Streamside hike with seasonal waterfalls and wildflowers—best in spring but good year round.


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Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the most extensive open spaces in San Diego.

Its 7,220 acres of public parklands encompass mountains, bouldery hills, cliffs, canyons, and part of the San Diego River.

It has trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, as well a campground and a small lake, making a wide variety of activities possible. One of the best trails for a rewarding hike is Oak Canyon, where you’ll find one of the finest remaining examples of Southern California’s native ecosystem that’s become increasingly rare around urbanized San Diego.

You’ll enjoy the shade of tall trees by a creek, seasonal waterfalls, spring wildflowers along the trail, sunny clearings in grassland meadows, and boulder-studded hillsides all around. The trail starts near Old Mission Dam, an impoundment on the San Diego River that was built more than 200 years ago and still stands, making a calm pond and small waterfall.

Oak Canyon Trail continues past the dam and across a footbridge over the river.

The canyon is a tributary of the San Diego River, and it flows with water during wet seasons.

The trail lies beside the creek, beginning in a fairly open valley.

It soon enters a narrower canyon with more trees, bigger boulders, and a steeper grade.

When the creek is flowing, you’ll witness several small waterfalls rushing over polished rock tiers of the streambed. As you continue upstream through the canyon, the path becomes narrower and the brush thicker, giving the impression of a truly wild landscape.

This secluded corner of the park is where you have the best chance at spotting wildlife, and where you’ll find the tallest waterfalls when the creek is flowing. Oak Canyon Trail ends at a junction with Perimeter Trail, beneath the Highway 52 bridge.

The mapped route is an out-and-back, staying on the hiker-only Oak Canyon Trail.

If you’d rather not backtrack, you can make a loop with Perimeter Trail or any of the other multi-use trails (bikes and horses allowed) that connect to Oak Canyon. Sources: