From beachside bluffs and waterfront estuaries to the foothills and trails of the nearby Laguna Mountains and the desert beyond, San Diego County has several vegetation and climate zones—and plenty of open space for hiking. Even if you lack the time to explore the outskirts, a day hike through the canyons and gardens of Balboa Park or the canyons and hills of Mission Trails Park is a great way to escape to nature without leaving the city. A list of scheduled walks appears in the Reader (www.sandiegoreader.com).
Guided hikes are conducted regularly through Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve and the Torrey Pines State Beach and Reserve.
Bayside Trail at Cabrillo National Monument. Driving here is a treat in itself, as a vast view of the Pacific unfolds before you. The view is equally enjoyable on Bayside Trail (2 miles round-trip), which is home to the same coastal sagebrush that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo saw when he first discovered the California coast in the 16th century. After the hike, you can explore nearby tide pools, the monument statue, and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Don't worry if you don't see everything on your first visit; your entrance receipt ($5 per car) is good for 7 days. 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr., Point Loma, San Diego, CA, 92106. From I–5, take the Rosecrans exit and turn right on Canon St. then left on Catalina Blvd. (also known as Cabrillo Memorial Dr.); follow until the end. 619/557–5450. www.nps.gov/cabr.
Hike Bike Kayak San Diego. Join guided treks through Torrey Pines State Beach and Reserve, and Mission Trails Regional Park, which includes Cowles Mountain and Fortuna Mountain. Office, 2222 Ave. de la Playa, La Jolla, San Diego, CA, 92037. 858/551–9510. www.hikebikekayak.com.
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. Trails at this inland park north of Mira Mesa accommodate equestrians, runners, walkers, and cyclists as well as leashed dogs. Look at maps for trails specific to bikes and horses. A small waterfall among large volcanic rock boulders is one of the park's most popular sites—it's an unexpected oasis amid the arid valley landscape. 12020 Black Mountain Rd., Rancho Peñasquitos, San Diego, CA, 92129. From I–15, exit Mercy Rd. and head west to Black Mountain Rd.; turn right then left at first light; follow road to Ranch House parking lot. 858/484–7504. www.sandiego.gov.
Mission Trails Regional Park. This park 8 miles northeast of downtown encompasses nearly 5,800 acres of wooded hillsides, grasslands, chaparral, and streams. Trails range from easy to difficult; they include one with an impressive view of the city from Cowles Mountain and another along a historic missionary path. The park is also a popular place for rock climbing and camping (the Kumeyaay Lake Campground is open on weekends). Lake Murray is at the southern edge of the park, off Highway 8. 1 Father Junípero Serra Trail, Mission Valley, San Diego, CA, 92119. 619/668–3281. www.mtrp.org.
Torrey Pines State Reserve. Hikers and runners will appreciate this park's many winning features: switch-back trails that descend to the sea, an unparalleled view of the Pacific, and a chance to see the Torrey pine tree, one of the rarest pine breeds in the United States. The reserve hosts guided nature walks as well. All food is prohibited at the reserve, so save the picnic until you reach the beach below. Parking is $12–$15, depending on day and season. 12600 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla, San Diego, CA, 92037. Exit I–5 at Carmel Valley Rd. and head west toward Coast Hwy. 101 until you reach N. Torrey Pines Rd.; turn left. 858/755–2063. www.parks.ca.gov.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At more than 600,000 acres, this is the largest state park in California. There are 500 miles of dirt roads and countless trails for hiking. Visits here are especially popular during the two-week desert wildflower bloom, which happens between early February and late April. The exact timing depends on winter rains, so it's best to call the park ahead for advice. The park is about a two-hour drive east of downtown San Diego, at the far eastern end of San Diego County. 200 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA, 92004. 760/767–4205. www.parks.ca.gov.
Carlsbad Flower Fields. This commercial nursery that's also a tourist destination is for anyone who wants to see a seemingly endless sea of red, yellow, purple, and pink blooms against the distant blue sea. The fields are only open to visitors when flowers are in bloom from March to May. Don't plan a trip in any other season or you'll just see a field of dirt. In spring, drivers on I–5 can steal a peek at the ranunculus fields, which burst with lively color. 5704 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad, CA, 92008. Exit I–5 at Palomar Airport Rd. and head east; turn left at Paseo Del Norte then right into parking lot. 760/431–0352. www.theflowerfields.com. $12.
San Dieguito River Park. This 55-mile corridor begins at the mouth of the San Dieguito River in Del Mar and heads from the riparian lagoon area through coastal sage scrub and mountain terrain to end in the desert, which is east of Volcan Mountain near Julian. It's open to hikers, bikers, and horses. The expansive park is also home to the Sikes Adobe Farmhouse, an 1880s farmstead that was almost completely destroyed by wildfire in 2007. After painstaking restoration it reopened in 2010 and is now home to a museum. The restored adobe creamery reopened in 2014. 18372 Sycamore Creek Rd., Escondido, CA, 92025. 858/674–2270. www.sdrp.org.
Tijuana Estuary. Mostly contained within Border Field State Park, this estuary is one of the last riparian environments in Southern California. The freshwater and saltwater marshes shelter migrant and resident waterfowl. Horse-riding trails fringe the south end of the Tijuana Estuary in Border Field State Park. The visitor center is open Wednesday through Sunday, but the trails are open daily. 301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach, CA, 91932. Exit I–5 at Coronado Ave., head west to 3rd St., turn left onto Caspian, which leads into estuary parking lot. 619/575–3613. www.tijuanaestuary.com.