Looking to unplug, spend time outdoors, and give your kiddos an extra confidence boost? Go for a winter hike! Here in San Diego county, hiking is accessible year-round with some trails shining brightest in cooler months. The air is crisp, the trail is less crowded and the views are just as beautiful. From wild turkeys and bald eagles to fire towers and waterfalls—each of the excursions below features something unique that will lift spirits and make you remember why going for a hike is always a good idea. Put on your snow boots for a snowy trek in Big Bear, breathe in the fresh mountain air of Palomar Mountain or jump across some stones for a creek crossing in the Elfin Forest.
Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve offers approximately 2,900 acres of mixed conifer forest. The single track Five Oaks Trail is open to hikers only and is perfect for exploring San Diego’s four seasons. If you time it right you can catch snow-capped peaks and wildflowers. Hike to the summit for spectacular views from the desert to the coast. This roughly 5-mile round-trip hike is considered moderately difficult, with steep inclines so is best suited for older kids. Park on Farmer Road and head to the Hubbell Gate.
1209 Farmer Road at Wynola Road, Julian, CA 92036
Big Bear offers miles and miles of trails on National Forest territory for you to explore and enjoy, but the following are the best three hikes for kids. The Alpine Pedal Path is an easy 5 mile paved (ie: stroller-friendly) round trip trail. This connects to the Discovery Nature Center, where you’ll find another easy ½ mile loop trail. The Woodland Trail is an easy, mostly flat 1.5 mile self-guided interpretive loop with 16 numbered posts. Print out the trail brochure to learn about botany, geology and the wildlife of this woodland area. Remember to check weather and snow conditions before heading out for any mountain winter adventures.
Wildlife: Be sure to look up for a bald eagle sighting since the San Bernardino Mountains has the largest wintering bald eagle population in SoCal from November to early April.
Big Bear Discovery Center
40971 North Shore Dr., Hwy 38, Fawnskin
Take your pick from the many hiking trails at Palomar Mountain, but you may want to start with one of these three easy trails for little feet. The 1 mile out and back Silvercrest Trail is found right at the park’s entrance. The 3.5-mile trail to the Boucher Lookout Fire Tower will give you some amazing views if the ranger is there to let you climb up to the top. The Doane Valley Nature Trail is an easy 1-mile hike that will take you across 2 streams and out to Doane Pond. The address below takes you to the Ranger Station at the park’s entrance that will cost $10 (bring exact cash), but it’s well worth it.
Trail Guide: Print out the Doane Nature Trail Guide before you go to learn about native plants you’ll find along the way and their uses.
Good to know: There are bathrooms all around inside this park, download the Park Brochure to find them.
Ranger Station Park Entrance
19952 State Park Dr., Palomar Mountain
Los Jilgueros Preserve
This is more of a good nature walk than a hike, but it’s perfect for littles (and grandparents) because it’s short and flat the entire way. You’ll find benches to relax on and ducks to feed when you get to the pond with turtles and fish to spot too. It’s a 1-mile loop trail around the perimeter, but there are other smaller intertwined trails so the total is about 2 miles if you walk them all. This is a lush area with a large variety of native plants and animals to see like lizards, rabbits, birds and butterflies. This used to be an orchard farm, so you’ll find some old farming equipment that got left behind. All-terrain strollers are likely to do well here.
Shhh: Try to find the secret garden that’s hidden in here.
Good to know: There are no bathrooms, but there's plenty of parking. No entry fees, but donations are welcomed to help maintain this beautiful land.
Los Jilgueros Preserve
2162 S Mission Rd., Fallbrook
Santa Ysabel Open Space West Preserve
Rolling hills, unusual rock formations, a calming creek and scenic views will make you want to sing "the hills are alive!" This preserve has an East and a West entrance on either side of Hwy. 79. The west entrance has a nice 4-mile loop trail that starts at the Lower Creek Trail and loops up around to part of the famous Coast to Crest Trail. Picnic tables and shade are found throughout for a pit stop to relax and take a break for lunch.
Before or after your hike, drive over to the East entrance where you’ll find the brand new Children’s Outdoor Nature Play area (opened April 2020) and a new Nature Center. Reward yourselves with a treat from Dudley’s Bakery or the Julian Pie Co. about ½ mile away.
Animals: This will be the most unique hiking experience because there are cows that graze freely all around here. The forest service leaves the land for the local cattle handlers to use throughout the preserve.
