BY ROSE CLARK
Where can you see dozens of birds, wildflowers and hike over 30 miles of trails only 20 minutes from downtown San Diego? Covering almost 10 square miles, Mission Trails Regional Park offers a wide range of great outdoor and wildlife adventures.
“Welcome everybody to Mission Trails Regional Park!” our trail guide, Sonya Thorne-Mosqueda begins, “I’m very excited to get to share the country’s largest urban park with you this morning. Can anyone guess how many football fields can fit inside Mission Trails?”
Some of the children in our group of 14 excitedly raise their hands and shout out guesses: “200!”, “250!”, “No way – 1,000!” Actually, an amazing 5,800 football fields can fit within Mission Trails Regional Park, says Sonya.
On this fine June morning I have joined a guided hike focusing on the flora and abundant wildlife along the Grinding Rocks trail near the visitor center. After explaining some of the rules in the park and safety concerns for the younger children (i.e. don’t let them run too far ahead, watch out for poison oak, etc.), the guided hike gets underway. Sonya keeps up a comfortable pace the kids can easily follow and stops along the way at points of interest.
We stop to learn about the giant, soft leaves of western sycamore trees that were used by the Kumeyaay (a local Native American tribe) to line their babies’ cribs. We also learn about the very fragrant coastal sagebrush (also known as “cowboy cologne”), which Sonya says the cowboys used to purposely walk through to camouflage their own less attractive odors before going into town.
As the day heats up, we find refuge under the broad shade of an old coast live oak tree. Above we can hear the calls of Bewick’s wrens, house wrens, and acorn woodpeckers. Leaves rustle as animals and birds scurry about on this giant, old tree. It is much cooler under the shade of the tree, and Sonya explains this is due to the massive amount of shaded area, as well as the tree’s own evapotranspiration (a plant’s way of perspiring).
In the sun dappled shade, Sonya points to a nearby desert woodrat nest. The nest is rather large, and contains a series of apartment-like rooms inside.
“Woodrats use each room for a different purpose, and even go to the bathroom on the outside of their nest to fortify it and make it stronger. Almost like shellac,” she explains. “Ewww!” squeal the younger children.
At the base of the coast live oak, Sonya points to a bird nest box. Nest boxes like this one can be found scattered throughout the park, and are used by a variety of birds depending on the time of year. This one was inhabited by Bewick’s wrens last year – this year’s occupant remains to be determined. A small army of park volunteers maintain the bird nest boxes on a regular basis to ensure that the local birds have a safe place to nest, breed, and raise their young each year.
Leaving the shade of the majestic oak, we continue our guided hike making quick stops to look at the plants in bloom near the trail. We learn about the pink pollen of California buckwheat, the one-time blooming season of the chaparral yucca, the beautiful smelling but deadly datura, and the parasite dodder which appears growing like orange hair over the top of California buckwheat and laurel sumac plants.
Sonya also makes a point to stop the group within a safe distance of some growing poison oak so we can identify this plant and learn why you should steer clear of it (hint: itch, itch, scratch, scratch!). She even packed helpful pictures of how the plant looks as it changes throughout the seasons so that we may always be aware and alert for this sneaky plant.
As we round a bend, the trail opens up to a lovely larger spot underneath more coast live oaks. Here, a stretch of granite rocks and sand leads up to a bend in the San Diego River (however, it looks more like a creek).
I can feel that this spot is special; there are many grinding rock indentations where the Kumeyaay would grind the oak acorns and wash the acorn powder (or Shawii) with water from the San Diego River to rid the powder of bitter tasting tannins.
Looking out over this section of the San Diego River, I feel farther away from the city of San Diego than I really am. A feeling of contentment washes over me as I lean back against a large rock and let the sun’s rays warm my face. I feel recharged and ready for the rest of the day, and looking at the relaxed faces of the others in our group, I am positive they have enjoyed themselves as well. Before parting with us for the day, Sonya asks us to close our eyes and simply listen to the sounds around us for 15 seconds.
I hear water gurgling over rocks, mallards bobbing in the water, birds happily chattering away, and the rustle of leaves from tall oak trees all around us.
What a wonderful way to end this adventure.
Adventure location & directions
Mission Trails Regional Park
1 Father Junipero Serra Trail
San Diego, CA 92119
Directions: Mission Trails Regional Park is located south of CA-52, and to the east of CA-125.
From the south, take I-15 and exit on Friars Road East. After 1.2 miles, make a slight left turn to stay on Mission Gorge Road. After passing the Jackson Drive intersection, turn left onto Father Junipero Serra Trail at the large Mission Trails Regional Park sign. The visitor center will be on the left hand side of the road.
From the north, take I-805 to CA-52, and exit on Mast Boulevard. Turn left on Mast Boulevard, then take the first right onto West Hills Parkway. Take the next right onto Mission Gorge Road and continue for 2.4 miles before turning right at the Mission Trails Regional Park sign onto Father Junipero Serra Trail. The visitor center will be on the left hand side of the road.
If you go
Guided hikes at Mission Trails Regional Park are an excellent way for both locals and those new to San Diego to meet new people, connect with the great outdoors and learn about their local wildlife.
Guided hikes are free of charge and are lead by a well trained and passionate group of volunteers. Hikes go every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday mornings at 9:30, as well as other periodic days and times that are listed on their website (listed below), and usually last about one and a half hours.
Most hikes are geared towards a general overview of the ecology in the park; a nice even mixture of plant, wildlife, Kumeyaay, geology, and tracking information. However, there are some hikes offered that have more specific foci, such as “tracking.” For more information on the guided hikes, particularly those with a more focused topic, contact the visitor center or visit their website.
Remember to bring comfortable walking shoes, a bottle of water, a camera (if you have one), and to apply sunscreen. Please check the weather before you embark on a guided hike and dress accordingly.
For more information
Mission Trails Regional Park
For a calendar listing of upcoming walks and their date, time, and focus of the hike, please visit: http://www.mtrp.org/events.asp
San Diego Black-tailed Jackrabbit
California Ground Squirrel
Pacific Kangaroo Rat
Southern Mule Deer
Least Bell’s Vireo
Western Scrub Jay
Great Blue Heron
Rose Clark has earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Anthropology and is an avid outdoorswoman. She has traveled to and conducted research in many countries and worked as an intern at Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
This fall, she will embark on an exciting adventure on the John Muir Trail, backpacking the 211 miles from Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park to Mt. Whitney with her most favorite person, Aaron.
Click here for a map of the adventure location: San Diego, California, United States.