On A Mission

Hike Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego and See Old Mission Dam

Woman hiking a trail

Feeling dammed up from 2020? Head for Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego to find your flow on a peaceful 3-mile out-and-back trail that features a historic dam, ancient oaks, and new perspectives on California’s largest municipally owned green space.

Park along the Father Junipero Serra Trail Road, just beyond the Kumeyaay Lake Campground and Kwaay Paay Peak trailhead or at the Mission Dam parking lot (limited spaces). Most hikers come to the 7,220-acre open space preserve to tackle one of the five peaks, but the Oak Canyon Trail offers a serene flat trail that meanders along the dry bed of the San Diego River. The trailhead starts at the Old Mission Dam, both a California and San Diego National Historic Landmark. The original structure, still intact, was initially constructed in 1803 by Kumeyaay laborers and Franciscan missionaries to divert water to Mission San Diego de Alcala’s fields, located 5 miles to the southwest. It’s also a truly picturesque setting, with flowing water, resident birdlife, and rolling hills as a backdrop.

Continue on the Oak Canyon Trail, which passes over the stream via an iron bridge and then curves right to follow the dry riverbed. As the trail heads north into the canyon, giant live and scrub oaks, along with the occasional sycamore, live up to the trail namesake and tower over the path throughout your journey.

Woman walking past a large oak tree at Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego

Each arboreal specimen is a prominent sight to see, and they also provide great shady resting spots. There are also opportunities for rock scrambling and bouldering along the way, as the narrow trail often meshes with the dry rocky bed. This is especially the case when you reach the seasonal waterfall after 1 mile—though there is currently no water, the granite boulders still provide an interesting change of terrain (and a climbing playground).

Woman walking over bridge at Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego

Shortly after, you reach a 3-way junction. To the left, you can take a 1.2-mile steep ascent to the North and South Fortuna Summits. To the right is an alternative, roundabout way back to the dam, and straight ahead, the Oak Canyon Trail continues for 0.4 mile to the park’s perimeter. Check out Highway 52 passing over the canyon ahead and continue to a new trail or head back the way you came to complete your journey back to the dam.

To get to the Oak Canyon trailhead and Old Mission Dam lot (or street parking), take the I-15 or I-5 to the CA-52 E and exit Mast Blvd. east. Turn right on West Hills Pkwy. Take the next right for Mission Gorge Rd., which becomes Father Junipero Serra Trail, a paved road that takes you to the trailhead and lot. Dog-friendly!

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