Over the last thirty years as hiking, backpacking, climbing, trail-running, and other outdoor activities have become more and more popular, the number of races, challenges, and other activities that package elements from more than one trail have also increased. Some of these challenges have set days, like the Phoenix 7 Summit Challenge; and some of these challenges can last over the course of a year, like my friend Jeff Hester’s Six Pack of Peaks challenge. And, as of November 7, 2015, Mission Trails Regional Park inaugurated San Diego’s own trail challenge, the 5-Peak Challenge, which can be completed in a day, or over the course of a year.
San Diego is a destination that is well-known for its fantastic weather, beautiful beaches, Comic-Con, and for being the home of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. In addition to all of these things, San Diego is America’s Finest City and is the host city of the 2016 Major League Baseball All Star game. While Petco Park, the Convention Center, and the Gaslamp District are great spots in the city core of San Diego, the city, and the county as a whole have innumerable spots for visitors who have the time to explore, or who want to get away from the downtown crowds. Whether you are a first time visitor to San Diego, or a long-time fan of the city, check out the below destinations this weekend that prove that the city’s nickname is more than hype.
Although Mission Trails Regional Park is home to the highest mountain in San Diego (Cowles Mountain), the most leg burning ascent in San Diego (Kway Paay Peak), the oldest European structure (Old Mission Dam), and some great climbing, it also has trails for all skill levels that provide much solitude amid the hustle and bustle of San Diego. A perfect example is the Oak Grove Loop Trail.
While San Diego is a young city in terms of history, it has a number of hidden historic gems. Many of these locations are clustered near the current city center (such as the Whaley House), but one of the spots, the Old Mission Dam, is located in the middle of San Diego's largest municipal park, Mission Trails. The Old Mission Dam is a historic structure for a number of reasons, but first and foremost, it is the oldest colonial engineering project on the Pacific Coast.
Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP) is one of the best places to go hiking in the City of San Diego. Containing over 5,800 acres of open space, it is the largest city park in the State of California; and the seventh largest city park in the United States. Among many things, it contains the historic Old Mission Dam; beginner and intermediate rock climbing routes; and Cowles Mountain. Mission Trails, however, is more than just the Dam and Cowles Mountain - it is an area with over forty miles of hiking trails. While most of the park's visitors concentrate on the Eastern portions of the park - Cowles Mountain, the Old Mission Dam, the Grasslands Loop, and Kwaaypay Peak, there is also plenty of great hiking on the western side of the park without the crowds. A great intermediate hike is the Clairemont Mesa to Shepherd Pond route, which provides excellent views of the interior of the park, and slightly different terrain than a standard San Diego hike.
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.
If I was to ask you where the largest municipally owned urban park in California was located, chances are that you’d draw a blank. If I was then ask you where the sixth largest municipally owned urban park in the nation was, chances are you’d have some guesses, but you’d still be wrong. The answer to both questions, however, is the same: I am talking about Mission Trails Regional Park, which is located in San Diego, California. At 5,800 acres of open space, Mission Trails does feel more like a state park or national park, but it is in fact owned by the City of San Diego. I could go on and on about the particulars of Mission Trails, about how the park has secret seasonal waterfalls, great climbing, and a couple of hidden ponds, but perhaps the most challenging workout within the park is its best secret; and that workout is the ascent up to Kwaay Paay Peak.