In the spring of 2015, I had the opportunity to spend a week in San Diego to attend a training course. With the course running from 7am to 3pm each day, I found that I had plenty of time afterwards to get out and explore the city a bit. Being that I’m more inclined to be out of the city than in, I decided that I would check out some of the local parks and do some hiking or walking each day after class rather than do the usual tourist sightseeing. Since I knew almost nothing about which parks were the best ones to check out, each day I would just randomly look around Google Maps, and then check out the reviews to see what people thought of a particular park.

As I was actually in La Jolla, a bit north of San Diego, that put me near a couple of the most popular parks in the area, La Jolla Shores Park and Scripps Park, which is known for its vibrant bird and sea lion populations.

On the beach at La Jolla Shores

On the beach at La Jolla Shores

La Jolla Shores was a nice walk along the beach. It was also not very busy, which was good, as I would expect the beach to be quite crowded during the height of summer.

Wharf at the beach

Wharf at the beach

I wandered north for a couple of kilometers until eventually the tide came in and I had to head back. Once back at my car, it was a quick drive over to Scripps Park and La Jolla Cove Beach for another walk along the ocean.

La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove

Further down from the cove, I started to notice the very strong odour of guano and it wasn’t long before I came upon one of the large bird populations hanging out in the park.

Bird colony

Bird colony

It wasn’t a good place to be downwind for long, so after some photos, I quickly retreated and made my way to Point Mencinger to check out the sea lions. I was in luck as there were dozens of them just lying around in the early evening sun.

Sea lions lounging around

Sea lions lounging around

The next day found me making my way over to Mission Trails Regional Park. I was intrigued because this park has a peak named Cowles Mountain which, at 486 meters, is the highest point in San Diego County. Admittedly, 486 meters is more like a bump than a mountain to me but with the promise of a great view of the city, it was worth the hike. Granted, the drive in rush hour traffic on the freeway wasn’t much fun.

The Cowles Mountain Trail was well trod and kind of reminded me of a desert version of the Grouse Grind; lots of people both walking and running up the trail so that I was constantly dodging people going both up and down. I was mostly walking myself but found that I would sprint up once in awhile to get out of crowds. The trail is relatively steep but not very long, coming in at a bit less than 3km to the top where I was rewarded with some great 360 degree views, smog notwithstanding.

South towards downtown San Diego

South towards downtown San Diego

North towards the mountains

North towards the mountains

At this point, I didn’t feel as if I had done much of a hike so after wandering around a bit at the top, I found a trail called Pyles Peak Trail, which I assumed lead over to nearby Pyles Peak. So off I went. Much of the trail was again well trod, although I only saw one other person on my way back down later on. This was a moderate hike with some elevation loss and gain but rewarded me with a view of Cowles Mountain.

Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain

I found a nice spot near the top to take a snack break and just enjoyed the evening sun. The ubiquitous pile of rocks was present at the top of Pyles Peak.

Rock pile

Rock pile

I found at this time, though, that I had forgotten my eyeglasses. As I wear prescription sunglasses, it’s not unusual for me to end up leaving my normal glasses in my car and such was the case when I started back from Pyles Peak. This made for an interesting trip down as twilight descended. I had two choices: keep the sunglasses on and hope to be able to see in the semi-darkness, or take them off and deal with my short-sightedness and risk tripping over something. In the end, I elected to keep them on and more or less ran all the way back down. Being that I’m a trail runner, it wasn’t too bad even in hiking shoes but I sure got some funny looks running down the trail in the dark in my sunglasses.

Closer to my hotel, one afternoon I made my way over to Torrey Pines State Park to hike around the trails there. I later learned that it’s also beside one of the most well-known golf courses in the world, although that fact escaped me when I saw the course while I was hiking there. There are about 11km of trails in the entire park and I was able to hike pretty well the whole length in a couple of hours.

One of the remarkable features of the park are its many wind and water carved dunes which were sometimes surprisingly colourful. They were very much like the hoodoos we see in the Kamloops area.

Some of the dunes

Some of the dunes

The trail twisted its way through grass, dunes, and sand and eventually, I found myself on the beach looking up at the imposing wall above me. Here and there were signs warning people to watch out for falling pieces.

Along the beach

Along the beach

Making my way up from the beach, I could begin to see many of the chasms and small canyons that twist their way through the area. I would imagine much of the coastline of the San Diego area was like this a couple of hundred years ago before being settled.

Canyons and dunes

Canyons and dunes

There were quite a few people on the trail but even so, much of the time I almost felt I had the trail to myself and just listened to the sound of the ocean lapping at the beach. And as I made my way over to some of the tougher sections of the trail, I saw almost no one.

Above a canyon

Above a canyon

As I made my way around, I reached a part of the trail that had a warning sign stating that if one went down, there were about 168 steps to come back up. Challenge accepted! And down I went. Coming up, though, I only counted 166 so I must have missed a couple. This lead me to a nice section where there were many of the Torrey pines from which the park got its name.

A Torrey pine

A Torrey pine

On the last section of trail I hiked, I found myself high above the beach and enjoyed the site of the ocean meeting the land.

Waves lapping at the beach

Waves lapping at the beach

It wasn’t long afterwards that I found myself back at my car and on my way back to the hotel.

In the end, San Diego surprised me. I had not made any plans when I was on my way to the city so I was quite pleasantly surprised to be able to experience some of these wonderful urban parks in one of America’s busiest cities. It’s a reminder that one can always ‘get away’ if they look hard enough without actually leaving the city.

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I am one of the founders of campingcanucks.com. I was lucky enough to grow up in Golden, British Columbia and have been camping, backpacking, and skiing pretty well all my life. I started climbing a few years ago which has opened up even more backcountry and alpine opportunities. These days, I'm a systems administrator by day and a SAR volunteer operating as a ground search team leader, rope rescue member, swiftwater rescue member, and avalanche response team leader with Kamloops Search and Rescue.

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