The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park
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Hiking The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park

The Mission Trails 5 Peak cChallenge is for hikers and trail runners to visit all 5 peaks within MTRP using established park trails. In this guide I will walk through how I completed the challenge in one day.

Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP) is a 7200 acre recreation area in San Diego County. It’s amazing to think that it’s nearly 60 miles of trails are located just 8 miles away from downtown San Diego. There are five main peaks located within Mission Trails Regional Park, Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak, Kwaay Paay Peak, South Fortuna, and North Fortuna. The vast majority of visitors to MTRP hike to the summit of Cowles Mountain and call it a day, having never taken the time to explore the other sections of the park. To help bring awareness to the expanse of Mission Trails Regional Park, and to distribute trail traffic, the 5 Peak Challenge was created in 2015. The challenge is for hikers and trail runners to visit all 5 peaks within MTRP using established park trails.

In April of 2017, I decided to take on the 5 Peak Challenge, and to complete it in one day! I heard a gentleman at the visitor center say that only 5% of 5 Peak Challenge finishers do it in one day. Now that I have completed the 5 Peak Challenge, I will include my strategy, photos, maps, and planning resources into this 5 Peak Challenge Guide.

The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park


Rules of Participation

  1. To complete the 5 Peak Challenge, use the MTRP trail map to hike on established trails to the five peaks. MTRP includes suggested routes using the color coded trails below. I will include my map, strategy, and logistics later in this post.
    The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park
    Trail Map With Recommended Routes from www.mtrp.org

    The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park

  2. Take a selfie or self portrait at the summit of each of the five peaks. Make sure to get the summit marker or post in each photo.
  3. Email the summit photos to 5-peakchallenge@mtrp.org at the completion of your challenge. Include your full name in the email, to be used on your certificate. After you’ve been notified, stop by the visitor center from 10AM-4PM to collect your certificate and pin.
    *You can also stop by the visitor center on the same day as your challenge for a ‘walk-in’ submission if you’re from out of town like me.*

    The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park
    Completion Certificate

Resources, Maps, and Directions:

Being from out of town, I knew I would need to complete the 5 Peak Challenge in one day. To make this one day challenge as manageable as possible, I started looking at the map to find the shortest route using established park trails. I realized early on, that the best strategy would be to start early with Cowles and Pyles since they can be done together, and because Cowles is the most crowded. From Cowles and Pyles, I drove to the trailhead of Kwaay Paay. From Kwaay Paay, I drove to the East Fortuna Staging Area for South And North Fortuna. I could have avoided driving from trailhead to trailhead with a few miles of road hiking, but wanted to save time and mileage.

In the sections below, I will break down the three hikes I did to cover the five peaks in the 5 Peak Challenge. Here is an aggregate overview of the entire 5 Peak Challenge using my trail connections and strategy.

  • Total Distance: 15.77 miles
  • Total Elevation Gain: 4249 ft
  • Minimum Elevation: 305 ft
  • Maximum Elevation: 1592 ft
  • Time: It took me a little under 6 hours to hike all six peaks from start to finish. This is doable if you’re in peak fitness, otherwise budget much more time, or plan on completing the challenge over multiple days.
  • Difficulty: Moderate (3 out of 5)
  • Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
  • Permit Required: No
  • Season: Year round
  • Trail Condition: The trail is somewhat steep in places, but well maintained, well marked, and easy to follow.
  • Cell Phone Reception: Very good
  • Make sure to hike with the right gear. See my current hiking gear list. 


