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Mt. Woodson via the Blue Sky Reserve

Hikers take a break at Potato Chip Rock.
Hikers take a break at Potato Chip Rock.

Mt. Woodson is one of San Diego’s favorite places for a day hike. Many people make the climb on the asphalt-paved road on the east side of the mountain off SR 67 that rises steeply to the top. Other hikers take the somewhat longer but more scenic west side trail that starts from Lake Poway. A less traveled option, presented here, is to start your ascent at the Blue Sky Reserve, adding a few more miles but giving you a chance to stroll through one of San Diego’s more scenic oak woodlands while experiencing a diversity of vegetation types on your way up. The Blue Sky Reserve, jointly managed by the California Department of Fish & Game and the City of Poway, directly connects to Poway’s extensive network of hiking trails.

This is a moderate to strenuous 11-mile round-trip hike on well-marked and maintained trails. Start hiking on the Blue Sky Reserve Trail, at the south end of the parking lot. Although this trail continues 2.4 miles to the Ramona Dam, turn south (right) 0.9 mile from the trailhead onto the Lake Poway Recreational Area trail. Much of both of these trails pass through a beautiful coast live oak forest and near a lush riparian community with mature western sycamores, black willows, and mule fat, as well as oaks. In another 0.25 mile is the Poway Wilderness Picnic Area with picnic tables, water, and toilet facilities. From there, the trail switchbacks up a coastal sage scrub-covered hillside to take you over the east side of the Lake Poway Dam and into the recreation area.

A forest of communication towers are on top of Mt. Woodson.

The Lake Poway Trail loops around the lake, but leave the lake when the Mt. Woodson trail branches off to the left, 0.4 mile ahead. For the first mile, the trail is a nearly straight, somewhat steep, dirt road whose saving grace is the view behind of the lake that recedes as you climb. A little over one mile from the lake is Warren Canyon–Mt. Woodson Trail junction. From this point on the trail is more interesting, extending up the chaparral-covered hillside, initially through a series of switchbacks, but then straightening out to climb up a ridge to the top of Mt. Woodson, 1.9 miles ahead. On your way are some amazing well-weathered boulders, including the famous potato chip rock. Do not forget to check out the vegetation, including big berry manzanita and several kinds of ceanothus that add interest and color to the hike. Long before reaching the top, a forest of tall metal communications towers rise from the peak and define your goal. After exploring the peak area, return the way you came.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 27 miles. Allow 35 minutes driving time. From I-15 take the Rancho Bernardo Road exit and turn right to continue on Espola Road for approximately 3 miles. Make a left into Blue Sky Ecological Reserve parking lot, which is open sunrise to sunset except for summer when open at 6:30 a.m. Vault toilets but no water available.
  • Hiking length: 11 miles out and back.
  • Difficulty: Moderately strenuous because of the length and elevation increase/decrease of 2200 feet. Maximum elevation is 2894 feet. Carry water. Dogs are allowed but not bicycles or motorized vehicles.
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Hikers take a break at Potato Chip Rock.
Hikers take a break at Potato Chip Rock.

Mt. Woodson is one of San Diego’s favorite places for a day hike. Many people make the climb on the asphalt-paved road on the east side of the mountain off SR 67 that rises steeply to the top. Other hikers take the somewhat longer but more scenic west side trail that starts from Lake Poway. A less traveled option, presented here, is to start your ascent at the Blue Sky Reserve, adding a few more miles but giving you a chance to stroll through one of San Diego’s more scenic oak woodlands while experiencing a diversity of vegetation types on your way up. The Blue Sky Reserve, jointly managed by the California Department of Fish & Game and the City of Poway, directly connects to Poway’s extensive network of hiking trails.

This is a moderate to strenuous 11-mile round-trip hike on well-marked and maintained trails. Start hiking on the Blue Sky Reserve Trail, at the south end of the parking lot. Although this trail continues 2.4 miles to the Ramona Dam, turn south (right) 0.9 mile from the trailhead onto the Lake Poway Recreational Area trail. Much of both of these trails pass through a beautiful coast live oak forest and near a lush riparian community with mature western sycamores, black willows, and mule fat, as well as oaks. In another 0.25 mile is the Poway Wilderness Picnic Area with picnic tables, water, and toilet facilities. From there, the trail switchbacks up a coastal sage scrub-covered hillside to take you over the east side of the Lake Poway Dam and into the recreation area.

A forest of communication towers are on top of Mt. Woodson.

The Lake Poway Trail loops around the lake, but leave the lake when the Mt. Woodson trail branches off to the left, 0.4 mile ahead. For the first mile, the trail is a nearly straight, somewhat steep, dirt road whose saving grace is the view behind of the lake that recedes as you climb. A little over one mile from the lake is Warren Canyon–Mt. Woodson Trail junction. From this point on the trail is more interesting, extending up the chaparral-covered hillside, initially through a series of switchbacks, but then straightening out to climb up a ridge to the top of Mt. Woodson, 1.9 miles ahead. On your way are some amazing well-weathered boulders, including the famous potato chip rock. Do not forget to check out the vegetation, including big berry manzanita and several kinds of ceanothus that add interest and color to the hike. Long before reaching the top, a forest of tall metal communications towers rise from the peak and define your goal. After exploring the peak area, return the way you came.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: 27 miles. Allow 35 minutes driving time. From I-15 take the Rancho Bernardo Road exit and turn right to continue on Espola Road for approximately 3 miles. Make a left into Blue Sky Ecological Reserve parking lot, which is open sunrise to sunset except for summer when open at 6:30 a.m. Vault toilets but no water available.
  • Hiking length: 11 miles out and back.
  • Difficulty: Moderately strenuous because of the length and elevation increase/decrease of 2200 feet. Maximum elevation is 2894 feet. Carry water. Dogs are allowed but not bicycles or motorized vehicles.
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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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