Mission Trails is a park that is known for one thing and one thing only: Cowles Mountain and that is a shame. It is a shame because, while Cowles Mountain is pretty, it is only a small portion of the 5,800 acres of open space, and it is tucked away in the Southern corner of the park. The remainder of the park is a great example of preserved open space; and a great spot to find solitude and serenity from the hustle and bustle of San Diego. Mission Trails is also a great spot to see how California used to look, as it is full of native California coastal vegetation that covers its hills and valleys; and it is a great spot to see how the seasons pass and have passed in the coastal desert plain for hundreds of years, with seasonal wildflowers and waterfalls in the winter and spring, and dry slickrock and whispering grasses in the summer and fall months. The best trail to hike in all of the park to experience everything I’ve listed above – solitude, serenity, and seasonal features is the Oak Canyon Trail; and the best time to experience it is from November to May.
Directions: The trailhead for the Oak Canyon Trail leaves from the parking area at the Old Mission Dam. As the parking area at the Dam is small, it is usually full, even on weekdays, and on weekends, it is almost impossible to find a spot in the Dam parking lot. However, there is no need to fret about finding a spot at the Dam parking lot, as there is always ample space and parking along the Father Junipero Serra Road immediately next to the Dam parking lot. Alternatively, there is also a great deal of parking at the Mission Trails Visitor Center, which is located only one mile from the Dam; and this extra mile winds along a paved road that is mostly used by joggers and bikers through the center of Mission Trails Regional Park.
From the Dam parking area, you will want to follow the readily apparent paved trail past the Old Mission Dam. If you have never been to Mission Trails, you will want to stop and take a look at the remains of the Old Mission Dam. It was constructed in the early 1800’s along the San Diego River, and an impressive amount of the structure remains today. From the Dam, continue along the trail to a footbridge that crosses the San Diego River. Once you have crossed the footbridge, follow the signed trail to the East (Right) into Oak Canyon. If you are hiking the trail in the winter, and spring months, which I recommend, you will see lush green grass growing, and seasonal water trickling through various creekbeds. If you are hiking this trail in the summer or falls months, you will hear the dry whisper of the now dead grass rustling in the breeze, and there will be no water present at all.
However, no matter which time of year you hike this trail, you will see majestic oaks that have grown in the park for years, and survived due to the seasonal water that flows through the area. The trail then winds up into Oak Canyon; and although the trail is well signed, the astute hiker will want to continue along all of the left (West) forks that lead into Oak Canyon. At three quarters of a mile up the trail, you will be in Oak Canyon proper, and again, if it is winter or spring, you will see seasonal water through the canyon; and if it is summer or fall, you can scramble around the smooth dry creekbed where the seasonal water ran through months ago. Continue along the trail which will head out into part of the grasslands of the park, and follow the signs that say “Oak Canyon”, instead of following the Fortuna Mountain turnoff. During the winter and spring months, these grasslands are a great spot to see seasonal wildflower blooms, from California Poppies, to lupine, and everything in between.
After a mile, the trail winds up toward the North, and crosses over an area that depending on the winter storms, can be quite wet, or in the summer, can be quite dry. This is the “top” of Oak Canyon, and has some of the best secret seasonal waterfalls in the county during late winter and spring. My suggestion? Take your time in this area, and listen to the idyllic serenity that the running water brings; and if you are on the trail on a weekday, enjoy the solitude and explore all of the little streams and pools that are present in Oak Canyon. Once you are done at these waterfalls, head back the way you came to the Old Mission Dam. Overall, this is an easy to moderate hike that is suitable for all ages, and it is only 1.5 miles one way, or three (3) miles roundtrip, with minimal elevation gain.
Tips: In case I didn’t make this clear enough with all of my repeated references above, the time to do this hike is winter to spring, as the wildflowers will be blooming, and the creeks will be flowing. While it is pleasant in the summer to fall months, the hike will most definitely have a different feel and a different type of natural beauty.