Take A Hike and Reconnect with the Outdoors

For our first Sunbelt Spotlight on July 22nd, author and naturalist Richard Halsey is going to share how during this time of isolation, we can reconnect with our original home, the outdoors. To get you started, we would like to share a hiking trail from Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors. This trail is part of the beautiful Mission Trails Regional Park.

Take A Hike Tip: It is warming up in southern California, so don’t forget to pack extra water, a hat, sunscreen, and protective lip balm. Most importantly, let someone know where you are hiking and then let them know when you return, so that they can call emergency services if you don’t come back. This is especially important if hiking in remote areas.


Distance: 2 miles, loop, including short side trip
Difficulty: 2 out of 5 – a route of 1-3 miles with some up and down that can be completed in 1-2 hours with elevation gain/loss of up to 500 feet.
Elevation gain/loss:  Up to 600 feet
Hiking time:  1 hour
Agency: City of San Diego
Trail use: Bicycles, dogs
Trailhead GPS: N32.81956, W117.05592
Optional map: USGS 7.5-min La Mesa

Directions: From CA-52 go east on Mast Boulevard for 0.2 mile. Turn right on West Hills Parkway. Go 0.7 mile. Turn right on Mission Gorge Road. Go 2.4 miles. Turn right on Father Junipero Serra Trail at a large wooden sign for Mission Trails Regional Park. Continue a short distance following the signs to the visitor center parking lot.
From I-8 go north on Mission Gorge Road for 4.2 miles. Turn left on Father Junipero Serra Trail at a large wooden sign for Mission Trails Regional Park. Continue a short distance following the signs to the visitor center parking lot.

The Mission Trails Visitor Center Loop Trail is a great hike for those who want an introduction to San Diego outdoors. It has it all including a 14,575-square-foot, award-winning visitor and interpretive center with both audio and visual displays that help you understand the resources of this over 7000-acre park. Mission Trails Regional Park purports to be one of the nation’s largest urban natural parks. The loop trail is great for trail runners, mountain bikers, and dog owners. For those that do want a guide, park naturalists lead free interpretive walks on this loop on both Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m.

Before you begin your hike, take time to enjoy the many displays at the visitor center. Learn how water was first transported to San Diego and how the early days of this park was part of the military’s Camp Elliott from 1917-1961. The visitor center is open daily from 9-5 p.m.

One of the amazing things about this loop is how quickly one can leave the noise of a major street and crowds gathered in the parking area and step into a natural environment. While we enjoy the quiet and hear the wind as it moves through the plants, the call of a wrentit, or the buzz of an insect, think about how the quiet is much more fundamental for many of the animals calling the chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and riparian woodland ecosystems home. Noise pollution is of concern to these animals since their hearing is so sensitive, having evolved in areas without the roar of freeways or of a jet flying above. A mouse for instance, may be temporarily deafened with a loud noise, leaving it more susceptible to predation, whereas in a quiet location, the mouse may have picked up on subtle clues giving away the presence of a predator.

The hike begins at the parking entrance to the visitor center off Junipero Serra Trail. The trailhead is signed “Visitor Center Loop.” The loop trail ends on the other side of the drive entrance. Begin walking north, noting common chaparral plants encountered at the beginning of the loop that include laurel sumac, California buckwheat, and chaparral candle. The large peak straight ahead is South Fortuna Mountain.

As you approach the San Diego River, cottonwoods will come into view. At 0.3 mile there is a turnoff to the Grinding Rocks Trail which leads to the Riverside Grinding Site where bedrock morteros may be seen. It was here that early-day Kumeyaay would grind their collected seeds and acorns to prepare them for meals. Take this short jaunt if you want to see this grinding area and then return to the junction to continue the loop.

As the trail begins to follow the river, more riparian plants become visible including mule-fat, western sycamores, arroyo willows, and rushes (Juncus spp.) that were used by the Kumeyaay for making collection baskets. Watch out for western poison-oak near the trail. At about 0.9 mile, you approach the San Diego River Crossing from which you can go right to head to the Fortunas. Go left and head right up the hill passing a small stream to your right. Note the blocks of ancient granite that rise above the steam bed where cattails are visible. The green material floating in the pond eddies is a freshwater green alga known as pond scum or pond-moss (Spirogyra spp.), although it is not really a moss. The alga is photosynthetic—a chlorophyte that typically forms greenish mats on the water’s surface, especially during dryer months when water is stagnant.

The loop continues past the Jackson Staging Area. As the route parallels Mission Gorge, the quiet is interrupted with the sounds of street traffic and soon the parking area comes into view.