Nature’s Calling: 7 Incredible Hikes to Take in the City

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Surrounding yourself with nature is easy to do, especially with all the canyons and kid-friendly hiking trails in our neighborhoods. In fact, the hikes on this list are all just a few minutes from local neighborhoods, have free parking and the paths are just a quick walk away. Whether you’re downtown or uptown, coastal or inland, you don’t have to drive far to find a good hiking spot. Here’s where to get your hike on!

Palm Canyon - Balboa Park

One of the most easily accessible, short and quick urban hikes is at Palm Canyon in Balboa Park. You’ve probably walked by it a million times and never knew it was there. The main path is a short paved trail that will take you by all kinds of different palm trees. There are some dirt trails that split upwards, but they all loop back around to each other. You’ll find it hiding behind the bathrooms across from the Organ Pavilion. Just follow the wooden deck from the bathrooms around the corner, through the trees, across the bridge and down the steps to start your hike! This is a short hike so it’s perfect for little legs and the bathrooms are back at the top of the steps.

Bathrooms: Yes

Parking: Behind Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Balboa Park Palm Canyon
635 Pan American Rd. W.
Online: balboapark.org

Tecolote Canyon - Bay Park

This is a long canyon in Bay Park where you’ll find several good entrances to choose from. A great starting place for kids is either at the Nature Center, where you’ll find scheduled ranger talks, stories and crafts, or at the Recreation Center, where you’ll find a fun playground with lots of shade. Pick a trail and start walking wherever it winds. Just remember, they’re all out-and-back trails, so you’ll have to go back the way you came. Fun Fact: Look up to find some tecolotes, or owls, that this canyon is named after.

Bathrooms: Yes, at the Nature Center and Recreation Center

Parking: Free parking lot

Tecolote Canyon Nature Center
5180 Tecolote Rd.

Tecolote Canyon Recreation Center
5188 Tecolote Rd.

Online: sandiego.gov

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park - Point Loma

You’ll find the most amazing ocean views from this urban hike, just make sure to keep littles close by and away from the edge. This is an easy trail system for little legs because the dirt trails are flat all the way out and around. The brush is low-lying enough that you’ll always be able to see where you are going and where you came from. Being right next to the ocean will help keep you cool and breezy for your hike.

Bathrooms: Yes, port-a-potty in parking lot

Parking: Free street parking along Ladera St. or pull into the dirt lot a little further up the hill on Cornish Dr.

Sunset Cliffs
705 Cornish Dr.
Online: sandiego.gov

Maple Canyon - Bankers Hill

A perfect combination of urban and nature is combined into this short and easy little hike in the middle of the city. Start at the historic wooden Quince Street Bridge and you’ll find a trail entrance on the other side of the bridge that will take you down into the canyon and under the bridge. This is an out-and-back, flat ground trail so only walk out half as far as little legs will go. That way they can make it back to the bridge. Bonus: at the start of the bridge you’ll find a Little Free Library so bring some old books to donate. Fair warning, one block down is James Coffee and Extraordinary Desserts, so plan accordingly.

Bathrooms: No

Parking: Free and metered parking

Maple Canyon at Quince Street Bridge
Fourth Ave. & Quince St.
Online: sandiego.gov

Florida Canyon - Balboa Park

On the other side of Balboa Park off Park Boulevard, you’ll find another great hiking trail at Florida Canyon. This is a more moderate hike for longer legs that will take the stamina of a 6-year-old to go out and back. These dirt trails split off every which way so just pick a direction and follow it until you want to go back. It’s easy to find your way back because the brush is low enough to see where you’ve come from.

The easiest way to access it is to park in front of the Natural History Museum at Balboa Park and walk across the bridge towards the rose garden. Turn left and you’ll be in the beautiful Desert Garden that has paved trails and is a nice nature walk for little kiddos. To find the hiking trail, take the switchback paved trail down towards Zoo Place and cross the street.

Bathrooms: None nearby, but you can find some back in Balboa Park

Parking: Next to the Natural History Museum

Florida Canyon
2125 Park Blvd.
Online: balboapark.org

Shepherd Canyon - Tierrasanta

This true urban hike is in a canyon that meanders between suburb housing developments. You’ll likely see regulars who live nearby and come here for their daily walk, but it’s so wide that it never feels crowded. Some trails are lined with river rocks, sticks or fallen trees, which gives it a great sense of community pride for being well-taken care of. You may even spy a fort made of sticks and branches that kids will love to play in. There are several entry points into this out-and-back trail system and they’re all great options.

Bathrooms: No

Parking: Free, residential street parking

Shepherd Canyon
6126 Antigua Blvd.
Online: alltrails.com

Manzanita Canyon - City Heights

This urban hike will have you feeling like you’re not in San Diego anymore, but rather will feel like you’re in the middle of a dried up river bed with large river rocks and brush lining the wide trails. Be on the lookout for wild animals... let's hope you don't find a skunk like our hikers did. There are several different neighborhood entrances to this out-and-back hike, but a good starting point is from the Gathering Place (noted below). When you're done with the hike, head over to the secret Azalea Park Water Conservation Garden for a quick garden walk, before running behind the Community Center building to the playground.

Bathrooms: No, but you’ll find one at Azalea Community Park nearby

Parking: Free, residential street parking

Manzanita Canyon Gathering Place
Manzanita Dr. & Manzanita Pl.
Online: sdcanyonlands.org

Hiking Safety & Tips:
1. Always bring more water than you think you need.
2. Wear sturdy shoes and hats and pack plenty of sunscreen.
3. Watch out for snakes and poison ivy along the trails.
4. None of these urban hikes are stroller-friendly, but all are perfect for little legs to explore on their own.

Good to know: With so many fabulous urban hiking trails around the city, it’s hard to pick just one. So here’s an easy way to find a trail near you. Open up your phone’s map, zoom in to the green areas and look for the dashed green lines—those indicate trails. You can also type “hikes” or “trails” into your phone’s map and you’ll be surprised to see what pops up around you!

—Bonnie Taylor

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