Hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park in San Deigo

From the center, take the self-guided Visitor Center LoopTrail, which includes the Kumeyaay grinding site off a short spurtrail. Along the way, listen for the mewing calls of small birdsknown as California gnatcatchers. Another trail starts across theroad 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 flumecompleted by Spanish missionaries and Kumeyaay in 1816. The verysurvival of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, about 6 milesdownstream, was in question until this remarkable engineering featwas realized, stone by stone, tile by tile. Crossing the river on anarrow bridge, you can follow trails up to Oak Canyon, where aseasonal stream slips through the polished rock of a miniaturecanyon. (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 Peakabove Father Junipero Serra Trail― one of SouthernCalifornia’s premier climbing spots, with dozens of routes up thecrags that have earned colorful names like Bongo Fury and MoonageDaydream. You can hike up to the rocks for a close look at climbersin action.

Reaching the summit

Nothing at Mission Trails, however, equals the park’s mountainpaths in popularity, especially the 1 1/2-mile (one way) main trailleading from the staging area at Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road tothe summit of 1,591-foot Cowles Mountain.

“Cowles Mountain is going to tilt south someday from the weightof all the hikers,” says senior ranger Paul Kilburg. “They’re likegroupies drawn to a celebrity. Some hike that mountain every dayand have been for years.”

With dusk approaching, I join the dedicated and climb pastCowles’s first saddle, turn west, and have my own epiphany. Far outto sea, clearly visible from this sentinel, the dark outlines ofthe Coronado Islands off Mexico hover above a silver sea, and thesun 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 Iwant to go back down to the lights that now blanket the city belowme.

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