The Potato Chip Rock hike is iconic in San Diego. This hike is well known for its namesake- the Potato Chip Rock. This landmark has been photographed too many times to count. In fact, it is expected that you will encounter a line of people waiting to take a photo here on the unique formation.
People love to take a picture here for it’s unique shape; a thin piece of rock that sticks out into thin air. It looks like it could break off at any moment, therefore making the one posing on it look like a complete adrenaline junkie. But actually, the rock is quite secure despite the regular use, as long as you’re in control of yourself of course.
So you want a picture here right? Who doesn’t! Let me tell you all about the hike to get there then!
Quick summary: this hike is 6.6 miles round trip with an elevation gain of about 2000 feet. It takes about two hours to reach the rock (with breaks), an hour in line to get the photo (on a Saturday morning), and about an hour to get back down. This hike is ranked difficult due to the pretty much constant steep incline. Make sure to bring enough water, about two liters per person is recommended.
To start off: type in Lake Poway Concession to the GPS. This will take you to Lake Poway Park and you’ll start the hike here at the base of the mountain. The parking fee is 5 dollars for a day pass, and it closes at sundown. If you only type Potato Chip Rock into your GPS it will take you up the mountain to a different hike to reach Potato Chip (this way is the shorter and kid-friendlier version) that is not the popular hike described below.
The hike starts off going along the lake, and you get to see many fishermen around the rim of the lake. This starts off as a nice easy level walk, until this path connects to Mount Woodson Trail (the actual trail name to get to the Potato Chip Rock), which marks the beginning of the incline. In my opinion, the hardest part of this hike is the very first incline that seems to stretch on forever. It’s up a dusty path that’s wide enough for a car to drive on (it was an old fire road). This part is uncomfortably steep as you quickly gain 700 feet.
Once you get past that section, you will get a short stretch of level ground before you begin switchbacks through boulders and bushes. This part has many stair steps made out of the rocks all around and it’s still a tough incline. This will lead you all the way up to a big solo oak tree. This tree marks about halfway, and many people stop here for a break in the shade.
The rest of the hike offers a less intense incline, and since you’ve already gained significant elevation you will be able to see many beautiful sights. There are surrounding mountain ranges to see, some bodies of water, and on a clear day some signs of downtown SD.
The trail is well marked, with many signs pointing you in the direction of Mount Woodson Trail, so even at forks it’s hard to get lost here. But the trail is very dusty so make sure you wear shoes with great traction if you don’t want to be slipping and sliding on the way down.
Once you see the big metal towers, you will know where the rock is located; as it’s just before these huge towers. As you get closer you will see the landmark and will have reached your goal! The unique potato chip shape was formed when the underlying granite boulder broke away from a fault already in the rock, which left the thin layer to jut out into the sky. Warning: you will have to jump down from one boulder to get to the actual boulder of Potato Chip Rock.
Beware that there will be a long line once you reach the potato chip rock. It sometimes takes an hour to get through the line to get your picture. But it’s worth the wait, and part of the experience. The line doesn’t feel like it takes that long anyway, as you have the constant entertainment of watching people pose on the landmark. I’ve done this hike three times now and I’ve seen a lot of different poses. A few of my favorites are: the lion king pose with a cat, a giant teddy bear carried up there, a boyfriend lifting his girlfriend on his shoulders, and the classic lying down looking like you’re about to fall off. Though if you are someone who can’t stand lines, I’ve heard that on the weekdays you won’t experience long waits. Also, if you start the hike later in the day around 3pm you wont see as many people then either.
This famous rock is the turning around point in the hike, as if you try and keep going past it you will simply end up going down the other side of the mountain toward Ramona. You should simply turn around and go back down the same way you came up.
Last piece of advice: take breaks! There’s no shame; this hike is a tough one. Plus the goal isn’t only to get to Potato Chip Rock but to enjoy yourself on the way up. Take in the views! The mountains are sprinkled with boulders of unique shapes and sizes, if you look closely there’s much to see.