In search of Bongo Fury

Hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park in San Deigo

From the center, take the self-guided Visitor Center Loop Trail, which includes the Kumeyaay grinding site off a short spur trail. Along the way, listen for the mewing calls of small birds known as California gnatcatchers. Another trail starts across the road to the east and leads to a stand of rare Engelmann oaks.

Next stop: proceed by car or foot to the Old Mission Dam area, where a short, level trail leads to the remnants of a dam and flume completed by Spanish missionaries and Kumeyaay in 1816. The very survival of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, about 6 miles downstream, was in question until this remarkable engineering feat was realized, stone by stone, tile by tile. Crossing the river on a narrow bridge, you can follow trails up to Oak Canyon, where a seasonal stream slips through the polished rock of a miniature canyon. (Stay on the trails here and elsewhere in riparian zones, as poison oak is a vigorous part of the underbrush.)

There's much more, of course: boating on Lake Murray, camping, mountain biking, and rock climbing on the face of Kwaay Paay Peak above Father Junipero Serra Trail― one of Southern California's premier climbing spots, with dozens of routes up the crags that have earned colorful names like Bongo Fury and Moonage Daydream. You can hike up to the rocks for a close look at climbers in action.

Reaching the summit

Nothing at Mission Trails, however, equals the park's mountain paths in popularity, especially the 1 1/2-mile (one way) main trail leading from the staging area at Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road to the summit of 1,591-foot Cowles Mountain.

"Cowles Mountain is going to tilt south someday from the weight of all the hikers," says senior ranger Paul Kilburg. "They're like groupies drawn to a celebrity. Some hike that mountain every day and have been for years."

With dusk approaching, I join the dedicated and climb past Cowles's first saddle, turn west, and have my own epiphany. Far out to sea, clearly visible from this sentinel, the dark outlines of the Coronado Islands off Mexico hover above a silver sea, and the sun pauses for its legendary green flash.

"Hello!" says one hiker after another, groupie to groupie, either going up or coming down. Forty-five minutes after starting, I'm at the top, with the first star shining, and I don't know if I want to go back down to the lights that now blanket the city below me.