Sunday, February 7, 2021

Mission Trails 5-Peak Challenge

The hubby and I tackled the Mission Trails 5-Peak Challenge last Sunday (sorry for the delay, but I'm out of the house from 8:45am-7:15pm during the week, so when I get home I don't really have the time/energy to get on the computer). 

In 2015, to help bring awareness to the expansiveness of Mission Trails Regional Park (a 7,200 acre recreational area in San Diego County with almost 60 miles of trails!), two of the park's rangers created the 5-Peak Challenge. The goal was to challenge hikers and trail runners to visit all five of the main peaks within the park (instead of simply focusing on the ever popular Cowles Mountain). There's no time limit to finish the challenge, but we figured, why not try to tackle it all in one day?! [Side note: The official challenge closed mid-2020 once they processed their 15,000th participant, but even if we weren't going to be included on some list or rewarded a paper certificate and logo pin, we still wanted to ROCK it!]


We originally learned about the challenge when we were exploring the MTRP on a trail run last year before needing to make a stop at IKEA (back when we were renovating our condo). When we stopped in the visitor center we saw some maps that mentioned the challenge and it peaked our interest. We hadn't really thought more about it since then, but at the beginning of 2021 I made a mini "bucket list" of things I wanted to do this year and put the 5-Peak Challenge on there.


If you follow me on social (or scroll through my Workout Recaps), you may know I've been taking a running hiatus for the past MONTH... Yep, I made a "rookie" mistake (even though I've technically been running since 2012) and ramped up too fast, injured myself and had to take some time off (December was my highest mileage month and I paid the price in the form of an angry Achilles). I'm STOKED to report the Achilles feels better and the lump seems to have disappeared, so I thought it might be the perfect time to try and tackle the challenge since we didn't have anything on the calendar (figuring I could hike without much, if any, issues and might be able to throw in a little jogging if the body felt up to it {honestly, even though I had been biking for the month I took off of pounding the pavement, I wasn't sure if I'd lost all of my endurance}).

The game plan was to leave the house by 6am on Sunday morning, getting down to MTRP by 7am. The weather looked like it was going to be perfect (overcast and in the 50s and 60s), so we grabbed our gear and jumped into the car.

Sorry for the blur... my camera is pretty crappy in the dark and I didn't want to press my luck to ask the hubby for a second ;)

Side note: I'm DEFINITELY a morning person and the hubby's ABSOLUTELY not... I'd much rather wake up early and he'd totally prefer to stay up late. With that said, I wanted to leave even earlier, but we compromised to get us down to the trails shortly after sunrise. He thought we'd be some of the first people there... SPOILER ALERT: WE WERE NOT!

Sunrise through the windshield

I know most folks love sunsets, but there is something about sunrises that always make me smile!

Before tackling the challenge, I did a little research (I definitely could've done more, but the plan came together last minute so I hadn't done a ton of digging... but I did find a blog recap of someone who did the five peaks in a single day so used his post as a loose outline for what we would do as well since it seemed to work a-okay for him). We decided we would do Cowles Mountain and Pyles Peak first, Kwaay Paay Peak next and finish with North and South Fortuna Mountains. Technically you can link more of the peaks together, but we decided to drive in between them to limit the amount of distance (and elevation) we would need to cover, as well as cut down on the amount of time it'd take (since the pup was home by himself and would probably appreciate not being closed up in the house for too long without a potty break). 

Like I alluded to earlier, we arrived at the parking for Cowles Mountain (and would then continue on from the summit to Pyles Peak) shortly before 7am. The parking lot was already full and there were tons of cars on both sides of the street as well (something to keep in mind if you are planning to do these hikes). We were able to snag a spot not too terribly far from the lot, threw on our accoutrements and made our way towards the trail. There was an open restroom located at the trailhead (we weren't sure if it'd be open due to COVID), which was greatly appreciated. After a quick restroom stop it was time to kickoff the challenge (well, technically I had started my watch when we left the car, but you know what I mean ;)). 

I'm never really sure about trail ratings... but "difficult" makes me a little nervous ;)

The guy who's post we were using as a reference mentioned that the Cowles/ Pyles trails were the busiest, which is why he started with them (because the trails continue to get more crowded throughout the day when more people are out and about). {Again, something to keep in mind if you ever tackle these trails... start early or plan for crowds!} Neither the hubby nor I had been to these peaks before, so we weren't sure what we'd run into, but there were more people out than we had expected (although it did seem like most were wearing masks and giving others their 6 feet of social distance). 

The weather app called for cloudy skies, but the sun was trying to poke its beautiful head through!

We decided we'd hike the uphills and jog the downhills (that is, if it wasn't too steep/ too crowded/ my body felt like it could handle running). We packed our trekking poles but left them in the trunk the entire day. Thinking back on it, the hubby thinks he would have preferred to bust them out on the steeper hikes to help with the impact, but hindsight is 20/20.

Some of the terrain so you know what we were working with...

I can see why the Cowles Mountain hike is one of the most popular trails in the city. The summit is the highest point in San Diego (1,593 feet) and on a clear day you can see all the way from Mexico to Orange County! The views are gorgeous! 

