North Fortuna & South Fortuna Trails – Conquering Mission Trails Challenges

Hiking is fun, especially with family and friends! Would you like to experience the beauty of natural landscapes that offer a breathtaking panoramic view of some very beautiful nature? However, to enjoy the hike and avoid getting lost along the way, it’s important to understand where you are going.

Have you ever hiked in Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the most popular hiking areas in San Diego? Let’s learn about one of these famous trails, which has two parts.


mission trails regional park


1. North/South Fortuna Loop Via Fortuna Saddle

This trail spans a distance of approximately 7.6 miles, with an elevation change of about 2,542 ft. You enter from the Tierrasanta entrance, go through to North Fortuna Mountain all the way to South Fortuna Mountain, then across the saddle, down and back to the beginning.

This trail is well known for hiking, trail running, walking and nature trips, among other activities. It is accessible all year round, apart from seasons when there is severe rainfall that would make the area impassable. However, the best time to hike is between January and April when the temperatures are cool and the park is greener, thus more beautiful.


South and North Fortuna Overview


Is it safe? Yes, this is a safe trail other than rattlesnakes which might surprise you during the hike. Keep an eye on the path and listen to that familiar rattling sound nearby. Be prepared with your cell phone, first aid kit, water, hiking boots and water in case of any emergencies. Take heed of the steep heights and dress appropriately to be on the safe side. If you drop any litter, make sure to collect it to keep the environment clean. If you love wildflowers and wildfruits, you can bring a few back with you. They are beautiful!

If you have a pet, you can trail along with them; however, you must ensure that you keep them on a leash. You should not take them if the dirt will be hot that day, or if there has been a lot of snake sightings around that time.

If you are fit, this 7.6 miles will take about 3 to 4 hours to finish, although the time might vary depending on a number of factors.


Let’s Start Out From The Tierrasanta Entrance

From this entrance, you will head over to the park over the bridge and follow the signs that have ‘North Fortuna’ posted on them. On your way, you will cross many trails, although you don’t have to stick to one trail. Trek ahead by following the signs until you get to the tallest mountain in the park.


fortuna from tierrasanta entrance


The North Fortuna Mountain Bottom

Now you are at the bottom of North Fortuna Mountain. To hike to the top, you will start climbing the summit after approximately half a mile. After about 2.3 miles, the trail will split right and left. Head right and after about 3 miles, you will reach the North Fortuna Summit. At this point, you can smile, rest a bit, play a few games, or find a few treasures as you enjoy the paronamic view of the South Fortuna Mountain and Cowles mountain off in the distance.

From North Fortuna Summit

From the North Fortuna Summit, head down to the Fortuna Saddle at about 3.3 miles and then head up South Fortuna Mountain. You will hit the South Fortuna Summit at approximately 3.96 miles, which is around 200 feet lower than the North Summit. Keep heading south and at about 4.33 miles, you will get a nice view of the gorge.


north fortuna summit


Heading Back Down

After having enough rest, head west back down to the park floor. Follow the trail and at about 5.15 miles, you will cross the little creek area, then start heading back to the start of the hike.

Trek To The Beginning Of The Trail

You are almost done! At approximately 5.45 miles, you will come to a road. Follow the road up and head to the right as you head back. You will meet another road at about 5.8 miles and at this point, take the right that is heading Northeast for a little less than a mile. From this point, take another trail on your left and this will take you back to the trail head. Relax and enjoy Mother Nature at this point. I hope you’ve had fun!


2. Fortuna Mountains Loop Via Grasslands Crossing

Hiking the Fortuna Mountains through Grasslands Crossing is 7.1 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,354 ft. The minimum elevation is 305 ft and the maximum is 1,292 ft. The trekking time is approximately 3-4 hours, though you are likely to experience some difficulty along the way due to the steep terrain, rocks and bridges which can break during the rainy season. In addition, you are likely to encounter wild animals such as rattlesnakes on this trail, so keep your eyes open. However, the trail is well marked, well maintained, and very easy to follow, even with your dog.


hikers on fortuna


To hike the Fortuna Mountains through the Grasslands Crossing, you start out on the North Perimeter Trail or the Spring Canyon trail. For an easy trail, let’s start out from the Spring Canyon trail and head back through the North Perimeter Trail.