The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park



Cowles Mountain and Pyles Peak – Peaks 1 and 2

At 1,592ft, Cowles Mountain is the highest peak in the city of San Diego. The hike to the summit of Cowles is possibly the most popular hiking route in all of San Diego County, which makes an early start a requirement for the 5 Peak Challenge. Hiking to the nearby Pyles Peak is far less popular, and the perfect addition to a hike up Cowles.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park

Directions And GPS Tracks:

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Street Parking

Key Points:

  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1854 ft
  • Minimum Elevation: 668 ft
  • Maximum Elevation: 1592 ft
  • Time: 2-4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
  • Permit Required: No
  • Parking: Parking lot at trailhead and street parking for overflow
  • Season: Year Round
  • Trail Condition: The trail is somewhat steep, well maintained, well marked, and easy to follow
  • Cell Phone Reception: Very good

Make sure to hike with the right gear. See my current hiking gear list. 

Hike Map And Elevation Profile:

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional ParkHiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park

Hike Description:

0.0 Miles- As I mentioned in the intro, this is a very popular hike that can get very crowded. Make sure to arrive early. I started this hike at 6:30 AM to make sure I’d have enough time and space to enjoy the trail. There are restrooms located at the trailhead next to the signage for “Cowles Mountain Staging Area”.

The first quarter mile of hiking is very gradual, but the incline quickly increases. Take time to enjoy the blooming wildflowers (seasonal), and don’t forget to look back at the city views that will increase with every step upward.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Trailhead
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Entrance
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
First Steps

The trail for Cowles Mountain is in great condition, but the rainy season can leave sections rutted, and erosion can expose stones that will leave unprotected feet tender. Make sure to wear good trail shoes with grip and protection for this hike. You can check out my guide to finding the perfect trail shoe if you’re in need of a new pair.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Heading Up
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
City Views

0.5 Miles- You’ll have a view with two peaks up ahead. The trails wraps around the first hill to the right and then Cowles will be the higher mountain to the left.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Cowles Ahead
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Rocky Ground

0.9 Miles- You’ll see the junction for the Barker Damn Trail. This is another trailhead start option if you’d prefer to avoid the high traffic found at the Cowles Mountain Staging Area. Keep left at the junction to continue on to Cowles Mountain.

Just after passing the Barker Dam trail junction, you’ll scale a series of switchbacks that will take you to the summit of Cowles Mountain.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Go Left At The Barker Dam Trail Sign
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Switchback Views

1.5 Miles- At 1.5 miles you’ll be standing at the summit of Cowles Mountain. Take a look around, enjoy the views, and then make your way to the north end of the summit towards the antennas.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
A Reference To The View
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Cowles Summit Marker
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Summit Crowds

When you see the antennas and a rock outcrop take a left (west) to pick up the Pyles Peak Trail. You’ll see a small brown sign close to the ground that reads Pyles Peak Trail.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Antennae
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Trail On The Left
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Trail Signage

After hiking uphill to the summit of Cowles Mountain, you’ll have two descents and two ascents before reaching the summit of Pyles Peak. You’ll be able to catch glimpses of Pyles Peak and Kwaay Paay Peak up ahead.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Heading Down The First Descent
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Morning Views

2.3 Miles- You’ll see a sign for “View Point”. This is a short side trail that takes hikers to a viewpoint between Pyles and Cowles. Continue on towards Pyles Peak by continuing straight ahead.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Cowles View Peak
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Almost There

2.6 Miles- You’ll see the final trail sign for Pyles Peak with a view of the summit above.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Trail To The Summit

3.0 Miles- You’re standing on the 1,379ft summit of Pyles Peak. From this point, you can turn around and return to the trailhead on the same path that you arrived with.

Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Pyles Peak
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Summit Views
Hiking Cowles Mountain And Pyles Peak In Mission Trails Regional Park
Cowles Peak

Kwaay Paay Peak – Peak 3

Kwaay Paay Peak is probably the least renowned of the five peaks in Mission Trails Regional Park. At only 2.4 miles roundtrip, it’s a hike that on paper seems rather unremarkable. The experience in person is quite different though, as the 1.2 miles to the peak gains almost 900 feet, and offers amazing views of the nearby South and North Fortuna summits.

Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park

Directions And GPS Tracks:

Key Points:

  • Distance: 2.4
  • Elevation Gain: 867 ft
  • Minimum Elevation: 305 ft
  • Maximum Elevation: 1194 ft
  • Time: 1 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
  • Permit Required: No
  • Parking: Parking lot at trailhead and street parking
  • Season: Year Round
  • Trail Condition: The trail is steep, well maintained, well marked, and easy to follow
  • Cell Phone Reception: Very good

Make sure to hike with the right gear. See my current hiking gear list. 

Hike Map And Elevation Profile:

Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park

Hike Description:

0.0 Miles- Starting on the trailhead leaving from Junipero Serra Trail, walk along the dirt path heading southwest. Just 0.1 miles into the hike, the trail forks, giving hikers two options towards the summit of Kwaay Paay. I suggest keeping right at the junction for a more direct route.

Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
At The Trailhead
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Two Options: Keep Right
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Heading Up

0.25 Miles- You’ll reach the top of your first climb, and get a taste of the views that await you at the summit of Kwaay Paay. After a very brief downhill reprieve, your climbing will begin again in earnest.

Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
MTRP Views
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Steep And Rutted
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Summit Comes Into View

0.8 Miles- You reach the steepest part of this hike. There are a few sections that are loose with gravel filled ruts. Make sure to be mindful of your footing here, especially on your way back down.

Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Up and Up
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Almost There
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Getting Close

1.2 Miles- Kwaay Paay Peak! Take in the view of Cowles Mountain and Pyles Peak to the southeast, and views of North and South Fortuna to the northwest.

Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
At The Summit
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Fortunas
Hiking Kwaay Paay Peak Mission Trail Regional Park
Looking Back

South Fortuna and North Fortuna – Peaks 4 and 5

Having hiked to the summits of all five peaks within Mission Trails Regional Parks, the hike to South and North Fortuna from the Fortuna Staging Area was easily my favorite. This hike offers solitude, a trail that parallels running water (seasonal), and the chance to bag two peaks in quick succession for a grand finale to the 5 Peak Challenge!

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park

Directions And GPS Tracks:

  • To hike South Fortuna and North Fortuna Mountains, you’ll head to the East Fortuna Equestrian Staging Area. Drive to Equestrian Cir, Santee, CA 92071. There is parking in a dirt lot right near the trailhead of the Spring Canyon Trail.
  • Download GPX
  • See my track on Strava
  • To begin this hike, you can start out on the Spring Canyon Trail or the North Perimeter Trail. You’ll see both heading west in the aerial image below. For this hike writeup, I started with the Spring Canyon Trail and returned via the North Perimeter Trail.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park

Key Points:

  • Distance: 7.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1354 ft
  • Minimum Elevation: 305 ft
  • Maximum Elevation: 1291 ft
  • Time: 3-4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
  • Permit Required: No
  • Parking: Parking lot at trailhead
  • Season: Year Round
  • Trail Condition: The is very steep in places, but well maintained, well marked, and easy to follow. There is a section of this hike that can be along water depending on the season.
  • Cell Phone Reception: Very good

Hike Map And Elevation Profile:

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park

Hike Description:

0.0 Miles- Start out on the Spring Canyon Trail located at the north end of the East Fortuna Staging Area.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Spring Canyon Trailhead
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Getting Started

There are two spots in the early stages of this trail that can be covered with water in the rainy season. There are rocks to help hikers get from one side to the other.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Hop Over

0.4 Miles- As the Spring Canyon Trail heads southeast, it intersects with the Grasslands Loop(Crossing) Trail and the North Perimeter Loop Trail. Both of these trails will take you east and eventually where you need to go. For this hike, I stayed on the Grasslands Loop Trail.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Grasslands Loop Sign
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
North Fortuna Perimeter Sign

0.8 Miles- The Grasslands Loop Trail will run along a wooden fence. Follow the trail along the fence, due south.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Grasslands Loop
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Around The Fence
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Fire Signage

1.0 Miles- Leave the Grasslands Loop behind for the Oak Canyon Trail. This is an easy junction to miss, so keep your eyes open!

