that’s been built high above the path. Orioles and other colorful birds visit the lake on their seasonal migration. 

Over in the Mission Trails park proper is Kumeyaay Lake. The trail begins near the campground by the Santee entrance to the park. It’s a significantly shorter trail but will also feel more like a nature walk away from human-made environments. 

If you like bird watching then Lindo Lake in Lakeside is for you! 

Aside from being a beautiful park and recreation area, the lake itself is home to some of the greatest variety and concentration of birds in all of San Diego county. As you take the trail around the park, you’re sure to encounter herons, egrets, geese, grackles, wood ducks, and maybe even some less common specimens, like the colorful Cinnamon Teal.  

South San Diego

The southern region of San Diego features two large reservoirs with their own unique walking and hiking opportunities. 

The area surrounding the Sweetwater Reservoir has many amenities like a playground and camping, but access to the waterfront itself can be quite limited. 

An alternative option is to explore the many miles of trails overlooking the reservoir from Mount San Miguel to the southeast. Use the trailhead at Mount San Miguel Park near Eastlake as your point of entry. The trails traverse the smaller hills close to the lake, or you can hike to the top of Mount San Miguel itself. From there you’ll get a fantastic view across southern San Diego and into Mexico.

The other southerly San Diego reservoir is the Otay Lake reservoir, which is split into the Upper and Lower sections. 

Lower Otay Lake is the larger portion. The long shoreline offers many miles of trails and scenic views. It can be pleasantly quiet compared to some of the other large lakes listed. 

Upper Otay Lake is an offshoot at the north end of the larger Otay Lake basin.  The 2.1-mile trail around this lake goes in a loop and is generally even quieter there than at its larger lake sibling. 

Mountains

Lake Cuyamaca is located at the north end of Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, a vast and beautiful area of mountains, chaparral, oak, and pine forests about an hour’s drive east of downtown. 

The trails around the lake itself offer some incredible forest and grassland scenery. This can be an opportunity for incomparable wildlife viewing, with deer, turkey, quail, dozens of other birds, and even coyotes and bobcats all calling the area home.

Further south is Lake Morena County Park, which offers camping, playgrounds, and other amenities built around the lake itself. 

There are miles of trails exploring the various weaves and inlets of the lake and the surrounding area, which are a mix of forest, grassland, chaparral, desert, and riparian areas. 

If you’re feeling adventurous, you could even hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail to the top of Morena Butte for a view back down on the lake or into the valley of the Hauser Wilderness directly to the west. 

Hopefully, this list inspires you to get outdoors and explore some of the many natural habitats San Diego has to offer.

For even more fun, pair your lake walk with bird watching or bring the kids for a family day outdoors. 

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