Hiking to Potato Chip Rock in San Diego
Potato Chip Rock is crazy, a little dangerous, and – much to the chagrin of locals – a darling of the Instagram crowd. Perched high above the arid valleys of Poway in Southern California, the very photogenic site repeatedly pops up in newspapers, blogs and social media streams around the world.
Hilariously, despite the fact that Potato Chip Rock is located 30 minutes from where I grew up, I had never visited. Considering the fact that Thomas and I have scoured the world for similarly unique locations, we thought it was about time we paid a visit.
Given its location just outside the relatively urban center of Poway in San Diego County, it’s easy to dismiss the Potato Chip Rock hike as Internet hype. (That might have been why it took us so long to do the hike.) But even experienced hikers will find this trail and the surrounding landscapes quite enjoyable.
Where to Start
The hike, known as the Mt. Woodson Trail, starts in the parking lot at Poway Lake and leads around the southern shores of the lake up into the beautiful boulder-strewn mountains. There is a small junction at the southeast edge of the lake where hikers must follow the clearly marked trail up towards Mt. Woodson (the sign DOES NOT say Potato Chip Rock.)
We started the hike around 7 AM. The hills were shrouded in a mysterious fog that made the trail feel more remote and pristine than it actually is. Lucky us! We had specifically chosen to do the hike on a Tuesday in January for the dual benefits of cooler temperatures and FAR fewer hikers.
I would NOT recommend this hike in soaring summer temperatures… not if you want to live. The trail basically goes four miles straight up and there is very little shade.
The route slowly winds its way up the slopes of Mt. Woodson through a surreal landscape of massive boulders and towering slabs of stone. Early in the morning, there is great birdlife such as quail, roadrunners and raptors.
Hikers should be aware that they are hiking through mountain lion habitat. Also, rattlesnakes are always a possibility, so keep an eye on your kids! (I didn’t let Thomas out of my sight.)
Many hikers shoot up and down the trail with singular focus on Potato Chip Rock itself. That’s a pity because there are dozens of places to sit and take in the views over Poway and the mountains beyond.
Having said that, if you have gone to the trouble of starting your hike early, head straight to the rock and then take your time as you descend. Potato Chip Rock can get notoriously crowded. We have heard stories of people lining up for 45 minutes to snap the requisite shot. Yikes!
Unbelievably, we had Potato Chip Rock all to ourselves for quite a while. (It’s a miracle!!!) We had plenty of time to do all the most famous poses and take shots from every angle. We sat and took in the views, watched the birds, and celebrated our luck at being the only two there.
Getting your Pictures
And then we started to wonder if anyone would come by to take a shot of us sitting together. Using a tripod and self timer is not a viable option because accessing the rock is somewhat challenging. You have to jump off a boulder down about four feet onto the Potato Chip slab. It’s not that hard, but it is a bit intimidating because you don’t want to miss and fall off the rock. Clearly, doing that with your ten-second camera timer running is not a great idea.
Luckily, at the last second a group of hikers showed up to save the day and capture some great images of us sitting and standing on the rock. Even better, these people actually knew how to compose a photo. Yay!
There is some online debate as to whether or not Potato Chip Rock is actually dangerous. Some people have even suggested that you wouldn’t die if you fell. They are wrong. You could easily kill yourself here, so be careful while you are posing. No Instagram shot is worth it.
Tip for Visiting Potato Chip Rock
- The main Potato Chip Rock trailhead starts in the southeastern corner of the parking lot at Poway Lake. The trail is called the Mount Woodson Trail.
- The main trail from Poway Lake is 8 miles (13 km) round-trip with a 2,100-foot (640 meter) elevation gain.
- There is a $10 parking fee on weekends for people who are not Poway residents. Parking is free on weekdays.
- To avoid crowds and heat, start before 7 AM.
- The biggest danger associated with this trail is people not taking enough water for the hike. Heat stroke is a serious issue here as there is very little shade.
- There is a second less scenic trail up to Potato Chip Rock from the CAL FIRE Ramona Fire Station off Highway 67. This route follows a paved access road.
- Rattlesnakes are a real issue on warm days. This is mountain lion territory, but sightings are rare.