Postcards & Passports

Three Mountain Hikes & a Castle in San Diego County

This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019

I’ve recently taken up hiking. Or…maybe it’s better to say I’ve had a renewed interest. Perhaps I’d been avoiding hiking because I’d put on some weight. I hated being the last one up the trail. I’m twenty pounds lighter now and back to enjoying mountain hikes. I LOVE the views, the wildflowers, and the sense of satisfaction!

My husband’s recent interest in mountain hikes comes from a planned trip to Machu Picchu. He wanted to be sure he was in shape for backpacking.

So I’m going to share details about three mountain hikes (and a bonus — a castle!) right here in San Diego county that you can also enjoy. I’ll present them in the order I suggest you do the hikes. But of course, you can do whatever you want.

1. Black Mountain Open Space Park Hike

  • Elevation: 1554 feet
  • Level: Beginner-Medium
  • Length of hike: 3.8 miles RT on service road, a little longer if you leave from Hilltop Park
  • Time: Give yourself about an hour to get to the top and 45 minutes to return
  • Dogs are allowed on these trails, as long as they are on leashes
  • Mountain biking is popular here

(click on the map to enlarge)

What to expect:

Black Mountain is the easiest of the hikes, especially if you hike the service road. It is located in the community of Rancho Penasquitos, a suburb of San Diego. The views are beautiful, as you can see west to the ocean on a clear day and east towards more mountains and canyons. Hiking in the spring is especially nice because there are so many wildflowers in bloom.

There are restrooms and a parking lot at Hilltop Park, and that’s where we began our hike. If you wish to hike the service road, drive to the end of Laurentian Drive and park in the neighborhood there.hikes

There are stretches of gravel that can be harder to hike because the gravel gives way beneath your feet. So watch your step! Listen for the bells of bike-riders, too. I was surprised that cyclists were riding even the rougher terrain of the trails, rather than staying on the service road.

With no shade on this hike, you will want to be sure to use sunscreen and maybe even wear a hat. Bringing plenty of water is a must! My husband brought one water bottle, but I brought my Camelback. You might want to bring a pick-me-up snack to eat when you reach the top, but be sure to pack out any trash.

There are a few microwave towers and enclosed structures at the top of Black Mountain, but you’re not there to see the mountaintop — you’re there to see the views. You can walk around the enclosures to enjoy 360-degree views! It’s a hike you can “cut your teeth” on. Take the entire family — even the kids will love it! You can even bribe them with playtime at Hilltop Park‘s playground afterwards if necessary.

2. Iron Mountain Hike

  • Elevation: 2601 feet
  • Level: Moderate
  • Length of hike: 5.8 miles RT
  • Time: 1 1/2 hours to the top, about an hour to come back down
  • Dogs are allowed on leashes
  • Trail is dirt and rocks; too rough for bikes or strollers

In the parking lot at the trailhead, there are restrooms. If you can’t find a parking spot in the lot, you can also park along Highway 67. Iron Mountain is a very popular place to hike. We arrived at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and the parking lot was completely full!

What to expect:

The beginning of the hike takes you through a lovely tunnel of trees, but this is the only shade on the hike. Be prepared with sun protection and lots of water. (Lots of water does not mean just one 16 oz. water bottle). If you are bringing a dog, bring additional water to keep your dog hydrated.

This is a longer hike, and there are more stretches that are relatively level, so it’s not a steep, grueling trail. You will need to watch your step, because there are a lot of trail improvements intended to keep the trail from washing away. But you’ll need to step over them!

We hiked this trail the day before Easter and were moved by the carrying of crosses by several hikers. I was impressed they would carry something so unwieldy to the top of the mountain and back!

Because this is such a popular hike, you will see lots of hikers on the trail! I heard people speaking several different languages, and it was fun to share in the camaraderie of so many enjoying the outdoors. But if you prefer the solace of a one-on-one with nature, this might not be your favorite hike.

I especially enjoyed the large variety of wildflowers blooming along the Iron Mountain trail. For this reason, this was probably my favorite of all three hikes. Here’s just a sampling:

Of course, there were also typical desert plants as well:

At the summit:

At the summit, you can see amazing views! You’ll be able to see the tops of several mountains (including Black Mountain and Mt. Woodson), the San Vicente reservoir, and even the ocean if it’s not overcast along the coast. There are a few picnic tables at the top and a telescope, as well as someone’s Eagle Project that shows all the prominent sights.

