By FRED KRAMER
While I have always appreciated the beauty and value of Mission Trails overall, I didn’t give much thought to the gorge. I passed through many times, and it was familiar, maybe even a little mundane. However, a few years ago in trail guide training, Pat Abbott, discussing the geology of the park, stated we have “national park-quality cliffs” in Mission Trails. That motivated me to take a fresh look. Yes. The gorge does have magnificent cliffs — maybe not as extensive as in some national parks, but very inspiring, nonetheless.
You have good views of the cliffs along Father Junípero Serra Trail from the “Mountains in Motion” interpretive panel to the “Wingin’ It” panel. Pause and sit on a bench. Looking east you see the rock formations on the side of Kwaay Paay, where climbers can often be seen and heard. Across the gorge are the cliffs on the side of South Fortuna. The rock colors and textures and the ever-changing shadows playing across them create a delightful visual display. Their tall, vertical faces seem solid and timeless, giving a reassuring feeling of constancy in an otherwise fast-changing world.
Our appreciation of these 118-million-year-old plutonic formations is enhanced by knowing their geologic history: magma from the subducting Farallon tectonic plate cooling slowly one mile under the surface and being exposed today by eons of erosion and uplift. Quite a journey, but one not finished. Their enduring appearance belies the fact that the forces of destruction are still at work. In geologic time, these cliffs will erode to sediments carried to the ocean, playing their part in the never-ending rock cycle.
The cliffs are not the only pleasing feature of the gorge. The San Diego River flows at the bottom, creating a riparian habitat. The soothing sound of rushing water can be heard if you listen carefully. Water-loving trees like Fremont cottonwoods, willows, and western sycamores create a lush landscape of green during much of the year. The evergreen coast live oaks up the bank create a darker green band along the river course. Leaves rustling in the wind produce a pleasing harmony with occasional bird songs or woodpeckers tapping away.
Mule deer are often sighted in the gorge. In fall the yellow leaves on cottonwoods accent the scene and portend a new season. In winter the bare trees stand like sculptures, awaiting renewal in spring. The winter rains awaken not only the trees, but also bring forth an amazing display of wildflowers along FJST.
Next time you are in the gorge, slow down and appreciate this beautiful and inspiring place in Mission Trails.
— Fred Kramer is a trail guide at Mission trails Regional Park.