Distance: 7.25 miles | Hiking time: 4.5 hours | More info.
Mt Woodson Trail is one of San Diego’s most popular hiking destinations, and for good reason. In addition to the challenging workout and scenic views it offers, Potato Chip Rock is located just below Woodson’s summit and draws visitors from around the world. The 7.25 mile out-and-back hike starts at beautiful Lake Poway. From there, the trail leads hikers all the way to the 2,821 ft. summit. Mt Woodson is one of San Diego’s highest peaks, and its views reach from the mountains to the sea. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just looking for a new adventure, a visit to Mt Woodson Trail is a must.
Lake Poway to Mt Woodson Trail
The trail begins with a peaceful walk along the lake’s edge, where people go for a quiet day of fishing, boating and other activities with their families. Parking is free for Poway residents and active military personnel with with ID. Non-residents may be charged a fee. Check ahead to see their current fee schedule and hours. Aside from holidays, there is almost always plenty of parking available. The restrooms are clean and the trail is the most well-maintained off-road route to the summit of Mt Woodson.
You’ll reach the trailhead for Mt Woodson Trail at around the one mile mark. The trail, which is actually a fire road, leads directly up a steep hill and is visible from the other side of the lake. The next half-mile is a heart pounding, quad busting 500 ft. of elevation gain. Occasionally, some pain-loving trail runner will pass you running up the hill. Other than that, most people choose a gradual ascent, stopping here and there to take in the view, recover their breath and enjoy a spot of shade if it’s available.
A scenic lookout awaits you at the top of the hill. At this point, you’ll have an opportunity to catch your breath and admire the views before continuing your journey. From here on, the fire road ends and the real trail begins.
Hiking Mt Woodson Trail
Once you’ve rested up, continue heading east toward the base of the next hill. After a couple hundred yards, you’ll reach a fork in the trail with a sign that points towards the summit. It’s easy to miss the sign if you’re engrossed in conversation, so keep an eye out. If you miss the trail marker, you may find that you’re actually heading down the mountain toward HWY 67, rather than up to Potato Chip Rock.
Continue making your way up the trail. You’ll zig and zag, you’ll wind a little and whine a little, you’ll rest and recover, and eventually you’ll find yourself at an old tree standing by itself on the side of a large rock. Congratulations! You have reached the halfway point. Take a break in the shade and enjoy the view, you’ve earned it. Enjoy it while you’ve got it though, because there’s not much shade available on the trail beyond this point.
Take a Bite of Potato Chip Rock
After leaving the shady lookout, the trail starts to let up a bit. Continue making your way toward the summit and before you know it Potato Chip Rock will be within your sights.
Depending on your luck, you will mostly likely find a line of some type at Potato Chip Rock. Expect to wait in line for up to an hour to take a photo if you hike on a holiday or weekend. If you’d rather bag a peak than take a picture, then move on past the crowd and up the hill toward the towers that crown the summit. There you’ll find the east entrance to the summit and a plethora of less popular observation points where you can enjoy the view in all directions.
Mt. Woodson Trail & Potato Chip Rock Hike Insights
I’ve been hiking Mt Woodson regularly since 2009. Back then, Potato Chip Rock was just an interesting rock formation that only the adventurous hiker sought out for a photo. Today, however, it has become the Disneyland of San Diego hiking destinations, and attracts visitors from around the world. Despite this fact, the hike from Lake Poway to Mt Woodson remains my favorite in San Diego. It’s a challenging workout that will keep you working from start to finish. If you’re in good physical shape, the hike can be completed in under two hours by running down from the summit. If you’re in exceptional shape, you might even run up it and beat that time.
There are only two things that keep me from calling this hike my home away from home:
- Cost – The entrance fee can be avoided by parking in the overflow lot, or starting at one of the alternate trailheads, but that changes the hike. But the good news is that the entrance to the park is not always staffed. As a result, I only end up paying about 50% of the time.
- Crowds – Crowds can be a problem at times, especially for those who prefer a fast-paced hike or run.
Neither of these factors has changed how often I hike Mt Woodson Trail, and they definitely shouldn’t affect your decision to visit either. So if you haven’t hiked it yet, then by all means go. And go now!
More Information & Resources
- Directions to Trailhead – Google Maps
- Trail info – HikingProject.com
- City of Poway – Parks & Rec
- Mt. Woodson Trail – TripAdvisor.com
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