Rancho Mission Canyon Open Space

An easy walk through one of San Diego’s ecologically diverse urban canyons.

Easy to miss is the harlequin bug.
  • Easy to miss is the harlequin bug.

A hike through Rancho Mission Canyon Open Space is an opportunity to experience one of the many urban canyon parks we are fortunate to have access to in San Diego. While staying close to home, one can still marvel at the natural and cultural history unique to our region, as the winding trail is followed through a section of urban canyon just outside of Mission Trails Regional Park. This is part of the over 24,000 acres of open space canyons and parklands managed by the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department’s Open Space Division.

This hike may be done as either a 4-mile out-and-back trail starting at either Rancho Mission Canyon Park or from the other end at Hemingway Drive. If able to carpool with a friend, this trail can become a leisurely 2-mile one-way stroll.

To do the easiest route, park a car at Rancho Mission Canyon Park and drive the other car to Hemingway Drive by heading north on Margerum Avenue, turning right into Mission Gorge Road, right onto Jackson Drive, then right onto Hemingway Drive, and keep bearing right. Park at the end of Hemingway Drive.

Bush monkeyflower is a common chaparral bloom.

Bush monkeyflower is a common chaparral bloom.

From the Hemingway Drive trailhead, proceed on a wide and well-maintained path on the side of a hill perched below homes on the ridge top. Soon forgotten is the proximity to civilization when walking among the abundance of native vegetation found along the way. Larger examples of this are laurel sumac, a member of the cashew family and whose dried flowers were once used as small trees for model railroads, and lemonade berry, the berries of which have a very tart but not unpleasant taste and were used by Native Americans to make a drink similar to lemonade. Be wary, though, both laurel sumac and lemonade berry are closely related to poison oak, and some people may have an allergic reaction. Be sure to notice some of the seasonal wildflowers either around or below the larger plants. One of the most common will be the multicolored bush monkeyflower in either its red, orange, or yellow splendor. Another likely springtime bloomer is the purple-and-yellow blue-eyed grass, which is often found in stunning clusters.

Do not forget to look up to likely spot red-tail hawks and turkey vultures soaring overhead, riding leisurely on thermal updrafts. Closer to the ground may be the sight of a northern harrier gliding along the hillside, looking to make a tasty meal of small mammal or bird. Smaller birds also abound, such as towhees, both the brown California and the more colorful spotted. In addition, while sightings can be rare, keep your ears peeled for the call of the California quail’s “Chi-ca-go chi-ca-go.”

After about 1.25 miles, there is a kiosk where the trail splits. While either direction will return to Rancho Mission Canyon Park and your car, the trail to the right is a direct walk through the park. The trail to the left allows a bit longer stay in the canyon. If the route chosen was one-way with a car at both ends, return to Hemingway Drive to retrieve the car parked there. Otherwise, retrace your route to complete your 4-mile trek.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 12 miles. Allow 20 minutes driving time (San Carlos). From CA-163N, take I-8E then I-15N to Friars Rd. east. Turn left onto Mission Gorge Rd. then turn right onto Margerum Ave. Park at Rancho Mission Canyon Park (GPS N32.806887, W117.065011).

Hiking length: 4 miles out and back.

Difficulty: Easy, with approximately 200 feet of elevation loss/gain.

Hikers, bicyclists, and escorted, leashed dogs allowed on trail. No facilities.

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