The Best Rock Climbing in San Diego From a Longtime Guide

Location review

San Diego, the “City in Motion”, has all the makings of an outdoor sports paradise—varied terrain, plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures year round. Between the hot rocks and the cool ocean, I’m a happy man.

For someone like me who can’t imagine spending my days indoors, San Diego’s an awesome place to be. With the Pacific on one side and the mountains on the other, it’s like the elements conspired to create a picture-perfect coastal city. As the birthplace of skateboarding, home to some of America’s best surf spots, and an underrated granite oasis for outdoor rock climbing, I have everything I love right here!

san diego rock climbing
In the past 20 years I’ve climbed all over the world, but San Diego’s got this magic that I just can’t resist. Photo by Chillino Rock Climbing

Pros and Cons of Rock Climbing in San Diego

Abundance of diverse, year-long climbing on first-rate granite
San Diego’s outdoor culture and easygoing atmosphere
Easy access to climbing and some of the best in the world is just a short drive away
Being able to cool off in the ocean on a hot day
Speaking of heat, the temperatures can get extreme in the summer
If you’re not also into hiking, swimming, surfing or mountain biking, you might not enjoy the day-to-day outdoor experience here

When you visit for the first time, you feel it. You notice how chill San Diegans are: the bright faces and sun-kissed hair are the perfect embodiment of laidback beach culture. With the paradisiacal geography and weather, who could blame them?

Since I can hardly sit still I’m constantly outside. And apparently so is everyone else. Wherever you look in San Diego there’s people riding waves, hiking the mixed landscape and rock climbing outdoors. Never has this been more true than today. Gyms have been popping up in recent years and spots that would’ve been empty a decade ago are now constantly trafficked, even on weekdays.

san diego rock climbing
San Diego has an arid Mediterranean climate with dry winters. One of the many bright sides of the city is that it’s outdoor-friendly year-round. Photo by Sergei Gussev licensed under CC BY 2.0

I Found My Home in This Pacific Coast Paradise

I can’t help being enchanted by the San Diego lifestyle. Coming from a small town near the German-Dutch border, there were no mountains or beaches growing up. But we had trees, fences, and barricades. Man, I loved climbing those things! Then one day a friend invited me to the German Alpine Club’s climbing wall and I learned this fascination had a sport attached to it.

About a decade ago I came to San Diego for college, and had no idea what to expect. I skateboarded in Germany so was familiar with California’s scene, and was vaguely aware that there was surfing. Other than that, I didn’t know a thing about the city. Like most Europeans, I recognized its southern neighbor more thanks to Manu Chao’s, “Welcome to Tijuana”—all that “tequila, sexo y marijuana” and what not!

Less surf’s up and more roped-up

When I got to San Diego, I met folks who were into rock climbing outdoors. They started taking me to all these sweet spots around the city and I was dizzyingly tossed into a world of different styles, climbing techniques, and advanced rope skills. Things clicked pretty quickly and I knew I had to move here.

Since San Diego’s rock climbing is best shared—as it was with me—I’ve compiled my favorite spots for all of you below.

san diego rock climbing
The ocean is the lifeblood of this city and the beach is its beating heart. Photo cropped from the original by Brian Roberts licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Best, in Excess, and Easily Accessed—Outdoor Rock Climbing around San Diego

The sheer variety of options makes San Diego a top place to live for rock climbing. Most of the areas are just a short drive and have a quick approach. Whether you’re looking for an evening bouldering session or a full backcountry adventure, there’s so many spots to scratch your itch.

People from out of town will often ask, where can you climb in San Diego? I’ve got my list on the ready: El Cajon Mountain, Eagle Peak, Dixon Lake, Mission Trails, Santee, Mount Woodson, Tahquitz and Suicide Rock, and the world-renowned, ever tricky, Joshua Tree.

And obviously, San Diego is nothing without the beach. After a gnarly day on the rocks, ditch your gear for swim trunks because nothing soothes the soul, or roughed up mitts, like a dip in the Pacific. Forget gym-to-crag, we’re going gym-to-sea!

Tie Into San Diego’s Top Roped Climbing Areas

There is a ton of rock climbing near San Diego County. After guiding here for over a decade, this section will cover the best local spots I’ve found for sport, trad and toprope.

Get high and satisfy your climbing needs at El Cajon

Leaving behind a vegetated riverbed your view suddenly opens up to a stunning 450-foot block of first-class granite. This is El Cajon Mountain, lovingly referred to as El Capitan by locals.

It’s renowned for full-days of stellar multi-pitch climbing. The two miles long approach and 1,900 feet of elevation gain means you’re committing, but for climbers of all skill levels who want to get up high and practice their rope management, it’s worth the hike. Most of the areas are fully bolted, though some of the crack climbs require a few pieces of gear.

san diego rock climbing
El Cajon’s name roughly translates to The Box, which might seem like a funny moniker for the mountain. The christening is due to its proximity to the namesake box-like valley. Photo by Chillino Rock Climbing

This massive outcrop is divided into several areas whose difficulty scales gradually. The left side of El Cajon offers lots of introductory climbs that are 5.9 and lower with Buffalo Bill (5.6) and Meteor (5.8) some of the best beginner rock climbing routes near San Diego. Also starring in this constellation is Leonids (5.9), one of Southern California’s most celebrated routes. As you move further to the right, the cliff gets steeper. Climbs go up to 5.13, like the wickedly overhanging, I’m Your Huckleberry, considered the premiere route for its grade in the area.

The headwall of El Cajon is San Diego’s most iconic face. It has tremendous exposure and an unperturbed view all the way to the ocean. Bring lunch, plenty of water, and a camera to document the occasion.

You don’t want to miss Mountaineer’s Wall

Thanks to San Diego’s vibrant climbing scene, more and more climbs have been added to the main cliff and the smaller rock formations around El Cajon. One of my favorites is called Mountaineer’s Wall. It currently holds about 200 climbs, including San Diego’s longest multi-pitch, Sleeping Giant (5.10a). With 10 pitches and 1,000 feet of climbing, this easily approachable behemoth roars to life as you move through low-angle slabs into steeper business towards the summit.

san diego rock climbing
Completing the Sleeping Giant. Starting from the Toe and ending with the Head is called “waking the giant”. Photo by Chillino Rock Climbing

Soaking up the backcountry views on Eagle Peak’s orange granite

Located near Descanso and surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest, Eagle Peak offers similar thrills to El Cajon, but with a much shorter approach. What’s interesting is you actually take a 45-minute hike down because the parking area is located above the 350-foot wall. The granite here is excellent, with climbs ranging from 5.8 to 5.12 (all bolted).

Eagle Peak is remote. There’s no noise or crowds here, only nature and the occasional airplane flying overhead. One of the popular routes is called 95 Degrees in the Shade (5.12b), which tells you everything you need to know about summer climbing. If you don’t plan for a cloudy day and a cool breeze, your best bet is coming early or hiking through the midday heat to hit the walls in the shade.

san diego rock climbing
One great thing about Eagle Peak is that you can legally camp anywhere in the Cleveland National Forest at no charge. Photo by Chillino Rock Climbing

Perfect intro climbs at Dixon Lake

When I’m working with beginner climbers, my go-to spots are Dixon Lake and Mission Trails. These areas are both close to San Diego and ideal for intro rock climbing lessons like teaching TR skills and drilling the fundamentals.

Dixon Lake has been a popular outcrop since the 70s, in no small part to its 2-minute approach from the parking. While the wear and tear is notable, the cracks and faces that have remained clean offer prime training grounds for aspiring rock climbers. Unfortunately, Dixon Lake doesn’t take more than 20 people, and works on a first-come, first-served basis. Sometimes you’ll strike out here.

Find your space, and footwork, at Mission Trails Regional Park

In contrast, the brilliant Mission Trails is one of the largest urban parks in the country and it’s just a 20-minute drive from downtown.