From Spring Canyon Trail

Start out from this trail that is located at the north end of the East Fortuna staging area. At approximately 0.4 miles, this trail intersects with the North Perimeter Loop Trail and the Grasslands Loop. Although both trails will get you to your destination, let’s follow the Grasslands Loop Trail. At about 0.8 miles, this trail will run along a wooden fence and you will follow it due south along the fence.


spring canyon trail on a sunny day


Head for the Oak Canyon Trail

At about 1 mile, leave the grasslands for the Oak Canyon trail. This trail runs along a shaded creek for about .2 miles before getting into a little more exposure. At about 1.3 miles, you will notice that this creek takes a turn as the trail heads east and swells with a lot of water. Be careful on this stretch of the hike with your footwear, since the rocky trail can become loose in some areas.

Fortuna Saddle Trail

At about 1.6 miles, the Oak Canyon Trail crosses the Fortuna Trail. Head east to the Fortuna Saddle Trail and you will note that it will begin to get steep. After about .6 miles, you will gain an elevation of about 500 ft. Walk carefully at this point to avoid falling off. After about 2.2 miles, you will reach the Fortuna Saddle, then head to the 1,094 ft South Fortuna Summit, which is approximately 2.8 miles away.


fortuna saddle trail stairs


Once at the summit, sit, relax and enjoy the view before heading down the saddle to North Fortuna. After about 3.4 miles, you will get to the Fortuna Saddle. Walk ahead and at approximately 4 miles, you will get to the 1,291 ft North Fortuna Summit. Have you enjoyed the trail? Once you’ve had enough rest and enjoyed the view of the landscape, you can return back just the way you arrived through the Fortuna Saddle Trail.


North Fortuna & South Fortuna Trails Conclusion

Hiking is fun, great exercise, and a great group activity! Always be keen on the directions and the sign board when hiking to avoid getting lost along the way. In addition, when preparing to hike on these trails, always carry your cell phone, your emergency kit, trekking poles, snacks, extra shoes, clothing and water to be on the safe side.

Mission Trails Guide Part I: The Overview & Basics You Should Know!

If you live in a major city on the west coast and are looking for a quick, natural place to escape the urban hustle and bustle, then a trip to the Mission Trails Regional Park is an excellent option.

It has aptly been labeled the third jewel of the city (along with Balboa Park and Mission Bay Park) and encompasses over 7,000 acres of both recreational and natural areas. The stunning valleys, hills and open areas offer visitors an unforgettable experience:


mission trails regional park

A Short History of the Mission Trails

Located only eight miles north of downtown San Diego, this natural park provides visitors a unique way to explore the cultural, recreational, and historical aspects of San Diego. One of the largest parks in the United States, Mission Trails Regional Park opened its doors to the public in 1974 and was originally used by the Kumeyaay. The park houses the Old Mission Dam, originally constructed to supply water to the city.


old mission dam at mission trails regional park


In the 1960s the Navajo Community area, which encompasses today’s Mission Trails Regional Park, started to grow in population density. The City of San Diego decided a planned urban park was needed and set aside 1,765 acres of open space that embraced Fortuna Mountain, Old Mission Dam and Mission Gorge. But it was not until the 1980s when aggressive fundraising took place and plans to create a park were established.

Land acquisition was successfully launched, and a total of 6,000 acres was acquired between 1981 and 1984. In 1985, a master development plan was approved by the San Diego City Council, a park image was established, and signs were erected. In 1989, the first park ranger was hired, and the park’s advertising program began.


Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center

In 1995, the impressive Mission Trails Regional Visitor Center was opened to the public, which showcased the high terrain around the park. Today, Mission Trails Regional Park is fulfilling its mission to the community with a broad range of educational activities that includes classes, lectures, organized hikes and other informal outdoor recreational activities.

Any travel plans to the west coast that omits a visit to the park’s Visitor Center would be just unthinkable! It’s a beautiful and unique venue for meetings and planned events like weddings and parties, fundraisers, corporate events and anniversaries. The Center is a hive of activity, and each day you’ll find people starting off for hikes or cooling down after completing long mountain bike rides.

mission trails regional park visitor center


Here you can learn about the parks history, animal communities and natural plants. The main Park Administration Office is located here, and you can also obtain information about the various activities and destinations available within the park.

It’s open daily from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The highlight of the day is the 94-seat theater that runs four shows each day.

The Main Trails of Mission Trails!

The main trails in Mission Trail Regional Park are an excellent place to hike. It’s easy to park outside the Visitor Center and take a walk toward the Dam. It’s a straight road where people of all fitness levels can walk on one side and cars can drive through on the other side. The moment you arrive, the first thing you notice are the huge rocks, which are easily accessible.

