Kumeyaay Lake Campground is part of the 5,700-acre Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP), owned and operated by the City of San Diego. Until the early 1970s, the lake was part of a sand and gravel mining operation. The H.G. Fenton Material Company’s Monarch Plant produced concrete, plaster, and gunite sand. After the lake was mined out, it was turned into a camping and fishing facility called Hollins Lake Fish Farm and Lake Recreational Facility, named for Mary Hollins, who was instrumental in creating a facility where seniors could fish. The rehabilitated-habitat area was planted with riparian vegetation, especially willow. The willows along the streams and lakeshore grew into thickets attracting the federally endangered least Bell’s vireo.
The facility was closed in 1985, and the area north of the lake became a least Bell’s vireo mitigation site for the California Department of Transportation SR-52 freeway project. Today, the lake can no longer be circumnavigated because the north side of the lake is closed off by locked gates to protect nesting areas of the federally endangered bird. Listen for their call that is an angry, fast-sounding “don’t-you-tell-me-what-to-do.”
Now renamed Kumeyaay Lake, the lush vegetation has created a first-class botanical and wildlife habitat with both riparian and chaparral plants. In December 2000, MTRP opened the campground with 46 primitive sites for tent camping and recreational vehicles. Unfortunately with budget cuts, the campground is now limited to day-use only.
From the parking area, walk north toward the lakeshore, past restrooms and picnic areas, where short paths lead either left or right. Interpretive signs here depict many of the bird varieties that can be found around the lake area, including the California blue-gray gnatcatcher, the common raven, the wrentit, California quail, the great blue heron, the great egret, mallard, American coot, great horned owl, Anna’s hummingbird, western scrub jay, red-winged black bird, black phoebe, California towhee, acorn woodpeckers, and the least Bell’s vireo. Also watch for birds of prey, including the osprey, white-tailed kite, American kestrel, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and the red-tailed hawk. The sounds of birds and running water are joined in the late afternoon with the sounds of crickets and bullfrogs. Waterfowl glide across the lake surface, making hypnotic kinetic ripples.
The trail to the left (or west) crosses over a cement bridge that allows water from the San Diego River to flow into the lake. Just beyond are a small amphitheater and a replica of a Kumeyaay ‘ewaa, a hut made from the branches of willows. Slightly further is the locked gate, beyond which there is no entry. However, just to the south of the gate is a 0.1 mile shaded trail that leads to a view from the center of the lake. Shade trees around the lake include cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, and mule fat. From this point, retrace your steps back to the interpretive signs, which completes one mile. For a second mile, explore the route to the right (or east) until you reach the second locked gate on the north side of the lake.
Plants that may be in bloom include the yellow Hooker’s evening primrose, the pink California wild rose, whitish-pink California buckwheat, a golden prickly pear, the white blooming yerba mansa (or lizard tail), yellow dandelions and mustard, and pink thistles. Also look for curly dock, white-blooming ceanothus and jimsonweed, horehound, and tree tobacco.
Signs around the lake indicate sensitive habitat. Bicycles are allowed only on paved roads and not on the paths around the lake. Fishing is allowed as well as dogs on leashes.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 15 miles. Drive time, 25 minutes. Take SR-163 north to I-8 and head east. From I-8, take I-15 north and exit on Friars Road, heading east. Turn left (or north) on Mission Gorge and drive 5.4 miles. Take a sharp left on Father Junípero Serra Trail. The entrance to Kumeyaay Lake Campground is 0.2 mile on the right, at Bushy Hill Drive. Parking for day-use is on the right. Open all year, sunrise to sunset — day use only. Facilities.
Hiking length: up to 2 miles. Out and back, 1 mile for each side of the lake. Allow at least 1 hour.
Difficulty: Easy, flat trail with shade and occasional benches.
Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes: