At over 1,500 feet Black Mountain stands out as one the highest points in the city of San Diego. That elevation may not sound like a great deal but the official elevation of the city is 11 feet. Try and name another major city with such a dramatic elevation gain within its limits (okay Los Angeles). In this edition of San Diego Hikes, we are going to describe hiking the Nighthawk Trail to Black Mountain Peak.
As described in our introductory post, as development has occurred around Black Mountain, the city of San Diego has set aside a large undeveloped area as Black Mountain Open Space Park. As a new area, the city is regularly carving out hiking trails. Previously, reaching the top of Black Mountain involved walking along the service road. Nighthawk Trail was created to provide a more scenic route to the top.
Starting Point: Hilltop Park, 9748 Oviedo Way San Diego, CA 92129
Length: 4.25 miles
Elevation: 700 ft gain and loss
Type: Out-and-back with loop
Like many of our hikes in this area, you reach Nighthawk Trail from the parking lot at Hilltop Park. The first 0.6 miles from the well-marked entrance at the parking lot follows our introductory hike, climbing about 150 feet and then reaching a flat section. At the 0.6 mark you reach a fork in the road. To the right is Little Black Loop trail. This hike will be coming back that way. For now, you head straight uphill, following the signs for Nighthawk trail.
The trail climbs the side of the mountain with some minor loops and great views to the south. Hilltop Park, where you started, becomes increasingly small. The trail flattens out along a ridgeline running below the mountaintop. After a little over half a mile, you will come to another intersection. To your right are signs for East Rim Trail to Little Black Loop. You will head back this way. For now turn left, following the signs for Nighthawk Trail and the summit (0.8 miles).
This is a short, but steep and rocky climb that will take you to the service road. At the service road you will turn right and continue the short distance to the summit (it looks higher than it is at this point). From the peak you get a 360-degree view of most of the San Diego metro area. On clear days, to the south, beyond downtown, you can see Mexico. Looking north you can see up towards Orange and Riverside county and mountains that reach 6,000+ feet. The nearest mountain to the east is Mt Woodson. At 2,900 feet this is almost twice as high as Black Mountain and provides one of San Diego’s most iconic hikes.
Spend as much time as you want at the peak and then head back along the service road the way you came. Make sure to turn left when the service road reaches the Nighthawk Trail turnoff. After you go down the steep incline you are not going to follow the way you came but instead head to the left following signs for Little Black Loop. If will see a mountain bike repair station that will point you towards Little Black Loop. Go towards your right which is downhill. Of course, you can do both the full Nighthawk and Little Black Loop as a more epic hike. We cover the full Little Black Loop trail in a separate post. But for this hike we are going down.
When you reach the official loop trail bear to the right going downhill. Keep to the right, always going downhill until you reach the steep gully. After climbing out of the gully you will be back at the start of Nighthawk. Simply head left back the way you came, walking the final 0.6 miles back to Hilltop park. Of course, you could do the hike in reverse but I find Nighthawk is steeper and rockier. I worry about twisting an ankle so I like to tackle that part on the uphill portion.
This total walk is 4.25 miles. Elevation gain and loss is about 700 feet