Take advantage of all the rock-climbing opportunities that you can see right away! There are trails for every level of ability: hiking, running, walking, biking and skating. They allow dogs, and everyone is welcomed for a piece of the action. The park is accessible 24/7 and is a photographer’s delight. However, keep in mind, that the parking is not permissible past sunset behind the gates (unless you don’t mind your vehicle getting locked in until sunrise!)  If you love deer stalking, bird watching or just about any wildlife, you will not be disappointed, as there is a great array available.


mission trails wildlife!


Be sure to bring enough to eat and drink because the sojourn into this wilderness promises endless and timeless excursions. Here are the main trails, which will be discussed in length in a following article:

1. The Cowles Mountain Trail is the highest peak within the San Diego city limits. Once you get to the top, you will see a beautiful view of San Diego and its surrounding areas.


cowles mountain at mission trails


2. The South Fortuna Mountain Trail is a six mile, lightly trafficked loop trail that features beautiful wild flowers. It’s popular with hiking, running, walking and nature trips.

3. Pyles Peak is a 7.7 mile, little-trafficked out and back trail featuring beautiful wildflowers. You can also access it from the Cowles Mountain trail, and you can see the same beautiful view from the top if you want to hike a longer distance.

4. The Fortuna Mountain Trail is a 6.2 mile little-trafficked loop near San Diego, it features a waterfall and is one of the most difficult to hike. Dogs are best kept leashed if you take them along.

5. The Visitor Center Loop Trail is a 1.4 mile loop that is heavily trafficked and features a river, a forest with sycamores, Juncus trees, and willows.


mission trails visitor trail


6. Kwaay Paay Peak Trail is a 2.3 mile, moderately trafficked out and back trail near Santee, featuring wildflowers.

7. Oak Canyon Grassland is a 6.8 mile, light-trafficked loop trail near San Diego. It features a river and is popular with all skill levels.

8. Big Rock Trail is a 4.2 mile, moderately trafficked loop near Santee and offers the opportunity to see wildlife.

9. Grassland Loop is a 4.4 mile, little-trafficked loop trail and features a river. Dogs are welcome on a leash.


grasslands trail at mission trails


10. Rim Trail is a 4.5 mile, little-trafficked loop trail rated as moderate and features wildflowers.

11. Old Dam South Fortuna is a 7 mile, lightly trafficked trail located near San Diego.


south fortuna at mission trails regional park

The East Fortuna entrance of the park is an area exclusively dedicated to mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking. Parking is available for 47 cars and 15 vehicles with horse trailers. There are four horse corrals available for public use, and gates open from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm, November through March, and 8.00am to 7.00 pm April through to October every year.

So whether you are there for the exercise, to learn about wildlife, or just to drive your car through and get some fresh air, this park is pleasing to the eyes AND the mind. It’s also a great bonding experience with a group of friends or your pets!

Cowles Mountain Hike Guide – Conquering Cowles Mountain With Ease!

About Cowles Mountain Hike

Cowles Mountain Trail (officially supposed to be pronounced “Coals” yet all of my friends have pronounced it Cow-lz for years!) is a wonderfully scenic hiking excursion located in San Diego, California. Well known to many of the locals and a desired hiking destination to avid adventurers around the nation, the trail can be found within the limits of the Mission Trails Regional Park, a sprawling 5,800 acre preserve. The summit of the trail boasts an elevation of 1,593 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the city of San Diego, located in the San Carlos neighborhood.

cowles mountain san diego

Back To The Name: Cowles Vs. Coals!

Cowles Mountain was named after George A. Cowles (1836-1887). Mr. Cowles was a prominent business leader and rancher in 19th century San Diego.

Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Mr. Cowles and his wife, Jennie, first visited San Diego in 1873. In 1877, Mr. Cowels began ranching in the area. He became so prominent in San Diego and left such an imprint on the community that “S” Mountain, as Cowles Mountain was previously known, was renamed after Mr. Cowles’ namesake.

george cowles and S Mountain

Mission Trails Regional State Park

As previously mentioned, the park in which Cowles Mountain is located is an open 5,800 acre State Park. Established in 1974, it is not only the 7th largest outdoor urban park in the U.S., but is also the country’s 6th largest municipality owned park. The park gives a good mix of rugged hiking, biking and enjoying a walk with your friends as it has over sixty miles of trails.

You can get more familiar with the Cowles Mountain Hiking Trail as well as other trails in the area by stopping by the Mission Trails Regional State Park Visitor Center before you head up the mountain. Here, you will be able to learn about the native animal and plant life, and get more in depth information about the history of the park. This will better prepare you for the trip ahead and give you the knowledge you need to stay safe and respect the park.