Just a small portion of the gorgeous views

We made it to the summit without any issues (originally we were wearing our jackets because the weather app said it was in the 40s, but once we started moving we quickly warmed up and stuffed our jackets in our hydration vests). There were a couple groups taking photos, so we waited our turn, snapped a quick pic and then continued on to Pyles Peak

I appreciate when signs tell you what you are looking at. The hubby and I are always
trying to figure it out (and doing a lot of guessing), so signs like this are our jam!

Made it to summit #1!

Although the views may have been a bit better on the way up to Cowles summit, I much preferred the trail to Pyles because there were only a handful of folks out there. I loved the peacefulness (I know, I know, I'm spoiled... but it's much harder for me to enjoy Mother Nature when there are big groups of people yelling or playing music through speakers).

Yep, another "difficult" trail to tackle ;)

This sign was at the summit of Cowles, but even at 8am it wasn't being obeyed...

We only saw a handful of people on the way up. The trail was less rocky as well, which meant we were able to do a little jogging. I was worried how the Achilles would feel, but thankfully I didn't notice any tightness or pain (I was wearing my PRO Compression socks, had rubbed CBD ointment on it before we started and took FOUR WEEKS off at that point).

Looking back at Cowles Mountain from Pyles Peak

Made it to summit #2!

There wasn't anyone on the top of Pyles Peak when we got there, so we took a quick photo a skedaddled. Since it's an out-and-back, we knew Cowles Mountain Trail would be even busier and wanted to pick up speed whenever we could... while, at the same time, being cautious since we knew we were going to be getting in upwards of 16 miles with a decent amount of elevation gain, so didn't necessarily want to "drop the hammer" at the beginning of the day and pay for it later.

The views of San Diego County do not disappoint!

Hubby on the hike back down

FYI - In case you were curious, we were trying to fuel every hour or so. The blog post we were using as a rough estimate mentioned it took him about six hours, so we brought enough fuel for that. I use PROBAR BOLT Chews (the Pink Lemonade is my JAM), along with water in my hydration vest bladder and nuun in my front flasks for extra electrolytes. 

Yum, yum, yum!

As expected, the crowds were thicker and the rocky terrain meant we had to take some of the parts a little slower, but overall we were pleased with our "time". (Again, obviously we weren't doing this to be super fast or to crush some record, we just wanted to enjoy the great outdoors, explore a new-to-us area and tackle a challenge that had intrigued us.)

Thankfully this rocky area was off the trail, but you get the idea ;)

[Note: I started and ended our "hikes" at our car. This obviously adds distance to the "official" hike, but it's accurate to what WE did. Depending on where you park or where you start your tracking, you may end up with different results.]

My Strava Activity - Cowles Mountain and Pyles Peak

Next up was Kwaay Paay Peak. We hopped in the car and made our way to the trailhead (I'm usually the driver and the hubby's the navigator since he's MUCH better with directions). The parking lot was full, so we had to use an overflow lot. We knew this would add distance to our hike, but there was no way around it. Well, come to find out, there was a way around it... WE WENT TO THE WRONG TRAILHEAD! You see, I had texted the hubby the parking areas from the blog I was using in my "research", but the parking for this one wasn't a specific address, just a road, and the hubby ASSUMED he knew where we were going... Well, you know what assuming does... It ends up giving you an extra mile of hiking once you realize you're nowhere near where you should be, hike back to the car, drive a few miles away and start again.

My Strava Activity - Bonus Mileage

Once we made it to the PROPER place, the parking wasn't nearly as big of an issue as it was near the visitor center (I should've known better, since the blog didn't mention there'd be an issue with parking... had I been thinking about it, I probably should've had the hubby double check before we got out of the car, but I assume {there we go again, hehe} his directions are always spot on because 99% of the time they are!). We parked down the street and got started.

Yep, you read it right, another "difficult" rating!

From the small amount of research I did, I knew Kwaay Paay would be the shortest, but most vertical hike... and it was! Thankfully there was a decent amount of shade along the route because it was starting to warm up (even though it was still rather early in the day... but, hiking uphill will work up a sweat {at least for me} no matter the temperature outside).

Thankful for the shade when the temps started to warm up!

This trail, similar to the portion for Pyles Peak, was fairly empty. We would come across a hiker or two every so often, but folks were much more spread out than on the first hike. The views were slightly obscured due to the shrubbery, but it was still awesome to see somewhere we had never been before. You definitely had to work for the summit (especially since there seemed to be a few false summits along the way), but it felt great to cross off the third peak of the challenge.

Made it to summit #3!

We ran some of the downhill, but, remember, it was pretty steepy and a bit slick (there was gravel on top of some of the packed dirt, which meant the top layer was loose), so we really had to watch our step to make sure we didn't take a tumble. Even still, we finished the third peak in under an hour (even with the close to 1,000 feet of elevation gain).

