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!