Trail Running

Climbers Loop Trail, Mission Trails Regional Park

While San Diego County has a plethora of great hiking trails, it does not have a lot of great climbing routes. Sure, there’s some decent routes out in the desert, but realistically, no one wants to be out in the Anza Borrego desert in the dead of summer. In no particular order, some of the better places to climb in the county are on the boulders at Woodson Mountain; the summit slabs at Stonewall Peak; the final approach on Mt. Lawson; and the routes at Mission Trails Regional Park.


Steps, Climbers Loop Trail

While none of these routes are going to confuse anyone with say, Half Dome, El Capitan, or any other big wall on the planet, they’re great areas for learning and practicing your climbing skills that aren’t in a controlled environment (otherwise known as climbing gyms). All of these areas have great hikes leading to the climbing areas, but this hike is the shortest and steepest of the bunch.

Directions: The best way to access this trail is to park at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center, which is located in the main portion of the park off of Mission Gorge Road. Even though Cowles Mountain is not located in this part of the park, parking remains at a premium on the weekends by the Visitor Center, due to the popularity of the area, and its proximity to a number of trailheads. While there is some parking along Father Junipero Serra Trail, the road that runs through Mission Trails, these spots are usually taken as well by mid-day.

From the Visitor Center parking area, you will want to head down Father Junipero Serra for .40 miles. During this short distance, I would suggest that you take the opportunity to enjoy the paved, flat surface and stretch out any kinks you have in your legs, as the actual trail has few flat sections, and is most definitely not paved! At .40 miles, you will see the trailhead on the right (south) side of the road, along with a kiosk detailing the steep terrain on the trail, and various climbing routes present on the Western face of Kwaay Paay Peak. From this point, the trail ascends steeply for .34 miles. How steep is it? Well, it ascends 406 feet over that distance, so while it isn’t the steepest terrain imaginable, it’s not a walk in the park either. Once you have ascended the 406 feet, you will have great views of Mission Trails, Mission Gorge, and the climbing routes.


Climbing Routes, west Kwaay Paay Peak

Based on my experience, if you are climbing any of the routes on the western face – Middle Earth, Limbo, or the main wall, you will definitely be warmed up and ready to go by the time you reach the “top”.  If you’re not climbing, continue on along the mostly flat section of trail leading past the climbing areas, before descending down another steep section of trail. If you are solely hiking this area, the total distance for this hike is 2.2 miles roundtrip (.4 from the parking area to the trailhead, 1.2 miles on the actual trail, and .6 from the far trailhead back to the parking area).

Tips: I personally like to run this trail on weekdays. The steep terrain is very challenging, and gives you a great workout. Unlike Cowles Mountain, it is also not as busyduring the week. Do note, however, that the trail is very steep, and what I would consider “single track” in many areas. Keep an eye out for other hikers, as well as climbers carrying gear so you do not potentially run into them. Aside from that, the routes on the western face of Kwaay Paay Peak are not that technical, so they are a great area to learn how to climb if you do not; and many companies provide lessons on a weekly basis at this location. Even if you do not wish to climb, this is a hike with some great views of the surrounding terrain, and if you’re curious about climbing, good views of climbers doing what they do: climbing.

Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain

Right behind the second most popular hike in San Diego, Iron Mountain, is the first most popular (cue drum roll) Cowles Mountain. If you even have a remote interest in hiking, or the outdoors, or are even somewhat athletic in that you move around because you are alive, or even if you’re the undead of some sort, chances are that you’ve heard about Cowles Mountain. Like Iron Mountain, Cowles Mountain is a popular hike. In fact, saying that it’s popular is like saying that the Interstate 5 through Los Angeles during rush hour is congested. It’s a classic understatement. As Cowles Mountain is located very close to the core of San Diego, there are people on this trail at all hours. I have been on this trail at all hours of the day and night, and frankly, as I said about Iron Mountain, I defy you to find a time when people are not on the trail.

Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain

The third confession that I have for my readers this week is not a confession, it’s a fact. Fact: Iron Mountain is the second most popular hike within the confines of San Diego County. The only thing that makes Iron Mountain the second most popular hike within the county is that at six miles roundtrip, it is a big longer than the first most popular hike within the county, Cowles Mountain. If you are looking for solitude on your hike, do not hike Iron Mountain. Well, ok, I shouldn’t say that. If you hike Iron Mountain in the middle of the night or on a rare rainy, cold day in San Diego, you might be alone on the trail. You might. Even under those conditions, I’d still assume that you’d run into at least one person. Iron Mountain is the second largest peak in the city of San Diego proper at 2,696 feet; and it is in the portion of the county with a number of hiking trails, such as the Goodan Ranch-Sycamore Canyon Preserve, and Woodson Mountain. Unlike Woodson, I’d recommend Iron Mountain as a hike, as it’s a great hike or jog; and when you get to the summit, you will have great unobstructed views of the surrounding area; however, do bear in mind that if you are indeed seeking solitude, this is not the hike for you.

Woodson Mountain, Eastern Approach

Woodson Mountain, Eastern Approach

True confessions week on continues today with my second confession: I’m not a fan of the hike heading up the Eastern side of Woodson Mountain (a/k/a Mt. Woodson) in San Diego County. Perhaps I’ve done the hike too many times. Perhaps it’s because whenever I’ve done the hike, there’s tons of people on the trail. Or perhaps, it’s just difficult for me to get behind a hike that heads up an asphalt and dirt road and ends at a cluster of antennas. But, despite my opinion, Woodson remains a popular hike within the county, which confounds me, as San Diego has so many hikes that have better views, better locations, and don’t end with the aforementioned cluster of antennas. In my mind, it’s almost as if the antennas are emitting some sort of mind control signal to the surrounding county, “Cooooooooooome, cliiiiiimb Woodson.”  Perhaps I’m onto something here: I should start warning the public not to climb Woodson from the Eastern approach because the pod people will get them at the top. That’s right – you heard it here first. Don’t climb Woodson – it’s controlled by pod people (and rattlesnakes)!!!

Bump-N-Grind Trail, Palm Desert (aka Bump-AND-Grind)

View of San Jacinto from the "top" of the Bump-N-Grind Trail

Sometimes, when you’re on the road, you find locations that are great hikes, but since you’re not a local, you may end up calling the location by a new name that has no relation to the old or actual name. Case in point: for years, I’ve been visiting Palm Desert. About ten years ago, I got tired of running around the same flat streets, and while running by the Target in Palm Desert, I saw people climbing a hill. I figured, “Hey, that looks like some good variety, not too tough, I’ll hit that up tomorrow”. Needless to say, when I “hit it up” the next day, I found that it was a lot more strenuous than, “not too tough” (more on that later), but I still had a great time. I found it so enjoyable that every time I was in Palm Desert after that, I went up and around it. All this time, I thought it was called the “Painter’s Path” trail, because I thought I had seen a sign near Highway 111 at the start that said that.

When I went to do a little research to write this piece about the hike, I found that it is called “The Bump-n-Grind” trail, “Dog Poo Trail”, “Patton Trail”, or “Desert Drive Trail”, but more often than not, “The Bump-n-Grind”. At first I was in denial - surely, I had a picture of the trailhead sign that proved I was right. Nope. No pictures of that purported sign. Then, I thought that it was an isolated nickname – surely, there was another name for it that confirmed I was right. Nope. Bump-n-Grind seemed to be chapter approved by locals. At this point, while bemused – I had been telling people about this hike for years – “you go up over behind the Target”, and calling it by my name, it was clear that I was wrong. Then again, a hike by any name is surely better than no hike at all?

