Rancho Mission Canyon

Looking out toward Mission Trails Regional Park from Rancho Mission Canyon

Rancho Mission Canyon is one of San Diego’s many little neighborhood open space canyons that provides a small swath of natural space within our urban landscape. The nearby Mission Trails Regional Park draws most of the crowds, so you’ll likely have some quiet solitude in which to enjoy the chaparral covered hillsides and chirping birds.

Like most of the canyon areas in the City of San Diego, there are a number of different trail heads from which you can access the canyon. The route described here starts in a residential neighborhood just off Mission Gorge Road and will take you all the way to Navajo Road near Patrick Henry High School. We chose this route because it appeared to offer the longest possible trek and we wanted to explore as much of the canyon as we could.  If you want to mix things up, you could easily do this hike in the opposite direction, make it a point-to-point, or turn around at Rancho Mission Canyon Park in the middle.

We started at the end of a cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood. As we passed through the gate, we saw a cement path heading straight ahead, which connected to another street. We headed down the dirt path to the right to enter the canyon.
Rancho Mission Canyon trail head at Hemingway Drive

The hills had greened up beautifully thanks to the recent rains. Rounding a bend, we crossed a small wooden bridge that spanned a drainage ditch.

The trail hugged the hillside, winding in and out along the serpentine canyon. Looking towards the east we got some nice views of the Mission Trails peaks.
Kwaay Paay, Pyle's Peak, and Cowles Mountain

Houses lined the rims of the canyon, and could also be seen below us in some areas. They were far enough away, however, so as not to impede on the solitude we felt.
Houses on the canyon rim

Around .5 mile we passed through a section of thick brush, ducking below branches that overhung the trail. We climbed upwards slightly along the rocky path, and then descended again. We came to a cluster of palm trees where a wash ran down the canyon side and across the trail. There was a deep gully that we needed to traverse to continue along the trail. We found the easiest route was to just climb into the rocky wash and follow it downhill a little ways, then climb back out to rejoin the trail.

We soon emerged from the thick, overgrown bushes and found ourselves in a more exposed section of trail again. We passed a small rivulet of water running down the hillside, an artifact of the recent heavy rains. We marveled at the novelty of running water, which we had seen far too little of recently.
A rare post-rain cascade

At .75 mile we found an area where some significant trail work appeared to be in progress. Plastic fencing lined the trail, and a thick layer of wet, muddy hay carpeted the ground.
A section of trail work

Just shy of 1 mile we passed a trail branch that led down the hill on the right. A small use trail ran along the bottom of hill, paralleling the main trail. We continued straight along the main trail in order to avoid the houses down below, as well as enjoy the fantastic views afforded by our high vantage point.
North and South Fortuna

We continued on through the chaparral with the occasional large patch of prickly pear cactus. At 1.25 miles we saw Rancho Mission Canyon Park below us.
Overlooking Rancho Mission Canyon Park

We made our way down the steep grade and reached another trail junction with a kiosk. The path to the right led over to the park, another possible starting point for the hike. We continued left.
Junction near Rancho Mission Canyon Park

We continued on through the tall chaparral, and at 1.5 miles reached another junction at the bottom of the hill. To the left was a nice little creekside trail that led up to a residential area, but we turned right. About 250 feet further on we took a fork to the left that went down into the creek.
Heading down towards the creek bed

I expect its normally pretty dry in this section, but as we were just coming off a good rainstorm, we found a wet and muddy stream to cross. Fortunately, there was a small wooden structure – more than a board, but less than a bridge – to aid in our crossing. While it was a bit wobbly, we safely avoided the horrors of wet socks.
A major San Diego water crossing

From here, we faced a steep and muddy climb back out of the canyon.
Coming back out of the canyon

We reached the top of the hill and found ourselves fairly close to the backyards of several houses. However we did have some nice views of the canyon behind us from here, and it was extremely quiet and peaceful in spite of the proximity of homes.20141220ranchoMission_DSC3858-Edit

From here the trail rose and fell as we made our way towards Navajo Road. We wound through the eclectic greenery of baccharis and cactus on the canyonside.

We could see enormous palm trees growing up from the canyon bottom, and a decent stream of water flowed beneath them.
Palm trees growing up from the canyon

At 2.4 miles we reached Navajo Road, and turned around to hike back the way we came.
The Navajo Road trail head to Rancho Mission Canyon

View the full photo gallery

From Mission Gorge Road, go south on Jackson Drive. Turn right onto Hemingway Drive, then turn right again to continue on Hemingway. Follow Hemingway as it curves around, continue to the cul-de-sac at the end of the road and park on the street. Note that this is a residential area, so please be respectful with your driving and parking, and don’t make excessive noise as you prepare to set out. map

Total Distance: 4.9 miles
Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Total Ascent: 496 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Total Distance: 4.9 miles
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information visit:
City of San Diego Parks & Open Space Home
Rancho Mission Canyon Trail Map
View route on Google Maps

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