I’ve wanted to hike to Potato Chip Rock for a while now, but the timing never worked out. My youngest brother, dad, and I were in town for my middle brother’s graduation and wanted to do a fun hike. I thought this was a good and scenic option, although I hadn’t done as much research as I should on how much climbing there was. I thought it wasn’t too strenuous because it was “so popular,” but it definitely is and gains an average of 500 feet per mile. One of the miles has close to 800 feet of elevation, and there aren’t really any flat sections; it just goes up and up. I wouldn’t even mind if it was a 10-mile hike with less climbing each mile. I digress.
The most famous hike in San Diego is probably Potato Chip Rock, bringing both hikers and nonhikers. Even though the Mount Woodson Summit is not far away (another .2 up the mountain), most people come solely for Potato Chip Rock. Many people never make it to the Mount Woodson Summit, but since you are there and it’s only .2 away from a potato chip, you should hike to the top to say you did.
What is Potato Chip Rock? It’s a thin rock you can climb on that looks more dangerous than it is and could break any time.
When should you hike Potato Chip Rock? You can do it year-round, but I heavily advise you to choose a weekday. When we went, there were just a few people in line to take a photo at Potato Chip Rock, but the line can range from 50-to 100 people on the weekends.
Potato Chip Rock Details:
Potato Chip Rock Length: 8 miles from the very base of the parking lot and 7.5 from the trailhead
Elevation: 2200 feet
Parking Fee: $10
Potato Chip Rock Trailhead Address: 14644 Lake Poway Road, Poway, CA 92064
Gear Used for Potato Chip Rock:
About Potato Chip Rock and the Mount Woodson Trail:
Potato Chip Rock is a grueling trail. It’s not easy, and you basically go straight up for 3.5 miles. Even as a seasoned hiker, I struggled. It’s well maintained, and there are plenty of rock stairs. The trail is well maintained, and it is fairly hard to get lost. Keep in mind that there is not a lot of shade on the hike, so you’ll want to bring hydration. The hike wasn’t actually popular until the rise of social media. It’s funny because the summit isn’t the point of interest because you can’t take great photos.
What do you need to hike potato chip rock?
- Good shoes (either hiking or running shoes). There is a lot of climbing and loose rock. No one wants plantar fasciitis from the hike.
- Water and Hydration: There is almost no shade. You’ll want somewhere between 2-3 liters of water or an electrolyte drink.
- Sunglasses and a hat: As mentioned, there is no shade.
When you start the trail, you’ll see plenty of signs for the Mount Woodson Trail. You won’t see anything for Potato Chip Rock. You’ll wonder…am I going the right way for the potato chip rock? Eventually you’ll see a summit with antennas, and that’s where you are going. But just keep following signs for Mount Woodson Trail, and you’ll stumble upon potato chip rock about .2 before. Either you’ll see a long line of people waiting for a photo or a weird shape.
The Mount Woodson Summit is “ok,” but nothing crazy. All of the antennas detract from it. I think better views are going up the summit than at the top. If you do hike to Potato Chip Rock, you need to do the extra .2 to Mount Woodson Summit just to say you did.
About the Actual Potato Chip Rock: Potato Chip Rock requires from serious scrambling to get out to the top. Like most things on social media, it looks more badass and scary than it is. There are rocks around and underneath; if you fell from potato chip rock, you would hit other ground about 20 feet below. You’d probably break something but wouldn’t fall off the mountain. Getting off potato chip rock requires either strength to lift yourself back onto other rocks around, or you need to slide down and hope your pants don’t rip.
My Experience at Potato Chip Rock and the Mount Woodson Trail:
To be honest, I knew Potato Chip Rock was cool, but I didn’t know anything else about it. I also knew it was part of the San Diego Peaks challenge, which is something I want to start eventually. My middle brother had warned me that lines for a photo could be long. I was worried we would wait 1-1.5 hours for a picture, and I almost chose a different hike. I’m glad I didn’t. My youngest brother, dad, and I got to the Potato Chip Rock trailhead around 9:30 am. The parking lot was only 10% full, so I was excited about that. There are probably 200-300 parking spaces at the base of the Mount Woodson Trail, so I imagine it can get crowded. We came on a weekday, but on weekends, parking does cost $10. We got overly excited and parked towards the front, adding about .5 to our hike.
As you begin the actual hike, you start on the Lake Poway Trail. You’ll be there for about a mile until it reaches Mount Woodson Trail. You get a gorgeous view of Lake Poway along the Lake Poway Trail. I really enjoyed the views there, and I want to come back and hike along the lake sometime. I could have stopped there, and the view was enough. We noticed almost immediately that the hike went straight up. It never stopped, and you kept waiting for a spot where you weren’t climbing. Really it’s climbing the entire time. The Potato Chip Rock hike is HARD. I was definitely glad I brought good hiking shoes (I used the Altra Superior 5). There are a few porta-potties along the first mile, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s probably good because there weren’t a lot of places to hide if you needed to go along the trail.
Around mile 1, you’ll meet the junction of the Lake Poway Trail and the Mount Woodson Summit Trail. You’ll head on the Mount Woodson Trail, where you’ll be there the rest of the hike. The best way to know “if you’re on the trail” is that it looks like the widest and most well-kept trail. You don’t need (or want and actually shouldn’t) go on the thin trails because they aren’t even trails. People have just decided to cut through, but plenty of signs say cutting through causes erosion. They aren’t even shortcuts really.
The steepest mile of the Potato Chip Rock hike is definitely miles 2-3. You are basically climbing rock stairs the entire time and weaving in and around boulders. You’ll get gorgeous views of the San Diego skyline and see fun rock formations. Along the way, we saw people, but the trail was never as crowded as we expected. I am glad we went on a weekday morning because I’ve seen photos of hundreds of people along the trail.
We kept thinking there were no more spots to go higher, but we would turn corners and see more climbing. When we reached Potato Chip Rock after about 1:45, only a couple of people were in line. I could not believe it! We stood in line, grabbed some photos, and headed up to Mount Woodson Summit. Getting out on the Potato Chip Rock is a challenge in itself. I first watched people take about 5 minutes but didn’t realize how challenging it was to get out there. You scramble over a few rocks and then walk out to the edge. When I went, it was also fairly windy (which was nice because it cooled us) but also terrifying because being out on the edge when it’s windy is not my idea of fun.
Truthfully, I enjoyed the views along the trail better than at the summit, but I am also glad I went to the summit too. You’ll notice the sign below as you leave the city of Poway. The trail looks no different as you continue your trek to the Mount Woodson summit.
Then you just go back the way you came. It seemed like going down “took forever.” Going down the rock stairs was my slowest mile, and we logged around 37 minutes. It took us a total of 3:50 to go up the Mount Woodson Trail and back down. We stopped several times, took our time, and took photos. Many people spend 5-6 hours on the hike.
Potato Chip Rock Conclusion:
Is the Potato Chip Rock hike worth it? Absolutely, but like the Bridge to Nowhere, I went on a weekday when it wasn’t crowded. I would have probably been miserable or frustrated on the weekend.
How hard is Potato Chip Rock hike? It’s hard. It’s one of the more challenging hikes I’ve done. It’s straight up the entire time to the summit and then back down.
I’m glad I went, and I will probably do it again sometime. I laugh at how big of a hike this has become since the rise of social media. But hey, I was out there too, so I can’t really complain.
You can see more hikes and trail runs here.
Questions for you:
Have you hiked to the Potato Chip Rock?
What is your favorite hike?