Directions: Park in the Target parking lot right off Highway 111 in Palm Desert ( The trail leaves off the back of the parking lot and is readily apparent; there is also an access point slightly North of the Target entrance up Highway 111 past the Tilted Kilt. Either way, be prepared for a short but very steep ascent that heads up for about  ~1000 vertical feet before dead-ending at a spot in the mid-foothills that overlooks the Coachella Valley, and all of Palm Desert below. From the dead-end spot, there are other foot trails that head up further into the foothills, but they are not “approved” trails or routes. From the dead-end, the hike heads back down the hill to the parking lot. Total distance: a little over two miles roundtrip.

Tips: Did I mention above that I thought it’d be not too tough, but was surprised? Yeah, that’s right. It’s steeeeeeeeeeeep. Think about it: you start at around ~200 feet and you go up to ~1250 feet in a little over a mile. That’s steep. But fun! If you’re going to run it, it’s a leg burner. If you’re going to walk it, it’s still a burner. Is it doable? For sure, there will likely be tons of people on it. Enjoy it, and the view. Do bring water – it’s the desert. Don’t head up midday in the dead heat of summer, unless you can really handle that 110 degree heat and physical exertion. Do call it what you will, but do know that it is officially the “Bump-N-Grind”.

See you on the trail! 

More Information:,

La Orilla Trail, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve


Start of the La Orilla Trail, San Elijo Reserve

Enclaves! San Diego is full of wilderness enclaves. You just need to know where to look. A couple months ago, I talked about Crest Canyon, and how it’s a great secret spot to hike or run. A couple miles up the road, there’s another great spot for a calming walk or trail run next to the San Elijo Lagoon. This lagoon is the keystone of the San Elijo Lagoon Reserve, which features over seven miles of hiking trails, and is slightly North of Solana Beach, and slightly South of Cardiff.

Directions: From Interstate 5, exit Lomas Santa Fe, and head East to Highland Road (this road will be marked by a 4-Way Stop Sign). On Highland, turn left. Follow Highland East/North-east for a short while; and then turn left (North) onto El Camino Real. The parking lot for the trailhead will be on the West side of the road slightly before a hairpin turn. (The Reserve provides a good set of directions on their webpage, which I’ve placed below). From the parking area, it is several feet to the start of the trail. To me, the first portion of the trail is like entering a mystical forest with its low hanging cottonwood branches. Shortly up the trail (less than .10 miles), you will find a hollowed out area with tree branches covering it; it looks like a home to an unknown animal – or a gateway to another land.

After that, you will be entering the riparian area of the trail, where you will see cattails, and if it’s been a wet year – or if it’s recently rained, like it had the other day when I hiked this trail, you’ll see standing water in La Orilla Creek. If it’s dry – or hasn’t rained, the only water you’re likely to see is the Lagoon itself.


Riparian Portions of the La Orilla Trail The trail then meanders up some very slight hills, and then at .45 miles, arrives at the easement for the power lines above. At this point, you’ll have a variety of options – you can turn off onto some of the San Elijo Lagoon trails leading back into Solana Beach or you can continue West. Should you continue west, you’ll pass some free standing trees, some of which are Torrey Pines, and ultimately head along the Lagoon itself, under the Interstate 5, and toward the Coast. If you follow the trail to its end, you will arrive at the train tracks next to the Coast Highway just North of Solana Beach, which is directly across from Cardiff State Beach. The total distance from the trailhead to the Coast is 3.5 miles, one way, and is by and large, very flat. If you don’t decide to relax on the beach for a bit, the total round trip distance of this hike (or run) is seven miles. This trail is easy, and is for hikers of all skill levels.

Tips: At times, you will see people riding horses in and around the La Orilla trail near the El Camino Trailhead. If you are running the trail, be aware – and respectful of riders, so as not to dart around a corner, which will likely startle the horse(s). The section of trail that traverses under the Interstate 5 also has a narrow section of bridge; and if you are not paying attention, or you slip when running over it, you will end up in the Lagoon, and you will get wet. One last cautionary note about getting wet: when it rains, the trail becomes muddy in some places; and slippery in other places due to the high sand/clay content of the soil, and should you slip – you will get muddy and wet. Other than that, even though the area is fairly urban, this is a good spot to see deer, and sometimes, coyotes!