Upon returning to the parking lot at the end of our hike, I noticed there was a small creek running under a bridge. When I looked closely, I saw tons of tadpoles in the water. Just another fun thing about this hike!

3. Mt. Woodson/Potato Chip Rock Hike

  • Elevation: 2881 feet
  • Level: Moderate to Difficult
  • Length of hike: 4 miles RT to summit, 4.4 miles RT to Potato Chip Rock
  • Time: About two hours up and back
  • Trail is paved all the way to the summit; mountain bikes allowed but I never saw any

There are actually two different ways to hike to the summit of Mt. Woodson and the Potato Chip Rock. You can take a longer hike from Lake Poway, but I preferred the shorter hike from Highway 67 in Ramona. This is a favorite hike of mine as I’ve done it several times over the years. But this was the first time I’ve done it during the day. Yes, Mt. Woodson makes for a great full moon hike! The boulders reflect the light of the moon, and you don’t even need a flashlight. In fact, while Mt. Woodson was originaly called Stony Mountain, the native Indians called it “The Mountain of Moonlit Rocks.”  (Click on the map to enlarge)

Park on Highway 67 and look for the fire station sign. The sign is right at the trailhead. You will follow a dirt path that roughly parallels Highway 67 until you get to the pedestrian entrance to the service road. (There is no way to get a vehicle to the service road; it is blocked by locked gates).

What to expect:

There are several things about the Mt. Woodson hike that make it unique.

  • First of all, you will be walking on a paved service road for nearly all of the hike.
  • Secondly, it’s pretty steep. Even if it’s cool outside, you will get warm right away because of the difficulty of the climb. (Be sure to take a lot of water!)
  • Lastly, the terrain is very different with lots of granite boulders in varying sizes and shapes. For this reason, it is also a popular place to practice rock-climbing and bouldering.
  • There are quite a few places where you can stop and enjoy some shade.

I did enjoy some wildflower blooms on my Mt. Woodson hike, but mostly at the lower levels. (Click on any photo to enlarge).

Probably the greater attraction on this hike is the views and the boulders! There were so many rocks and interesting formations.

At the summit:

At the summit of Mt. Woodson are several antennas and service buildings, so the summit itself it not all that attractive.

But the fact that you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean on a clear day makes it well worth it to make the climb to the top!

There are several large boulders near the summit that make great places to enjoy a snack or picnic (be sure to pack out your trash), but you may see far fewer people than you can hear. That’s because many hikers continue right past the summit without stopping and head towards the Potato Chip Rock. So many, in fact, that there is often a long line of hikers waiting to take their famous Instagram shot perched precariously on the sliver of rock.

Is it dangerous? Well, Potato Chip Rock was caused when a large portion of the boulder collapsed and fell away. When you jump onto the rock, it vibrates. I’m sure that someday, this piece of rock will break or fall, too. It is about a 40-ft drop to the ground below it. You might break a bone but would probably survive the fall. In fact, many have. Because frankly, some hikers try some pretty stupid things on this rock and end up falling.

4. And a castle — Mt. Woodson Castle

The Mt. Woodson Castle has a very interesting story (don’t all castles?!). This one currently belongs to the Mt. Woodson Golf Club and is managed by Personal Touch Dining as a venue for weddings and other special events. It’s no wonder because it’s a beautiful and truly fascinating castle.

The castle was built in 1921 as a private residence by and for Amy Strong, a famous San Diego dress designer. She hired architects to help her create her dream castle in the Craftsman style. The castle is a multi-level home of 12,000 square feet, 8-foot thick walls and 27 rooms, including a Great Hall with 16-feet ceilings. There’s also a gasoline-engine-assisted windmill. The interior reflects elements of  French, Dutch, Spanish, and Medieval styles.

Mrs. Strong, her niece, and her cook did much of the painting and designs found in the castle. What I thought was particularly interesting is that there are no perfect corners, and neither the roof nor the floors are level. And yet, it all comes together beautifully. It may not look like a typical European-style castle, but it’s definitely note-worthy. I think you’d enjoy poking around a bit.

