Getting hooked on hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park

PHOTOS by Michele Addington
Reaching the summit of 
Kwaay Paay Peak
Reaching the summit of Kwaay Paay Peak

Feeling an extra spring in your step this season? It’s time to get outside and celebrate our beautiful surroundings while you do something that’s good for you. Hiking checks all the boxes. It’s fun, it’s healthy and, in San Diego, we have so many options. Known far and wide for its diverse topography, San Diego County boasts many hiking trails that lead us along beaches, ridges, canyons, and mountains. Perhaps most notable is the trail system at Mission Trails Regional Park, one the largest urban parks in the entire nation.

Scrambling around in a waterfall bed
Scrambling around in a waterfall bed
Hiking on Oak Canyon Trail
Hiking on Oak Canyon Trail
Lupine’s bloom in many places from late March through May
Lupine’s bloom in many places from late March through May

Located only eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego, Mission Trails Regional Park covers 8,000 acres of mountains, lakes, and valleys. It’s home to nearly 65 miles of trails, two lakes, a stretch of the San Diego River, and the Old Mission Dam—a California State Historical Landmark. The breadth and biodiversity of this open space urban park is so remarkable that some people get hooked on hiking its trails several times a week—or in the case of Michele Addington—practically every day.

Michele, who moved to San Diego with her family as a child in 1982, discovered Mission Trails soon after her arrival. “Even then I loved nature, and Mission Trails was practically in our backyard,” Michele says. Today, she knows every trail like the back of her hand. She has found a way to share her passion by routinely planning and leading small groups of hikers through the Meetup group, East County Singles and Couples Over 45. Meetup is an online platform for people to find opportunities to learn new things, meet people, and pursue passions—like hiking—with others.

“Social Pace is how I refer to the speed of most of my hikes,” Michele says. “This provides the opportunity for the hikers to search for flowers and shrubs and discuss what they are. We talk about their names and how they were used by the Kumeyaay. We just saw a roadrunner this week!”

Michele explains that during this period of COVID-19, people have been eager to connect with each other and her hikes offer them that opportunity. “Health is another reason people start to hike,” Michele says. “They want to lose weight or maintain weight, hiking certainly offers that.”

Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center is a valuable resource for hikers | Roaming Panda Photos / Shutterstock.com
Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center is a valuable resource for hikers | Roaming Panda Photos / Shutterstock.com

Beyond weight loss, the American Hiking Society reports that hiking can reduce the risk of many more health issues including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, anxiety, osteoporosis, and arthritis. Since walking is low impact, hikers derive the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic activity with a minimum of stress, strain, and pounding to the body.

As a co-organizer for the East County Singles and Couples Over 45 group, Michele plans her hikes several weeks in advance. “I always stress safety first. I provide a list of what to bring, which always includes plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat, gloves, snacks, ICE (in case of emergency phone number), a good pair of hiking boots with a change of shoes and socks to leave in the car,” she explains. She also recommends bringing collapsible hiking poles on moderate to difficult hikes as well as a camera and a curiosity about nature. “It’s also smart to have the park ranger’s number in your phone and an extra jug of water in your car. I can’t stress safety enough.” Michele says.

Hike organizer Michele Addington in Mission Trails Regional Park
Hike organizer Michele Addington in Mission Trails Regional Park

Michele cautions hikers to be mindful of the temperature when they’re preparing for a hike. “Mission Trails Regional Park is hot in the summer so hiking during the heat of the day (from 11 am to 3 pm) is never a good idea,” she says. “I prefer to start a hike early in the morning and finish no later than 11 am. I don’t lead hikes in the afternoon and evening because I want the wildlife to have a chance to regain their territory.” Michele stresses to hikers setting off in the heat that they should always carry more water than they think they will need and have the park ranger’s number on their fully charged phones. “A sprained ankle can become a dangerous situation if you’re not properly prepared,” she says.

One more word of caution: When the temperature rises above 80 degrees, watch for snakes on the trails. “If the trail is narrow, hike in the center of the trail and listen for signs of rattlesnakes,” Michele advises. “Do not go off trail and be ready to stop and take a few steps backwards to give the rattler room and time to move.”

Once fully prepared, all you have left to do is have a wonderful time. There is so much to discover and enjoy along the trails and overhead. No matter how often you visit, you are always bound to see something more. “I’ve hiked Mission Trails a thousand times,” Michele says, “and no two hikes have ever been the same.”

We asked Michele to share four of her favorite hikes with us. Choose one, follow her guidelines carefully, and have fun, or sign up to hike with her at meetup.com/East-County-Singles-over-49-having-FUN/.


Visitor Center Loop
This grassland route is a very easy figure-eight trail. Still, it is important to wear hiking shoes and stay on the trail. Tie in a stop at the Visitor Center before or after your hike.
Distance: 2.2 miles
Time: 1 hour
Elevation Gain: 300 feet
Rating: Easy

Oak Canyon/Grasslands
A delightful trail that follows a narrow sycamore- and oak-lined riverbed that fills up after the rain. The trail is narrow, rocky, and sandy. There is little shade. It’s a great beginner’s trail if you take your time and wear good hiking shoes.
Distance: 6.5 miles
Time: 2 hours
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Rating: Easy/moderate

North and South Fortunas Mountains (via Jackson)
Hikers can start from three separate starting points for these peaks and each offers a different experience. These peaks should only be attempted by experienced hikers with a map of the Mission Trails Regional Park.
Distance: 12 miles
Time: 6 to 7 hours
Elevation Gain: 1,400+ ft
Rating: Moderate/Difficult

Kwaay Paay Peak (usually added to Oak Canyon)
This is a fitness/cardio hike with steep hills and descents. The summit provides an excellent view of the lower San Diego River.
Distance: 7+ miles
Time: 4 hours
Elevation Gain: 1,100 ft
Rating: Difficult