Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the most popular hiking areas in San Diego County. While the park’s Cowle’s Mountain trail is easily the most well-known hike in the park, there are plenty of other less crowded (and in my opinion, more scenic) trails to explore. This route combines two of the park’s major summits in a 7.6 mile hike that will give you a great workout with some fantastic views along the way.
The journey begins at the Mission Trails Visitor Center off of Mission Gorge Road. As you turn into the driveway leading to the Visitor Center, note the trail head on the right hand side at the base of the driveway. This is the starting point. The Visitor Center is a very impressive building staffed by helpful and knowledgeable volunteers. It is definitely worth taking a few minutes to check out. They offer a number of guided walks and other activities throughout the week that might be worth checking out.
We set off down the trail, winding through shrubs and chaparral, briefly passing through a patch of shady oaks. At .15 miles a path led off towards the road on the right, we kept to the left following signs for the Visitor’s Loop Trail. The gradual descent continued, and we admired the mountains and sheer rock walls which surrounded us. At .33 mile was another intersection. The right hand path leads towards the “grinding rocks” along the river bed. We continued straight, again following the signs for the Visitor Center.
The trail swung to the left and we found ourselves walking parallel with the San Diego River. Unsurprisingly, it was incredibly low. But the plants and trees grew thick along its banks providing refuge for many birds.
At .85 miles we encountered a wide intersection. To the left, I could we could hear the loud rush of running water. Apparently a spring feeds into the river here, however the brush was too thick to get a good glimpse of the water’s source. We followed the trail down and to the right across the river. You can either go straight across the water here if its low, or loop around to the west where there’s a man-made rock and cement berm. Note that during periods of high rainfall, this crossing may be impassable.
We took the path along the berm because it looked more interesting. Keep your eyes open for turtles in the water here, I saw one duck into the water as we passed by.
We crossed the river, and began a steep ascent along a wide gravel road. At the top of the hill we stopped to catch our breath and admire the view of Cowle’s Mountain behind us.
The trail made a “Y” intersection at this point, we headed right, and about .1 mile later took another branch to the right, following signs for the S-Curve and South Fortuna trail. The trail narrowed and descended. Looking ahead of us and to the left we could see South Fortuna, and more directly to our left was North Fortuna mountain.
At 1.85 miles we reached another intersection, and continued downwards on an unmarked branch to the right leading towards Suycott Wash picnic area. This is a small picnic area (two tables) nestled under some oak trees, and would provide a welcome respite on our journey back. For now, we headed straight to a small branch where bikes were not allowed. If you’re on a bike, you can bypass this section by turning left and then taking the next right, these two trails will meet again shortly (although I’m not really sure how much fun it would be to navigate the South Fortuna Stairs on a bike).
Fortunately, being on foot, we were free to take this short branch which wound through a shady passage overhung by oaks and willows. These trees managed to survive the 2003 Cedar fire which decimated much of the park. A small wooden bridge spanned the dry Suycott Wash, with yerba mansa covering the creek bed. After .2 miles, this short trail branch met up again with the main trail, and we turned right to begin our assault on South Fortuna Mountain.
The first part of the ascent alternated between steep grades and more level stretches, but the journey was distinctly upward. Mother Nature, being the comedic genius that she is, decided that this was the most opportune time to burn off the morning’s marine layer and let the full wrath of the day’s sun shine down upon us. We made our way slowly but steadily up the initial grade. Fortunately, the arduous climb offered numerous excuses for breaks in the guise of stopping to admire the view.
Around 2.4 miles, the trail leveled out for a stretch. We paused to admire the boulder strewn red hillsides and enjoy the cool breeze as we prepared for the final hurdle – the South Fortuna Stairs.
The stairs are steep, but are really only about .2 mile long. We just took our time, putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually made it to the top. The only tricky part is about 2/3 of the way up. A “shortcut” continues straight ahead to an extremely challenging rocky pass, which can be climbed but I really don’t recommend that route. The proper trail veers to the left, but is easy to miss if you have your head down and are concentrating on just moving forward. To keep yourself on the correct path, pause periodically and look ahead at where you’re going. You want to make sure you’re following the trail of wooden steps which will lead you the correct way. If you do miss the turn and end up on the shortcut, you’ll figure it out before long, but looking ahead can save you some backtracking.
We finally reached the top of the stairs and crested the ridge. Following the trail to the left brought us to a trail marker. The trail for everything goes left at this point, but a use path to the right leads to a fantastic overlook. You might be tempted to think this is South Fortuna Summit and you have reached your goal, having just undergone a rather grueling climb. Sadily, this is not the summit, but I personally think the view here is superior, so this is where we chose to linger and eat our snack. In the west we could make out the outline of downtown, Point Loma, and the Pacific Ocean beyond, despite the haze. Below us was the San Diego River, with the paved Father Junipero Serra trail running along side it. Looking across the river to the southeast, we could make out the antenna topped peak of Cowle’s Mountain. To the east was Santee and the other side of Mission Trails Regional Park.
After enjoying the view, we returned to the trail and continued north to the actual South Fortuna Summit. The summit is only about .4 mile away, and the climb is considerably more gentle from here, so reaching the 1094 foot summit was somewhat anti-climactic. But reach it we did, finding the short use trail that branched off to the right. We paused briefly to admire the view, and once again set off down the trail.
From here the trail led down to the Fortuna Saddle, a small dip between the two summits. The trail was rather nondescript along this stretch, just a gradual descent among the usual chaparralal, with a line of towering electric lines ahead of us.
At 3.75 miles we crossed under the power lines and reached the Fortuna Saddle trail junction. Straight ahead lay the North Fortuna trail, to the left was the path we would take to return to the Visitor Center, and to the right the Fortuna Saddle trail led to the eastern side of the park. We paused to avoid some mountain bikers who were careening downhill from atop North Fortuna, and began to ascend the second peak. This section of trail was a steep 1/2 mile climb with some spots of rather loose gravel under foot.
We reached the top, a height of 1291 feet, and rested among the boulders to take in the view. From here, we could see highway 52 wrap around the park on the east and north sides, as well as views of downtown and the ocean to the west.
Returning back to the Fortuna Saddle junction, we turned right to make our way down the wide road and head back towards the Visitor’s center. The first several hundred feet or so of this section was very steep and full of slippery loose gravel, and we were glad to have our trekking poles as we slowly picked our way down the slope.
We found another intersection at the bottom, and turned left to stay on the Saddle trail, which soon branched right back towards Suycott Wash. We followed the signs towards the Suycott Wash picnic area, and soon found ourselves crossing several small footbridges over the dry creek.
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Heading North on Mission Gorge Road: turn left onto Father Junipero Serra Trail just past Jackson Drive (look for the large wooden Mission Trails Regional Park sign).
Heading South on Mission Gorge Road: turn right onto Father Junipero Serra Trail just before Jackson Drive (look for the large wooden Mission Trails Regional Park sign).
|Total Distance:||7.6 miles|
|Elevation Change:||2542 feet|
|Best Time of Year:||Fall, Winter, Spring – Severe rain fall may make river crossing impassable|
|Dog Friendly:||Leashed Dogs are allowed|
|Facilities:||Bathroom and water fountain at Visitor Center|