Parking: Look for the small lot just before Dudley’s Bakery. There’s a port-a-potty here too.
Nature Center - East Preserve
22135 Highway 79, Santa Ysabel
Santa Ysabel Open Space - West Preserve
29300 Hwy 78, Santa Ysabel
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Pine trees, meadows, waterfalls and wild turkeys are just some of what you’ll find hiking in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. This park has over 100 miles of trails to choose from, so start with these three easy hikes for kids. Towards the north end with views of Lake Cuyamaca is an easy 2 mile loop at Los Vaqueros Trail where you’ll pass by an old mining site. In the middle is the pictured Self-Guided Nature Trail from the Paso Picacho Campground and you can hike out and back on the Azalea Glenn Loop Trail. To the south end is an easy 0.4 mile shaded trail to the Green Valley Falls.
Parking: Park in legal turnouts along the highway and hike for free, or pay a $10 day use fee at either Green Falls or Paso Picacho Day Use areas and have access to bathrooms and picnic areas.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Ranger’s Station Entrance
13652 Highway 79, Julian
San Diego River Garden
This little trail is hidden in Mission Valley where you’d never expect. It's a great option for young hikers (or strollers) since it's more of a garden path than a hike. Kids can wander around and look at carefully marked plant species along the paths. You are certain to glimpse a few of the River’s wildlife inhabitants here, especially birds and lizards. To get there, park on Rancho Mission Road and follow Camino del Rio North to the garden entrance a little less than a mile away.
Full of magical mystery that surrounds the Elfin Forest lore, this is an enchanting hike indeed. For littles it’s best to plan on an out and back walk for however long their legs will last. About 100 feet in will be a 3-way junction. If you go straight towards the “Way Up” trail a little bit, you’ll cross a bridge with a pretty view of the Escondido Creek, but any further than this will likely be too much of an incline for the kiddos. If you take the left side, that will lead you to the 1.1 mile loop Botanical Trail, kids can hike up towards the creek crossing to jump over some rocks. Plan to turn around shortly after this and head back to the entrance.
Guide Book: Download the Botanical Trail Guide to learn about the native plants and wildlife that are marked on the trail.
Parking: Plenty of parking and port-a-potties at the entrance.
8833 Harmony Grove Rd., Escondido
Wooded Hill Nature Trail
Perfect for families, this peaceful trail is less crowded but full of birds singing from the treetops as you walk along this easy hike. Its gentle elevation winds through beautiful wooded groves and has boulders kids can climb along the way. There are numbered exhibits dotting this interpretive trail and at the top you’ll find amazing views of the nearby mountains. Choose from the shorter 1.4 mile or the longer 2-mile figure-eight loop, with lots of shade from the tall trees to keep you cool.
Wooded Hill Rd., Mt. Laguna
just north of Sunrise Hwy
park across from the Wooded Hill Campground
Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve
How amazing that you can find a waterfall hike in the city! Dip your toes in the waterfall at the end of this flat urban hike in the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve (not recommended for swimming). This one is best for older kids because depending on your starting point, it can be a 5-6 mile round trip. Multiple trails intersect all over this canyon and across the creek with small footbridges that are fun for kids to run across. You’ll walk through sycamore and oak groves, you might encounter a horse or two, and take a peek in the streams to look for frogs and crayfish. There are many access points along the canyon from residential neighborhoods, but a fun starting point is from the Los Penasquitos Ranch House.
Fun For Kids: If you start at the Ranch House, you can stop and see the farm animals and even play at the nearby Canyonside Park Playground.
Parking: $3 to park at the main entrance or free if you park elsewhere on a nearby residential street
12020 Black Mountain Rd., Rancho Penasquitos
Tips Before You Head Out
Even though it’s winter time, don’t forget the basics: lots of water, hats, sunscreen and dress in layers. Throw some extra snacks in your lunch because the kiddos will be hungry after scrambling through these trails.
Good to know: Bring cash because some hikes may have a fee or require a State Parks Pass, National Parks Pass or an Adventure Pass; this might be a good time to become an annual parks pass holder! Cell service may be limited so print out any maps ahead of time. Know what poisonous plants look like so you can avoid them and bring some bug spray just in case.
Most trails are open from dawn to dusk, currently require socially distancing and face masks when passing others from another household. Check to make sure these trails are open before you go in case State closures may be in effect.
––Aimee Della Bitta & Bonnie Taylor