Oak Canyon

The Trail and the Plants

It’s right here in the middle of San Diego, Oak Canyon with 3 waterfalls gracing its seasonal stream. This area is dear to me as Mission Trails is where I fell in love with native plants and the trails they line.

Mission Trails Regional Park is a jewel in San Diego’s amazing collection of public spaces and its right in the middle of a vibrant urban area. There are five peaks with the tallest Cowle’s Mountain maintaining the most popular trail in the county. But on the northern far side of the park at the base of Fortuna Mountain is Oak Canyon, a seasonal waterway. I remember my first hike into the area, from the Mast parking area. I took the trail leading in to a low crest that overlooked a grassy valley. I was already feeling the unique pastoral quality of the area. Here I was just off a busy freeway and now open vistas were all around, what an unexpected change.

Dropping off this crest I turned right and climbed a curving roadway, an old access road for some power lines crossing the area. At the top of this grade, which provides great heart pumping exercise, I turned left at a crossroads. Off to the right I noticed 2 hikers climbing a trail in the distance. I did not know where any of these trails went at the time. Going left brought me into Oak Canyon for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised to find a small stream flowing.   I went to the left and found 2 waterfalls accenting the Sycamore lined stream and a little rock hopping got me across the stream when needed. Exiting the stream I came back to the grassy valley and headed back to my car.

I was immediately hooked on the area; I would definitely be coming back. In a following trip I took the trail the earlier 2 hikers had taken and found a third waterfall and perhaps an even more interesting section of Oak Canyon. It wasn’t long before I found another way to enter the park, the Grasslands Crossing on old Mission Gorge Road. And I have entered here many, many times.

The Grasslands Crossing is about 1/3 of a mile from the old Mission Dam. This trailhead crosses the San Diego River over a cement causeway lined with Cottonwood, Willow and Sycamore. Just after the causeway look to the left for the gray leafed Salt Heliotrope with its curled white flower spikes. Emerging from the riparian area is a grassy valley, the Grasslands. At the corner of the Grasslands a trail comes in from the left, this will be our return track. Go straight to the next junction and go left and then quickly right again. At this junction there are numerous Menzies Goldenbush lining the trail. This long, summer blooming shrub will have green to gray foliage and bright yellow terminal flowers. On the left are some interesting patches of Purple Needlegrass, the native grass that once covered this valley

At the end of this short track turn left and climb the rise ahead. I enjoy this part, after warming up coming across the Grasslands I now hike this rise quickly bringing a good cardiovascular workout. But on the left maybe slow and look for Red Skin Onion and Blue Dicks, two native bulbs. There are more Red Skin Onions on the right as you descend this moderate rise in the trail. Also on the right are scattered plants of California Buckwheat and near the bottom Broom Baccharis with its narrow broom-like leaves. This is another good cardio climb as you rise to look over the Grasslands.

At the bottom turn right and follow the curving access road up by the power lines. On the right side more bulbs attract our attention. Pale lavender Splendid Mariposa Lily and the tall slender stems of Small-flowered Soap Plant join the numerous Blue Dicks. The gray leaves of White Sage make the chaparral sparkle here.

At the top of the grade there is a nice section of chaparral, walk into it and enjoy the Black Sage, White-flowering Currant, Chamise, California Four O’clock, white Fiesta Flower and climbing in a Laurel Sumac as you get back on the trail is brilliant magenta San Diego Pea.

Now back on the trail you descend into drainage. Look to the right for Shooting Stars on the top edge of the embankment. Up ahead is a junction with an old service road with a smaller trail splitting off uphill to the left, take this trail. Here’s another short cardio climb. On the right is a hillside clothed in Deerweed with its small but numerous bright yellow flowers. The drought has taken a toll on this perennial subshrub. In fact I had been thinking that nearly all had perished but good rains did bring many back to life.

As you climb to the top of this rise look to the left for Owl’s Clover and another native bulb, the deep yellow globes of Golden Star. Near the top on the left there is a very curious, very small plant, California Adder’s Tongue. Only a few inches tall and often with a single leaf the narrow tongue like flower stem surprises those who look closely.

At the top a good view of the tall Hwy 52 bridge comes into view and oddly there are many colorful annuals found here. In a good year the ground becomes noticeably wet as a spring comes close to the surface. On the right look for 2 kinds of Popcorn Flower, one prostrate and one upright, an occasional Golden Pentacheata and the finely dissected leaves of Woolly Lomatium. And again on the left note that nearly the whole hillside is Chamise.

The trail meets another old access road junction and drops steeply to the left. On the right look for Eastwood Manzanita, there are only a few plants here but the top north side of Fortuna Mountain up head is thickly covered with it. At the bottom of this grade is the seasonal Oak Canyon stream and this is where the fun really begins.

