Mission Gorge is arguably San Diego’s (city, not county) most spectacular topographical feature, with walls on both sides rising several hundred feet at a nearly 45-degree pitch. From a geological perspective, the gorge was carved out by the “mighty” San Diego River — mighty at least intermittently during Pleistocene times — which managed to keep eroding its way through a rising block of tough igneous rock for millions of years. In today’s rather dry geologic epoch, there’s not as much excavation going on at the bottom of the gorge, but San Diego’s own “old man river” still keeps flowing, mostly lazily, around water-polished granitic rocks and over the roots of gnarled live oaks and rangy sycamores.
There’s a single access-way threading through Mission Gorge today, a paved road/trail called Father Junípero Serra Trail. Originally this route was the main, two-lane Mission Gorge Road connecting Allied Gardens and San Carlos to Santee. By the 1960s and ’70s, the road carried secondary car-and-truck traffic, even after the construction of the four- to six-lane segment of Mission Gorge Road bypassing the gorge. Fast-moving semi trucks and recreational cyclists and hikers didn’t mix well. Finally, in the mid-1990s, automotive traffic was nearly eliminated on Father Junípero Serra Trail, and self-propelled travelers at last felt welcome to use it as a recreational pathway.
The current configuration of Father Junípero Serra Trail features a single, speed-bump-studded, eastbound lane for slow-moving automobiles (open daylight hours) and a wide, separate, parallel path for travelers going either direction by foot, bike, or skates. Dog walking is a popular activity as well.
Plentiful free parking is available at either end of the gorge: at the Old Mission Dam historic site off Mission Gorge Road on Santee’s west side and at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center, just east of the Mission Gorge Road/Jackson Drive intersection.
The gently rising and falling two-mile stretch of paved trail in between offers continual vistas of the dramatically soaring walls of the gorge. In a couple of spots, you can take side paths down to the bottom of the gorge, where the San Diego River slides gently through the cottonwoods and around boulders fallen from the walls of the gorge. Here and there, especially high on the east side, the gorge’s granitic bones form an exoskeleton that attracts technical rock climbers from around the region.
While on the paved pathway, keep and eye out for other travelers — anything from bicyclists zipping around at high speed to kids and pets darting randomly. Also, this being rattlesnake season, use caution when exploring any of the side paths.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Explore Mission Gorge by foot, bike, skates, or even car.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 12 miles
Hiking/biking length: 4 miles round trip