The granite is the smooth, slippery kind that does wonders for your footwork. Around half of the climbs are trad or mixed, but most anchors are bolted which means a quick setup for us guides and those wanting to toprope. Another plus is that the top is accessible from the backside. With tons of climbing between 5.4 and 5.9, no crag in San Diego lets you knock off as many routes in a single day.

san diego rock climbing
What I love about climbing is that there’s so many ways to do it, which leaves a lot of room for creativity and self-expression. Photo by Chillino Rock Climbing

Many first-timers have this perception that height equals difficulty. That’s not necessarily the case. In fact, longer routes are often a challenge for their endurance requirements and techniques, which means you don’t have to crush to go big.

Seeing beginners celebrate after sending the long routes in Mission Trails is one of my great joys—you’d almost think they just conquered the Dawn Wall!

The Skyline Pinnacle (5.7) is one such entry-level climb that offer a powerful sense of accomplishment. As you scale the route, be sure to enjoy the scenic views of the national park and San Diego River flowing 400 feet below you. This route is truly top-notch and my clients can’t get enough of it.

Now about that San Diego heat. Since Mission Trails faces west it gets a lot of morning shade, which makes this a great year-round climbing destination.

san diego rock climbing
Fundamentals pave the road to excellence, which is why we make sure to drill in the basics with all our beginner climbers. Photo by Chillino Rock Climbing

The Finest Bouldering This Side of Joshua Tree

Get in a good workout on Santee Bouldering

Personally, I’m more into long routes and technical ropework, but I love bouldering for a quick, intense session. Located right next to Mission Trails, Santee Boulders is another classic San Diego rock climbing spot. Well known for its thin slab faces and mantels, Santee also features challenging cracks that are well worth the try. Because it’s so accessible, a trip to Santee feels like going to the gym—put in a workout and you’re back home before you know it.

san diego rock climbing
Some of the grades in Santee may seem a little stiff. That’s because people have been climbing here for over half a century, back when the Yosemite scale topped out at 5.9. Photo by Chillino Rock Climbing

Mount Woodson—a massive hillside sprinkled with superb problems

Props to Santee, but hands down the best bouldering in San Diego is on Mount Woodson. Trust me, it’s worth the 40-minute drive to Ramona. Here you’ll find thousands of boulders of all sizes, many of them just tall enough for rope climbing (but doable with pads), spread out as far as the eye can see. It’s easy to get lost among the countless rocks peppering the mountainside jostled between large bushes and chaparral.

san diego rock climbing
If you’re coming to Mount Woodson, be prepared for some serious bushwhacking. Photo by Chris licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The high-quality monzogranite, similar to what’s found in Joshua Tree, feels great on the hands and is filled with perfectly sized cracks. You won’t find too many high-end problems here, but you could climb these sheer, egg-shaped rocks forever and never get bored. One of the famous routes is Robbins Crack (5.10a), named after Royal Robbins, a legend of the sport, while Mother Superior (5.11+) is a very difficult, overhanging off-width test piece. If you cast your gaze upwards from there, you can make out Uncertainty Principle’s (5.11c) sharp contours jutting into the sky. This tried-and-true classic is revered.

Notable Climbing Destinations For a Day Trip

Mastering your movement in Joshua Tree

No list of SoCal climbing spots would be complete without Joshua Tree. If you’re in the mood for a road trip, JTree’s just a three-hour drive from San Diego and offers some of the best outdoor rock climbing in the country. The short routes and the grippy monzogranite make this national park an inviting option, but be prepared to get your ass kicked the first time you come.

Regardless of the grades, climbing here requires intricate movement that you can really train anywhere else. There’s a lot of chimneys, maneuvering around corners, and seemingly impossible slab that you somehow stick to because the friction is just that good. The thousands of routes and boulder problems make Joshua Tree a world-class climbing destination.

rock climbing san diego
When climbing in Joshua Tree for the first time, it might be good to step down a grade or two from what you’re used to. Photo by Joshua Tree National Park

Brushing up on your decimals at Tahquitz

Nestled in a high mountain valley in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild is an unincorporated community famous for three things: its mountain resort; the incumbent mayor, Max II, a golden retriever; and two granite rock formations flanking the valley.

