By George Varga
Mission Trails Regional Park challenges visitors to explore all its heights
On Nov. 7, Rangers at Mission Trails Regional Park kicked off the 5-Peak Challenge. The opening-day event was hosted by San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, San Diego City Councilmember Scott Sherman and La Mesa Councilmember Kristine Alessio. They welcomed a group of hikers who had completed, or were just completing, the challenge by hiking up Kwaay Paay and descending in time for the ceremony at 10 a.m. at the Kwaay Paay Trailhead.
The 5-Peak Challenge was proposed by Ranger Levi Dean to encourage visitors to use more trails besides the very-much-used trail that leads up to the summit of Cowles Mountain, the highest peak in the city of San Diego. The idea is for you to ascend all five peaks within the park. There is no limit on time to complete the five peaks, which include Cowles Mountain (1592 feet), Pyles Peak (1379 feet), North Fortuna (1291 feet), Kwaay Paay (1194 feet), and South Fortuna (1094 feet).
For the kick-off event, there were visitors who had done all five peaks that day, having started close to midnight and finishing in the morning. I met one woman on Saturday who completed her challenge that morning, having hiked up and down Kwaay Paay with her baby, about a year old, strapped to her body on each of the five peaks. Both had a smile on their face at the end.
“The 5-Peak Challenge is a wonderful event for all ages and will assist in reducing traffic on Cowles Mountain by encouraging hikers to venture onto some of the less utilized trails,” said Councilmember Sherman, who also chairs the Mission Trails Regional Park Task Force.
Marty Fink and I are Volunteer Patrol members at MTRP and during the kick-off event for the challenge we were assisting the Park Rangers. We had both personally completed the challenge between Sept. 17 and 29 and are very familiar with all five summits. Each has its own set of difficulties on the hike up, but the views from the summit of each peak is worth every step.
Going up South Fortuna can be really tough if you approach it from the west. You have to go up what has been dubbed by many as “The Stairway to Heaven” but some use another word also beginning with the letter “H.” At one time, I counted the steps and came up with over 225. Once you are at the top of South Fortuna, continue on along the trail to the Saddle and then on to North Fortuna and you can be done with two peaks in one hike. In springtime, the wildflowers are profuse along the trail between South Fortuna and the Saddle, which makes for a colorful hike.
The summit of Cowles Mountain can be reached by starting at Big Rock Park in Santee or from the staging area at Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road –– the latter being shorter, but steeper. If you have the time, continue on to Pyles Peak roughly a mile and a half away. The view from the top of Cowles Mountain is 360 degrees, with a clear view of Cuyamaca Peak to the east. On a clear day in the winter, you can see snow-covered San Jacinto to the north. To the west you can see San Clemente Island, Coronado Islands, and, sometimes, Santa Catalina. To the south, you can see the hills of Baja California. If you come up from Big Rock Park in the spring, you’ll find the fragrance of black sage, Ceanothus, and wildflowers in general, strong and memorable.
In my opinion, the hardest summit to hike is Kwaay Paay. The ascent is steep but fairly short. However, the descent is quite treacherous because of the decomposed granite and steepness of the trail. Trekking poles are highly recommended. Much of the trail up Kwaay Paay is through dense growth of Ceanothus, mixed with black and white sage. Again, spring is the best time for experiencing the flowers along the side of the trail.
On any of the trails, look for hawks soaring above you, hummingbirds flitting about and sipping nectar, listen for the occasional yipping and howling of a coyote, and, if lucky, you may spot a bobcat. Going up to Kwaay Paay I have even spotted an occasional horned lizard, a little critter once common to the area but now becoming a rare sight.
If you take the most direct route for the challenge, as suggested by the rangers, you will cover about 11.5 miles and experience over 6,000 feet of elevation gain. Whether you do all five peaks in one day or conquer one peak a month, be sure to wear sturdy footwear, have adequate water, some snacks, and perhaps trekking poles, which really can make a difference when descending some of the steep, and sometimes slippery, slopes.
As part of the official 5-Peak Challenge, when you reach a summit you are supposed to take a selfie standing next to the summit sign or have someone take a photo of you next to the sign. The rewards for completing the challenge –– besides the satisfaction that comes with it –– are a very eye-catching certificate and a beautiful pin you can wear proudly on a hat, shirt, or some other garment as evidence of your hiking skill. When the challenge is complete, you need to take proof of your accomplishment (the photographs on your cell phone, camera, or printout) to the Visitor Center where you will be awarded your certificate and the pin. Hikers may also email their five individual photos to 5PeakChallenge@mtrp.org and they will be posted on the 5-Peak Challenge webpage. Hikers may also request a certificate.
In addition to the prizes from the Visitor Center, local outdoor retailers, REI, Adventure-16 and Lightspeed Outdoors have generously offered 10 outdoor and hiking gear items as prizes for raffle for the first 100 people who complete the challenge and have photos of themselves at the top of all five peaks. By Wednesday, Nov. 11, 105 people had completed the challenge. The prizes will be presented to the winners at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5 in the Visitor Center Theater.
“We’ve already received a lot of positive feedback about the 5-Peak Challenge from some of our park’s regular guests,” said Jay Wilson, Executive Director of the Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation. “We look forward to this challenge inspiring a new generation of hikers that take advantage of our miles of trails and our excellent year-round climate.”
More information about the 5-Peak Challenge is available online at mtrp.org/five_peaks01.
––George Varga is an experienced hiker and volunteer at the Mission Trails Regional Park.