The five peaks of Mission Trails: a Dad Bod review
San Diegans with a zest for the outdoors are familiar the “five peaks challenge” for hikers, referring to the five most prominent hilltops in Mission Trails Regional Park. Until recently, I was not.
I’d done Cowles Mountain many times, and Kwaay Paay twice, but even after several years of leading an active life in San Diego I had still never hiked — or heard of — the other peaks.
Sadly, I never got around to participating in the official challenge, which closed in June 2020, but the trails are still there. With a renewed vigor to improve my dad bod physique that had gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to finally make an effort to cross of these five trails earlier this fall.
Hiking all five in a two-week span is a very easy accomplishment, but it was still rewarding. For a serious challenge, there’s always the option to do all five peaks in one day.
Here are my thoughts on the five trails:
Kwaay Paay is definitely my favorite because it’s a short, steady burn. If time is money, then this trail is definitely the best bang for your buck. Critics will say it’s too short of a hike, falsely equating a shorter distance to an easier workout, but there’s a simple solution for that: go faster.
If you try to run up Kwaay Paay in 20 minutes or less, it will absolutely kick your butt. I managed to get up there from the main parking area in just under 21, which was quite an effort for me. I definitely recommend this for anyone in need of a quick, invigorating trail run.
Cowles Mountain is the classic and best-known of the five trails, and its 1,593-foot summit is the highest point within the city of San Diego.
Although it’s the most popular trail and thus too crowded on weekends, I still like it because of the variety of trails and different ways to get to the top. I prefer the “back side,” starting from Big Rock trail or my recent favorite, the Barker Way trailhead.
Cowles is also the only peak where I’ve had a snake encounter.
Pyles Peak is the stupidest. Yes, that’s my take on it because I’m dramatic. Sure, it’s the hardest of the five trails and that counts for something. But you have to go uphill BOTH WAYS??? That’s a no from me, dawg. And speaking of dogs, there are almost no handsome good bois to cheer you up along the way on this trail, unlike Cowles which is well-traveled by friendly doggos.
If you want a good smoke session, Pyles is the way to go, however.
South and North Fortuna peaks are likely the least-traveled of the five, due in part to being a little harder to get to. While they’re not more difficult than the other trails from a technical standpoint, the Fortunas can be challenging as hell depending on which trail you start from — and if you do both in the same outing. They also feel a bit more exotic because they’re certainly more “purposeful” to get to.