The Mission Trails Visitor Center Loop Trail includes a great visitor and interpretive center with both audio and visual displays that help you understand the resources of this over 7,000-acre park. Mission Trails Regional Park purports to be one of the nation’s largest urban natural parks. The loop trail is great for trail runners, mountain bikers, and dog owners.
The hike begins at the parking entrance to the visitor center off Junipero Serra Trail. The trailhead is signed “Visitor Center Loop.” The loop trail ends on the other side of the drive entrance. Begin walking north. The large peak straight ahead is South Fortuna Mountain. As you approach the San Diego River, cottonwoods will come into view. At 0.3 mile there is a turnoff to the Grinding Rocks Trail which leads to the Riverside Grinding Site where bedrock morteros may be seen. It was here that early-day Kumeyaay would grind their collected seeds and acorns to prepare them for meals. Take this short jaunt if you want to see this grinding area and then return to the junction to continue the loop.
The trail begins to follow the river. At about 0.9 mile, you approach the San Diego River Crossing from which you can go right towards the Fortunas. Go left and head right up the hill passing a small stream to your right. The loop continues past the Jackson Staging Area. As the route parallels Mission Gorge, the quiet is interrupted with the sounds of street traffic and soon the parking area comes into view.
Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about plants, wildlife, history, and geology of the area can be found at Mission Trails Regional Park.
Make note of several common chaparral plants at the beginning of the loop including laurel sumac, California buckwheat, and chaparral candle. You'll see huge rises of ancient granite above the stream bed where cattails are visible. The green material floating in the pond eddies is a freshwater green alga known as pond scum or pond-moss (Spirogyra spp.), although it is not really a moss. This alga is photosynthetic—a charophyte that typically forms greenish mats on the water’s surface, especially during dryer months when water is stagnant.
As the trail begins to follow the river, more riparian plants become visible including mule-fat, western sycamores, arroyo willows, and rushes (Juncus spp.) used by the Kumeyaay for making collection baskets. Watch out for western poison-oak near the trail.
One of the amazing things about this loop is how quickly one can leave the noise of a major street and step into a natural environment. While enjoying the quiet, think about how that lack of urban noise is much more fundamental for many of the animals calling the chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and riparian woodland ecosystems home. Noise pollution is a concern, and here we can appreciate a taste of a world without it.
From CA-52 go east on Mast Boulevard for 0.2 mile. Turn right on West Hills Parkway. Go 0.7 mile. Turn right on Mission Gorge Road. Go 2.4 miles. Turn right on Father Junipero Serra Trail at a large wooden sign for Mission Trails Regional Park. Continue a short distance following the signs to the visitor center parking lot. From I-8 go north on Mission Gorge Road for 4.2 miles. Turn left on Father Junipero Serra Trail at a large wooden sign for Mission Trails Regional Park. Continue a short distance following the signs to the visitor center parking lot. Trailhead GPS: N32.81956, W117.05592
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book, Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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