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Oak Canyon Junction
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Oak Canyon Trail

Oak Canyon Trail runs along a shaded creek for 0.2 miles before venturing out into a little more exposure.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Creekside
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
By The Water

1.3 Miles- The creek takes a turn as the trail heads east, and swells with more water than before. You’ll get to cross over a few bridges here. Make sure to take a little extra caution with your footwork on this stretch of the hike as the rocky trail can be loose in areas.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Along The Water
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Bridge One
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Bridge Two

1.6 Miles- The Oak Canyon Trail intersects the Fortuna Saddle Trail. Head east on the Fortuna Saddle Trail.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Hard To See Fortuna Saddle Trail Sign
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Easier To See This One

Once you’re on the Fortuna Saddle Trail, things start get steep. You’ll gain 500ft of elevation in the next 0.6 miles. I saw one lady fall heading downhill on this section, so make sure to keep your feet firmly planted beneath you.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Steep And Steady

2.2 Miles- Once you reach the Fortuna Saddle, you can decide if you want to bag South Fortuna or North Fortuna first. I like to finish with the highest peak last, so I took a left at the saddle to summit South Fortuna first.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
At The Saddle
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Towards South Fortuna
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Almost There

2.8 Miles- The 1094ft summit of South Fortuna was empty on this day, as it is not a popular destination in the Mission Trails Regional Park. All the more reason to enjoy this one and all the solitude it provides.

Once you’ve spent enough time at the summit, make your way back down to the saddle to summit North Fortuna.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
South Fortuna Summit
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Summit Views

3.4 Miles- Once you’ve made it back to the saddle, head up the trail to North Fortuna. I came upon a rattle snake on this outing. Make sure to keep your eyes open for rattlers all throughout Mission Trail Regional Park.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
North Fortuna Trail
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Heading Up
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Rattle Snake

4.0 Miles- There is a false summit just before reaching the actual summit of North Fortuna. You’ll know you’ve reached the top at 1291ft when you see the summit register and summit post sign.

Once you’ve enjoyed the views and taken some time to rest your legs, you can return the way your arrived via the Fortuna Saddle Trail.

Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Summit Ahead
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Summit Sign
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
Summit Register
Hiking South Fortuna and North Fortuna 5 Peak Challenge Mission Trail Regional Park
North Fortuna Views

14 comments on “Hiking The 5 Peak Challenge Of Mission Trails Regional Park

  1. Mike Hohmann

    Bravo, Drew! A job well done on the 5 Peak Challenge.

  2. Well done, Drew! Looks like a great set it trails, and your photography is outstanding as usual. Your level of fitness always amazes me. I wish I could hike that fast!!!

  3. Charity Whan

    So helpful! We’re tackling it this weekend and I’m so happy I found this!

  4. Sounds like you’re ready to do the 6 Peak Challenge! Some of us have added El Cajon Peak to the mix for a one day epic hike. If you do El Cajon Peak last (like most do), be sure and park outside the designated parking area because the gate is locked at 6pm (varies by season). ECP will add another 4-6 hours to your day hike and give your legs a real burn after the warmup on the other five peaks. Take lots of water because there is no shade on ECP. Enjoy!

    • I didn’t know there was a 6 peak challenge! Thanks for the tip on El Cajon Peak. That looks like it would be the ultimate way to cap off the MTRP challenge.

      • Um, El Cajon Peak adds 12 miles and almost 4000′ elevation to this. That would end up being a 27 mile day with about 8000′ elevation. Whoa!

      • That’s a monster day. I’m going to try it when the weather gets a little cooler here in SoCal. I’m hoping for a 60 degree day soon.

  5. Brett baldizon

    Nice job, thanks for all the great advice and tips my wife and I will try it next mth

  6. Thank you for your information, a group of hopefully 20 or more will be doing this 5 Peak Challenge on January 27, 2018. Can’t wait!!!!

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