The larger of the two is Tahquitz Rock, one of the hotspots of modern free climbing in the 20th century. This historic granite monolith towering over Idyllwild was the place where the Yosemite Decimal System was developed. And it was on this very rock that in 1952, Royal Robbins completed the first free 5.9 in the country, Open Book. To this day it remains the benchmark against which all other 5.9s are measured.

san diego rock climbing
As the old saying goes: there’s always a bigger rock. Photo by Ryan Grimm licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Come to Suicide Rock for the history, stay for the variety

Right across the valley we have Tahquitz’s smaller brother, an outcrop called Suicide Rock. The high-quality white granite has been sculpted and polished by the elements into an multi-pitch haven.

Suicide Rock is perfect for summertime climbing because of its comfortable afternoon shade. Perhaps the highlight of the area is Paisano Overhang, a raucous 5.12c off-width roof crack that is one of the state’s classic climbs (among the many iconic rock climbs in California you can explore). This is where local legend and San Diegan, Randy Leavitt, demonstrated his famous Leavittation technique.

Even though San Diego is often rated as a top-ten best climate in the U.S., it still gets really, really hot here. When it does, we’ve got two options: flings ourselves into the ocean or drive 2.5-hours to Idyllwild. If you ask me, do both!

san diego rock climbing
The San Jacinto mountain range lies between the San Jacinto fault on the west and the San Andreas on the east. Photo by Shane Hale licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Tips for Enjoying The Full-on San Diego Experience

Where to get food and drinks in San Diego?

Close to the border, San Diego’s got plenty of great Mexican food beyond the usual suspects of tacos and carne asada. The stews and home-style meals in Super Cocina are definitely worth checking out. I live in Ocean Beach and Mike’s Taco Club is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Their fish tacos and burritos are terrific. As for drinks, it should be mentioned that San Diego is a craft beer hotspot. Post-session you’ll have fun exploring another one of our city’s great features. My favorite local drink is Boochcraft, which is an organic high-alcohol kombucha. Delicious, refreshing stuff. They’ve just opened up a tasting room in Del Mar, which I I’m excited to try out.

Where to get rock climbing gear in San Diego?

Unfortunately, the gear shop I used to go to in San Diego closed down recently, but with climbing on such an upward trajectory, I’m sure someone else will fill in that gap soon. In the meantime, we’ve got Nomad Ventures, a popular local franchise which has stores in Escondido, Joshua Tree, and Idyllwild. What I like about Nomad is that their staff is comprised of climbers. People that work there really know their stuff about the sport, the gear and the area.

Is there a San Diego County climbing guide?

There is this old, but excellent guidebook written by Dave Kennedy and Chris Hubbard. It has a second edition, but we’re still waiting for a new book that will encompass recent developments in the county’s climbing scene. Apparently Chris Hubbard has been working on a new one for years now and we might see it in print soon. Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy!

Are you ready to discover the best rock climbing in California? Join Fabi today and experience a rad oceanside adventure in sunny San Diego!

About the author

Fabian Schillings

Fabian Schillings

AMGA Rock Instructor and owner of Chillino Rock Climbing

Fabi discovered rock climbing at a young age and continued to work on his skills after moving to California. Extensive trips to Joshua Tree, Idyllwild and local San Diego areas inspired him to pursue his career as a rock climbing guide and instructor and in 2012 he obtained his Rock Instructor certification through AMGA. Today Fabi teaches and coaches all aspects of rock climbing at his climbing school and guiding service “Chillino Rock Climbing”. His uplifting and professional style of teaching has opened up new climbing perspectives for hundreds of people!

Trip inquiry for

Your next adventure

Where would you like to go and what would you like to to?

Choose an adventure

Choose location*

When would you like to go on a trip?

Choose a date

Group size*

How can we contact you?

Full Name*

E-mail*

Phone number

Anything else we should know?

What else should we know before connecting you with the guide? (optional)

57hours trip inquiry fail

Sorry, something went wrong!

Please try again, or contact us at support@57hours.com and we’ll resolve the problem.

57hours trip inquiry success

Your inquiry was successfully sent to the guides!

57hours trip inquiry email fail

Sorry, but your inquiry didn’t go through!

Please try again or contact us at support@57hours.com and we’ll resolve the problem.