The Visitors Center is open daily from 9:00 to 5:00, excluding holidays.

mission trails visitors center

How Do I Get To The Cowles Mountain Hike?

Native San Diegans needn’t travel far to experience the wonders of nature, as the Cowles Mountain Hiking Trail is right in their back yard. If you are from the area, depending on where exactly you live, the trail is less than a 15 mile journey.

If you are flying in, the nearest airport to travel to is the San Diego International Airport.

When you arrive at Mission Trails Regional State Park, you will find a free parking lot of about 15-20 spaces. If the parking lot is full, as the trail attracts hundreds of visitors every day, there is free street parking available as well.

cowles mountain san diego street parking

Preparing For The Cowles Mountain Hike

The length of the trail from start to finish is about 3 miles. Given the 950’ vertical assent, you can expect for the round trip to take about 2 to 3 hours to complete, depending on your activity level. If you are planning to take this hike, it is important that you do the following:

1. Wear Comfortable Clothing And Shoes

Always check the weather before you go on a hike to be able to make an informed decision on the type of clothing that is best to wear for that day. The weather on the mountain ranges from snowy in the winter to scorching during the summer, so plan accordingly.

Aside from clothing, footwear is another important factor when hiking for an extending period. Suggested shoes are comfortable hiking boots or tennis shoes.

cowles mountain hiking trail

2. Bring Plenty Of Water

This is pretty self explanatory, but the trail can be steep at times and you will be exerting yourself for a few hours. It is a good idea to stay hydrated for this trip.  Most people find themselves wishing they had packed extra water, no matter how fit they are as hikers!

3. Pack Snacks Or A Lunch

The duration of the hike, being a few hours long, may leave your stomach growling at the top. You can pack a lunch to have a picnic with unbeatable views, or just some snacks to keep you going. Regardless, have something with you in the event you get hungry.

pack a snack for cowles mountain top!

4. Check The Weather

This is important not only to know the proper attire for your hike, but you don’t want to be stuck at the top of the 1,593’ peek if there’s going to be a storm.

5. Wear Sunscreen

California is a wonderfully sunny state, but it is always important to protect your skin from the harmful rays of the sun.

6. Bring A Friend

Although the trail is usually populated with eager hikers making their way to the top, it doesn’t hurt to bring a pal with you. Safety in numbers, after all!

top of cowles

Attributes Of The Trail

You will start your hike off walking along a dusty orange path with wooden railings alongside you. The further you get up the mountain, the terrain gets rockier, so be sure to watch your step. The rugged, dirt trail continues onward until you reach the summit.

In the summer, always watch out for snakes because you will almost certainly run into one at some point. This bad boy is pretty prominent:

red diamond rattler snake on the cowles mntn trail

While most snakes will scurry off or stay off the trails, be careful as some may be spotted on the trail where humans walk or very close, to the side of the trail.  Just a heads up!

The Summit

At the peak, you will be greeted with an informative marker giving basic trail history and information. The summit is the absolute shining gem of this trek, the reason hundreds of hikers take the journey every day. The view offers a panoramic 360-degree view of the most beautiful landscape California has to offer. If you decide to take your hike on a clear enough day, you may even be able to see Tijuana from the summit.

cowles mountain summit

Can I Bring My Dog On The Cowles Mountain Hike?

The trail is dog friendly, permitted your pooch is on a leash. Be courteous to other travelers and clean up after your dog if they have to do their business on the hike. It is advised that you bring plenty of water for your pet as well as yourself. In the summer, the trail can get very hot, so make sure you get protection for their paws or just don’t bring them with you that day.

Other Places To Visit Near Cowles Mountain Trail

If you enjoyed your hike up Cowles Mountain, here are a few other places to check out nearby:

Kwaay Paay Peak

This Kwaay Paay Peak is a moderate 2.5 mile trail in Mission Trail Regional State Park. It does not get as much traffic as Cowles Mountain, but is worth the trek for the surrounding, mountainous beauty. Dogs are allowed, but bikes are not.

Kwaay Paay

Big Rock Park

Another natural attraction, Big Rock Park is a trailhead in Santee, California, that you can actually take to get to the summit of Cowles Mountain. The total trail distance is 5.2 miles, making for a 1.5 – 2 hour trip to the top of the mountain.

Pyle’s Peak

Pyle’s Peak is notably the second highest peak in Mission Trail Regional State Park, right behind Cowles Mountain. It is a bit of a longer trail at 7.7 miles, but you will see enchanting wild flowers and breathtaking views of the surrounding areas.

pyle's peak