See you on the trail!

Penny Pines to Foster's Point

Heading South on the PCT to Foster's Point

Does this always look this beautiful? That was the question that kept rattling around in my head for the majority of my Friday hike. I had been asked that question a half mile into the hike, when I had passed the only other people that were on the trail. They were two backpackers heading to Mt. Laguna, and were only too happy to ask questions to catch their breath. I was happy to answer their question with a simple “yes” before I continued on, breaking trail for them and me to Foster’s Point. The question, however, stuck with me the majority of the day as I postholed through that section of the Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”), while I thought about what I should have said to them, other than “yes”.


My problem with “Yes” was that it was, and is my stock answer whenever someone asks me if anywhere was that beautiful. It’s my stock answer, because, really, how am I supposed to answer that question? Am I supposed to be snarky, and say, “Nah, it’s extra beautiful today, just for you” or am I supposed to be negative, “No, not usually”. Instead of those two extremes, I always opt for honesty: every place is always that beautiful; it’s just that someone has to be there to see it and appreciate it; and subjectively wonder that human of questions: “is it beautiful”.

My thoughts on the trail from Penny Pines to Foster’s Point from that day, and other days are the following: this hike is on the edge of San Diego County off the S-1, the Sunrise Highway. The trail is literally on the edge of the Laguna Mountains, and from it, you can see what high forest San Diego County has to the West, while gaping at the tectonic drop off down to the Anza Borrego Desert in the East. From the desert floor, warm breezes cascade up and over the mountains, carrying hints of long lost geologic memories. The trail winds through quiet forests, and provides views of jagged peaks, and an observatory. Under the trees, you can smell the sound of the old growth trees of San Diego, making you wonder if you are still in Southern California at all. This is to say nothing of the other features that make this trail unique – of snow in winter, and dust in summer, and everything in between. But is it beautiful? I think so, because I keep coming back. If nothing else, it is unique, and that in itself is reason to do this hike. And that – along with, “except there’s not usually this much snow” is what I should have told the backpackers along with my simple “yes”.

 Penny Pines, where the Trailhead is located for this hike.

Directions: Take the S-1, “Sunrise Highway” to the Penny Pines parking lot located at Mile Marker 27.3 off the road. ( There is parking on both the East and West sides of the road, but you will need a Forest Service “Adventure Pass”, which you can obtain at the Ranger Stations for $5.00.

From Penny Pines, head up the trail .1 miles to the junction of the PCT, and then head South (right) on the PCT. The trail initially drops down, giving you a good view of the desert floor, and Mt. Laguna. Within the first .10 miles after you join the PCT, there will be a hidden, wrecked Packard that is rusting out in the canyon. (Details in my previous post below, and is an interesting nugget to view should you see it). The trail continues due South for 1.6 miles, before heading up the side of Mt. Laguna. I’d rate this ascent as gradual, but as you are at around 5000 feet, you will definitely feel the climb. For this portion of the hike, you’ll be surrounded by clumps of manzanita, but no trees. At two (2) miles out from Penny Pines, you’ll see a wooden signpost directing you to Foster’s Point to your left (East). Follow the sign, and you will find yourself at a great overlook with views of Mt. Laguna, Garnet Peak, San Gorgonio on a clear day, and the Anza-Borrego Desert, of course! This is what it looked like on Friday, December 23, 2011:

 Foster's Point, December 2011

At this point, you can either continue on to Mt. Laguna, or head back to Penny Pines, and Garnet Peak. To do this loop without any side trips will run you a little under five miles round-trip (4.95 miles, to be exact).


Tips: Bring ample water, as this hike is very dry due to the desert winds that come up the canyons. Other than that, enjoy the hike, and the changing weather around it, as it can be done year round!


See you on the trail!


More Information:,,