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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Mt. Woodson via Lake Poway – Poway, San Diego County, California

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Mt. Woodson is one of the most popular trails in Poway (another is Iron Mountain), due to its close proximity to the city and the “Potato Chip Rock” that you will find near the summit. We’ve been hiking here even before the rock became so popular. Today, young hikers line up waiting for their turn to take a photo of themselves sitting, or standing, at the edge of this seven-foot or so thin protruding piece of rock - I wonder how long this rock can stand the weight before it cracks (knock on wood!), hopefully without people on it.

Mt. Woodson is called Ewiiy Hellyaa by the Kumeyaay people, meaning the "Mountain of the Moonlit Rocks". It was renamed in honor of Confederate surgeon Dr. Marshall Clay Woodson who settled in the area in 1875. Mt. Woodson was also called Stony Mountain. You will see why.


There are different ways to Mt. Woodson if you are coming from downtown San Diego. The main trailhead is by Lake Poway, about a 33-minute drive. The straightforward approach here is via CA-163 and I-15 N and then take the exit to Poway Road which you follow to Espola Road. Then turn left and go until you reach Lake Poway Road. Turn right here and go to the parking lot. There is a parking fee here for non-residents, but only on weekends and holidays.

The other trail is about 39 minutes via CA-163 N. From I-15 N take exit 17 to Scripps Poway Parkway then turn left on CA-67 N. There is no designated parking here, not yet at least. For the meantime, hikers just park along the road.


The longest route to Mt. Woodson is about 8 miles from the Lake Poway Recreation Area. The shorter route, about four miles round trip, is starts at the trailhead by Route 67. Starting early is a must to avoid the heat, and go on a weekday if you can to avoid the weekend crowds. We hike here in winter when the weather is ideal, cool and sunny with a chilly breeze.

MT. WOODSON TRAILHEAD – 8 miles round trip

This trail is rated as moderately challenging, but that also depends on your hiking capabilities. It’s a much longer route than the other one, strenuous but worth the view you will find along the way, even at the beginning of the hike. Hermann hiked here more times than I did and always from Lake Poway. Known as one of San Diego County’s best lakes, the trail follows the right side of this lake for almost a mile before it veers off to the east, to the Mt. Woodson Trail.

The view of the lake gets better as you hike uphill; the whole aerial view of the lake as you get higher is stunning - this is a reservoir so swimming is not allowed, for both humans and pets.

Lake Poway

The challenging part of the hike starts at a junction where the Mount Woodson Trail leave the Lake Poway loop. The hardest part is after Mt. Woodson Trail Halfway Point. From here, there are several switchbacks until you reach the the ridge of Mount Woodson, which you will follow until you reach Potato Chip Rock, shortly before the summit.

Halfway Point Trail

You will find huge rocks, or boulders along the trail. Is that why this mountain was once called "Stony Mountain"? Go figure.

This is a popular trail, so if you are looking for a wilderness experience then this is not for you. Head up to Julian if you do seek a quieter hike. Most hikers' goal in hiking Mt. Woodson is to reach the Potato Chip Rock.

The Potato Chip Rock

You will reach it less than half a mile before the summit. You will see the thin protruding rock from below and there are usually clusters of people waiting so, if that is your goal you have to get in line until it's your turn to get up there. I would have done it in one of our hikes, before it became so popular, but my husband is not so keen about me going up there.

This trail is mostly in the open, therefore no shade along the trail until near the summit where you will find Coulter pines (Pinus coulteri) which it produce giant pinecones. There are communication facilities at the top so you wouldn't actually get a 360 degree view, but what you see is good enough that it's worth hiking all the way up. You can even see the ocean on a clear day.

View towards the west

The trail continues down from the summit on a paved road. It leads down to CA-67, the other trailhead to Mt. Woodson. We haven’t tried this route, though shorter, this trail is paved and steep.



If Mt. Woodson is not for you, you can take the Lake Poway Loop Trail. It’s an easy loop route of about 2.8 miles around the lake. On this trail, you can get different views of the lake with picnic areas where you can rest. If hiking Mt. Woodson is not enough of a hike for you, then you can add the Lake Poway Loop Trail to your Mount Woodson experience. While at it and you have time and still have an energy, you might want to do some recreation at the lake as well. Fishing (Wednesday to Sunday) and boating is allowed here.

Lake Poway in winter

On the map below shows the Mt. Woodson Trail and the Lake Poway Loop Trail. Combining the two trails in one hike is doable if you are a seasoned hiker. Otherwise, do not attempt it, especially in hot weather conditions.

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