Mount Woodson (Potato Chip Rock) via Lake Poway

Mount Woodson, Poway CAThe highly popular Mount Woodson trail is a favorite destination for many San Diego hikers. Mount Woodson is home to the famous Potato Chip Rock, a large granite boulder that has eroded in such a way as to leave a large, fragile-looking flake of rock that, from the proper angle, appears to be protruding out over the edge of the mountain. So far, the flake has proven quite solid, and it’s actually a pretty safe spot. But dozens of people flock to the site daily to get their picture taken in this seemingly death-defying location.

Even if you’re not in it for the photo op, Mount Woodson is still a worthwhile hike. There are several trails that lead up the mountain, all of which provide a good workout. This post details the western route, which begins at the scenic Lake Poway, continues up a steep fire road amid sage scrub and chaparral, then winds through a maze of giant white boulders to the top of the mountain.

We arrived at the lake, paid our fee to gain entry, and parked in the main lot. We found the concession area between the parking lot and the lake, and set off along the path to the right of the building.
Start of the Mount Woodson trail at Lake Poway

We followed this path between the lake and a large grassy picnic area on the hill to our right. Coots and ducks flocked along both sides of the path.Ducks and Coots along the shore of Lake Poway

Already we had some beautiful views of Lake Poway.
Lake Poway

At .2 miles we met the main Lake Poway Trail and turned left along the wide dirt road.
Merging with the main Lake Poway trail

The road began to gradually ascend, providing us with increasingly great views of the lake as we climbed.
View of Lake Poway

At .8 miles we came to major intersection. The path ahead continued around Lake Poway; our course went right on the Mt. Woodson Trail. But first, we climbed up a small use trail to the left that led to a small overlook area, complete with picnic table, for some more views of the lake.

Our side trip complete, we began climbing the hill towards Mt. Woodson.
Turn off to the Mt Woodson trail

The fire road started off climbing gradually, but quickly got steep. And then it got steeper.
The Mt Woodson fire trail is quite steep

We huffed and puffed our way up the incline, stopping periodically to admire the view of Lake Poway behind us and surreptitiously catch our breath.
Another view of Lake Poway

At 1.2 miles we encountered another junction and turned left, following the sign for the Mt. Woodson trail.

The trail leveled out briefly, then began to climb again.
More steep fire road heading to Mt Woodson

Around 1.6 miles, the trail made a large switchback, ascending at a more reasonable grade.

We reached the top of the switchback and found a large gravel strewn view area and another picnic table. The views here were great, but still just a small preview of what we’d find at the top.
View point along the Mt Woodson trail

Another tenth of a mile brought us to the junction with the Warren Canyon trail. This branch, to the right, led downhill towards Highway 67. We turned left towards the boulder dotted hillside that would lead us up the mountain.
Junction of the Mt Woodson trail and Warren Canyon trail

From here we began to climb a winding series of switchbacks through thick chaparral and a maze of the large white granite boulders that adorn so many of the area’s mountains.

While the vegetation was the standard mix of sage scrub and chaparral, the plethora of cracked and worn boulders provided a gallery of natural sculptures to behold.
Nature's artistry on display along the Mt Woodson trail

The rocky switchbacks continued to wind upwards through the mountainside.

We continued to find large, towering monoliths of stone begging to be photographed.

At 2.4 miles we reached the one shady spot along the trail. A large oak tree grew along the outside edge of the trail, overhanging a sprawling mass of boulders – excellent “sitting” rocks. The tree created a perfect rest spot, if you don’t mind the company of a couple dozen other hikers.

We pressed on, however, and a few more switchbacks brought us to the signed “Ridge Junction.” Here, we took a brief detour from the main trail.
Ridge Junction on the Mt Woodson trail

Taking the left fork towards the View Point, we scrambled over some rocks and found a quiet overlook with spectacular views. We chose a large rock slab on which to eat our snacks, and enjoyed views of Lake Ramona and the Blue Sky Ecological Preserve to the north.

After our snack, we climbed back down to the main trail and resumed our journey. Just beyond the Ridge Junction we came to a “T” junction. Our route towards the summit went to the right. To the left was the Fry/Koegel trail, an alternate route up Mt. Woodson from the eastern side.

We continued to ascend, winding through thick shrubs and giant boulders.

At 2.7 miles we passed the junction for the Old Fry/Koegel trail, and continued uphill to the right for the final stretch. We wound our way up a few more switchbacks, then the trail straightened out somewhat and roughly followed the ridgeline. Before long, we could see some antennae poking up from the summit in the distance.

As we approached the final turn to get to Potato Chip Rock, we got a view of the Disneyland-like throngs awaiting their turn for a picture atop the iconic boulder flake. If you’re planning on getting your picture here, you should probably start your hike earlier than we did (these pics were around 11 am on a Sunday).

We reached the rock at 3.8 miles. The actual summit is a bit further on, amidst the many antennae and surrounding buildings. Potato Chip Rock is pretty much the de facto destination for most, however, so we decided to make this our turnaround point.

The rock has always been a point of interest for hikers, and many creative pictures have been taken atop the distinctive rock. But thanks to social media, in recent years it has become a hugely popular destination for people seeking the perfect profile picture.
The selfie line at Potato Chip Rock

Since we both already had perfectly good profile pics, we skipped the line and took some pictures of the views from atop the mountain instead. Looking south, we could see Iron Mountain and highway 67.
Iron Mountain as seen from Mt Woodson

To the west we could see Black Mountain, and the hazy blue of the coast.
Black Mountain from Mt Woodson

After enjoying our hard-earned views, we headed back down the way we had come.

View the full photo gallery

From I-15, take the Rancho Bernardo Road exit. Head east on Rancho Bernardo Road. Rancho Bernardo Road turns into Espola Road. Continue on Espola Road. Turn left onto Lake Poway Road and follow it to Lake Poway Recreation Area. map

Total Distance:  7.5 miles
Difficulty:  Moderately Strenuous
Total Ascent:  2980 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: Bathrooms, water and concessionaire at Lake Poway.
Fees/Permits: Non-Poway residents must pay a $10 parking fee on weekends and holidays to park at Lake Poway.

For more information, visit:
City of Poway Trails Map
View route on Google Maps

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