My Strava Activity - Kwaay Paay Peak

Back to the car we went, so we could drive to our third stop (well, technically it was our FOURTH stop, but one was an accident, so if you do it right there are three). Last up we needed to conquer the Fortuna Mountains (North and South)


I'll be honest, this one was the most confusing... We probably should have done a little more digging, but unlike the first three trails, this one wasn't as easy as "North Fortuna Mountain Trail". You had to take such and such a trail to another offshoot ("that is easy to miss") along a fence for a while, etc... Don't get me wrong, the views were awesome and the trails were great, but it took a bit more focus and looking on our phones than just getting to a trailhead and hiking uphill until you reach the summit. You are hiking along a creek, and with the rains that happened earlier in the week, there was actually water flowing! The sounds and fewer people made for a very serene end to our challenge.

We've been in a drought for so long that seeing actual water along our hikes is a bit shocking!

Well, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, because after we left calmness that was the creekbed, it was a lot of up... Like the path to the saddle between the two summits felt like it was almost vertical! It was a buttkicker (and a place our trekking poles would have absolutely come in handy!)! We put our heads down and charged the hill, but it was a quad killer and a lung burner FOR SURE! I didn't even think to take out my phone... I guess I spent the time trying to catch my breath and not tip over... The elevation gain must've caught off oxygen to my brain! But, take my word for it, it was TOUGH!


Once we got to the saddle we had to decide which summit to attack first. The blog post we were following said that he did South Fortuna first because he likes to finish with the tallest summit... Well, we decided to do the exact opposite, HA! We figured we had already climbed three summits and tackled the saddle on this hike, so why not get the hardest one over with first, then the last one will feel like "smooth sailing" in comparison and we will be on our way back. So up to North Fortuna Mountain Summit we went! By this point our legs were pretty dead (neither of us had been doing much longer distance in January... or ANY if we're being honest...), so this uphill was a bit of a slog (especially since it was later in the morning, warmer, we were getting tired/ hungry/ cranky/ hangry/ etc). Eventually we made it to the summit and snapped a quick picture before turning right around so we could go down and back up to the South Fortuna Mountain Summit

Bagged summit #4 of the day!

Like we expected, compared to North Fortuna, South Fortuna felt like a walk in the park. Okay, a very hilly park, but it seemed much shorter and definitely not as steep. We were up to the summit in what felt like a hop, skip and a jump.

And summit #5 was secured!!

The way down was steep. We had to do some serpentining back and forth to make sure we didn't slip and slide down the hill. Again, I didn't snag any photos, but trust me when I say you need to make sure you have secure footing or you could absolutely eat it (going up or down!). The hubby thought he knew a more direct route to the car (after what felt like we went out of the way on the way there). Like I said, I follow his lead when it comes to directions. It seemed to net the same distance there and back, so maybe it wasn't a more direct way, but at least we got to see a few other trails on the return.

The only picture of both of us together during the hike... for some reason he didn't want to be IN the photos...

Surprisingly, despite the last of our segments being the longest in distance, our first leg actually had the most elevation gain (which makes sense that we were able to do about a mile more during that last hike with a similar time as the first, especially when you take into account there were a ton less folks out, which meant less weaving, waiting and walking). 

My Strava Activity - North Fortuna Mountain and South Fortuna Mountain

Now, for my tracking (I use a COROS APEX Watch and the hubby uses a Garmin Fenix 3 that was kindly passed down to him when a friend upgraded his {both syncing with our own Strava accounts}), I stopped mine as three (well, technically, four) separate hikes, but the hubby did his as all one (just pausing it in between each hike/ run). We both had similar distance and elevation, but his was one single "event" and mine were individual ones. Obviously it doesn't matter how you do it (or even IF you track it), but it is just something I thought I'd mention to keep in mind for the Type A folks like me ;)

NOTE: I removed the "bonus mileage" from the above collage

In total (with our little detour), I show we got in 17.25 miles, 4,600 feet of elevation gain and it took us less than 6 hours (not including drive time). If you remove the detour it's closer to the "official" distance of 16 miles (and around 5 hours).

Ryan's Strava Activity - 5 Peak Challenge

I was actually expecting the challenge to be much harder than it turned out feeling. Maybe my lack of running for a month didn't kill my endurance as much as I had figured it would (maybe I've got the biking to thank). Whatever the case, the hubby and I both really enjoyed this challenge and would totally recommend it. We also want to do some more exploring around Mission Trails Regional Park because we know we only scratched the surface. Major props to the rangers who put the challenge together. We love to #OptOutside and there's nothing better than exploring in your own backyard, right?!

Tackled all five summits in less than 6 hours! WHOOO HOOOO!

And remember how I said we were hungry?! On the way home we grabbed Benito's Detroit Style Pizza and mowed down (then took the pup for his mile doggy walk and finally jumped in the shower to wash the dirt and sweat down the drain).


PS If you are looking for a post with turn-by-turn directions, photos along the routes so you know if you're going the right way, directions to parking, etc, make sure to check out the post we loosely used for guidance. I just happened to come across it when I was Googling the challenge, so there may be better (or more recent, seeing as he tackled the challenge in 2017) resources out there, but this was the one we used and found it super helpful. BIG thanks to Drew for the beta!


Do you prefer uphill or downhill?

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