When most people think of San Diego, they think of the beach, Sea World, or the world-famous San Diego Zoo. But San Diego is also home to a lesser-known park that is arguably just as much of an attraction: Mission Trails Regional Park. Located in central San Diego, just eight miles northeast of downtown, Mission Trails encompasses both developed and natural open space and recreational areas.
Founded in 1974, Mission Trails has become one of the largest urban parks in the United States. At 5,800 acres, it is nearly seven times the size of New York City’s Central Park (843 acres). The area was originally used by the Kumeyaay (the local indigenous people), is the site of the Old Mission Dam, and takes visitors back to the days before explorers landed in the area in 1542.
First-time visitors to the park should definitely start the day at the Visitor Center. The center is devoted to teaching visitors about the history of the area, the park’s history, native plants and animals, and has information on the various activities at the park. The center also features videos and slide shows that depict the beauty of the area and give a history the people that have called Mission Trails “home”. The Visitor Center is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm daily, and is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.
As the name implies, Mission Trails Regional Park has a vast system of trails–over 40 miles total. There are hikes for every ability, ranging from “Leisurely” half-mile loops to “Challenging” hikes more than five miles long that take you to the top of one of Mission Trails’ five peaks. Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay, and North and South Fortuna Mountains all offer tremendous panoramic views of the area; you can even see the ocean on a clear day. The peaks range from 1,194 feet (S. Fortuna) to 1,592 (Cowles).
Mission Trails is known for it’s hiking, but the park also features boating on Lake Murray, camping at Kumeyaay Lake, an equestrian area, and some of the best mountain biking in the area. Lake Murray Reservoir is 171 acres (when full), and is very popular for fishing, boating, and picnicking. The lake has Florida-strain largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish, black crappie, and trout (stocked November-May). No camping is allowed at Lake Murray.
Although not permitted at Lake Murray, camping is allowed at Kumeyaay Lake Campground. This area has 46 primitive (no water or electricity) camping sites for tents or recreational vehicles. Each campsite has standard amenities, including picnic tables, tent pad, and parking. The campground also has bathroom and shower facilities nearby. Reservations are accepted.
The next time you are in San Diego and can’t stomach the thought of fighting the crowds and traffic at the Zoo or Sea World, I recommend you check out this hidden jewel of the San Diego park system. The rich history and beauty of the area make for a fulfilling experience that you won’t soon forget.