Turn left onto the Oak Canyon Trail. Quickly on the left is climbing Ropevine Clematis with white flowers and on the right is purple flowered Parish’s Nightshade and orange-red blossomed California Fuchsia. During the wet season the joyful play of water chimes in with Oak Canyon Creek flowing happily on the right and near the stream look for the tall stems of Narrow Leaf Milkweed with its crowning clusters of white flowers. Also with luck there will be the brilliant magenta pink blooms of Canchalagua popping up amongst the grasses.

Soon after this flush of plants the sound of water crashing increases. We are near the upper waterfall, 1 of 3 on this stream. The water has cut a channel through a brilliantly colored section of rock and then cascades and jumps to a pool below. This is great stuff, right here in the middle of a large urban area. One has to stop and enjoy this spot.

When you head back over to the trail pause a minute when you reach it. Just as the trail steps up on to a rock shelf are 5 morteros, the rock grinding areas of the Native Americans. Imagine the sound of the pestle crushing seeds and acorns with children playing and the gossip and laughter of the ancient women as they work.

Right next to the grinding holes on the left is a boulder with Violet Snapdragon growing from a crevice. I have watched this plant for many years; even after years of drought it comes back every year. Also in nearby crevices is the felty gray leaf of Newberry’s Lip Fern. Continuing on the trail drops sharply along the rocky cliff side. Look for two more ferns, first on the right is Bird’s-Foot Fern and then on the left near the bottom is Chocolate Fern.

When you reach the stream cross over to the other side. Right there is several 4’ California Bricklebush. It’s wonderful walking next to the stream. Cross back over fairly soon even though there is a use trail also on this side. The trail is lined with Laurel Sumac, Toyon, and Spiny Redberry and ahead is a small meadow area. A wooden bridge allows an easy cross over to the other side. There is a grove of California Sycamore and on the left Woolly-Leaf Wild Lilac. Just past the Wild Lilac is another grove of Sycamore and just as the trail crosses through, on the right, is White-Flowering Currant.

The trail opens up and reaches a crossing where a very steep access road heads off right to the top of Fortuna Pass, continue off to the left (staying on this side of the stream). Right ahead is a large Small-Leaf Clematis and when the seedpods are present its quite a show. There is another bridge to cross with Willows lining the far side. And just past this a large specimen of San Diego Mountain Mahogany comes up on the left. After flowering in early spring long feather like spikes form which last into fall. There is one more bridge and then the middle waterfall roars in on the right.

The second falls is not quite as stunning as the upper but its still such a gift to San Diego. The trail drops again fairly steeply and crosses the stream on another bridge. There is a rare native bulb here, Orcutt’s Brodiaea. This bulb grows only in wet stream areas, vernal pools and wet meadows. And I think they may have placed this fairly new bridge right on top of one small colony, but there are more lining the edge of the stream and in rock crevices in the middle of the stream.

The next stretch has some really great annuals, Chinese Houses, Purple Clarkia, Canyon Clarkia (white), Parry’s Larkspur and Parry’s Phacelia (blue and purple) and white California Saxifrage. Take your time here and enjoy the beauty, most will be on the right.

The trail makes a short climb up rocky steps and on the right look for two similar looking plants, Meadow Rue and Maiden Hair Fern. The leaves are similar but Meadow Rue sends up a tall flowering stem. You drop back down and the sound of the lower waterfall starts to increase. You again climb and a few Weed’s Mariposa Lilies greet you in summer.   In spring the ground will be golden with annual Goldfields. There is a sloping rock plateau next to the falls, enjoy this it’s a good one. There are few grinding basins, morteros here as well. (The picture at the beginning of the story is the lower falls.)

As you leave look adjacent to the rock plateau for a native fern, California Polypody. At the bottom of the plateau just as the trail turns right is a fine specimen of Holly-Leaf Cherry. The trail drops along the stream and heads for another bridge crossing. Just before this crossing is a venerable Live Oak leaning on a large limb. There is another like this just pat the bridge on your right. These trees are ancient; they must be 100+ years old.

By the second old Oak you are now out of Oak Canyon, turn left at the trail junction and head back to the Grasslands. There is a quick jog right and a slight climb, look here for more Shooting Stars. Back on the Grasslands we head towards the Old Mission Dam. On the right, in late summer is Slender Tarweed standing in the dry grass. You pass a trail junction that leads over to the Dam and a viewpoint is on the right. As you continue left there is Ground Pink on the right, a ground hugging spring annual.

Were headed home now but stop and check out the grinding basin rock on your left, there is a sign. The Native women probably built a shade Ramada over this during summer. The trail makes a slight drop to the right look on the left for Vinegar Weed a summer blooming annual.

This will always be my favorite Loop hike, it’s where I started my Plant Trail adventures and it always draws me back.