How to visit:

On this particular day, there were some events specialists onsite setting up for a wedding reception. It was easy for me to park in the “Castle” parking lot. Signs indicate the lot is only for castle guests, but early in the day or when events are not taking place, there is plenty of parking. No one seemed to mind as I walked around the castle taking photos. Everything was open. The last time I visited, it was the same. But, just to be sure, it would be a good idea to call Personal Touch Dining at 858-638-0672 to schedule a tour before you just show up. Otherwise, you may only be able to walk around the outside of the castle. (click on any photo to enlarge)

The castle is a little eccentric but very beautiful in its own right. It has been well-preserved, and even though it is now an events venue, not much has been changed except to modernize somewhat.

If you like castles, I’m sure you’ll appreciate exploring this one. It’s rather unique to even have a castle anywhere in the San Diego county. And if you’ve just enjoyed one of the hikes in the area (Iron Mountain or Mt Woodson), it’s just a short drive away to see the castle, too.

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19 thoughts on “Three Mountain Hikes & a Castle in San Diego County

  1. Heather

    Wow! I definitely didn’t know there was a castle on top of Mt. Woodson. And, I’ll have to try out these hikes the next time I’m in San Diego. Thanks for the info about all the trails!

    1. Tami Post author

      Heather, the castle is actually at the base of the mountain, and definitely worth a visit to see it!

  2. Fairuz

    As a hiking enthusiast, this is right down my alley. At 1554 ft high, Black Mountain sounds doable. The views are stunning and I adore the bright and colourful wildflowers too. The same goes for the Iron Mountain. It’s great to know that the latter is a popular attraction because, as you mentioned, it’s a pleasure to share in the camaraderie with others who enjoy the outdoors. The Woodson Castle looks intriguing particularly its earthy interior and of course its size – 12,000 square feet and 27 rooms! What a place!

  3. Danik

    I love hiking and I try and do a few hikes whenever I go traveling espeically in North America. I havent been to San Diego but would love to check out these trails when I get there. Love the view shots.

  4. Danijela

    The view from the Black Mountain top is gorgeous. So worth a hike. Even more so having in mind that the trail is not that demanding. How about those beautiful flowers on the way! This would definitely be the place for me. I’d be lost in those fields. 😀
    Given the fact that it doesn’t take that long to climb to the top, it would really be a great day to spend up there. Lovely. 🙂

  5. Shreya Saha

    I love hiking, so San Diego will definitely be a great place for me to visit with so many mountains to hike. And I believe the castle is really worth visiting. This is going to be in my list. maybe I will spend a week there and visit all the places that you have been to.

  6. Elaine Masters

    I’ve been up Black Mountain and seen Potato Chip but didn’t know about the Castle. Would love to see that unique building. Sure wish there were more shade going up Iron Mt. Sun gets to me pretty quickly.

    1. Tami Post author

      Elaine, if you were to start your hike earlier in the morning, I think you would be fine. We started at 8:30 am and summited at 10:00 am. It only began to feel too warm the last half of the descent. But if you started at 7:00 am, you’d probably be fine! Plus, earlier in the morning, you’ll probably still have some cloud cover initially.

  7. Jean

    Congrats on loosing 20 pounds and rediscovering your love of hiking. It’s amazing how much better we can feel about ourselves when we get outside and connect with nature.

  8. Trisha

    I had to take a second look on that potato chip rock! I actually thought it was just the clouds. haha. I must say what a climb. Not a big fan of trekking but looks super worth it for the view and the exercise.

  9. Indrani

    I prefer easy hiking trails! 😛
    These hiking trails are really worth the effort. The views are rewarding! I love such outdoor activities that help connect with nature.

  10. Dylan Myers

    I love hiking! It’s a great way to experience nature and get some exercise in! I really need to plan another California trip and stick to Southern California. Out of my multiple visits to CA I still haven’t been to San Diego. These hikes look wonderful and I hope to do them soon!

  11. Medha Verma

    If I had to choose one, I’d go with the Iron Mountain trail because of the large variety of wildflowers blooming along the path. I have been to San Diego (although it was long ago) but never imagined doing a mountain hike, I just spent time lazying on the beaches and visiting the SeaWorld. Looks like I missed out on some cool views!

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