Father Junipero Serra Trail is a paved hiking path through the heart of Mission Trails Regional Park. The trail is great for families and those wanting to experience a hike with ease near the San Diego River.

Hiking Father Junipero Serra Trail in Mission Trails Regional Park

The beauty of Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP) is that it offers so much variety in terms of hiking trails. There are near 7,220 acres of open space land that serve as a reminder of what San Diego looked like prior to any development of the region. Altogether, MTRP is the sixth largest city manged park in the United States and includes over sixty miles of hiking trails and five main peaks.

The Father Junipero Serra Trail intersects the park through Mission Gorge which was slowly carved out over time by the San Diego River. The trail cuts through approximately four miles of the park beginning at one end and ending at the other. Two highlights on each side will be the old Mission Dam on the northeast entrance and the MTRP Visitor Center on the southwest entrance. From the trail will be views above of South Fortuna, Kwaay Paay Peak, Pyles Peak, and the very popular, Cowles Mountain

There are numerous trails that offshoot this trail including the MTRP Visitor Center Loop which leads down to the San Diego River, the Oak Canyon Trial, and Kwaay Paay Peak. On the east side of the trail closer to the visitor center, keep an eye out for climbers along the granite walls of the eastern facing hills. This area is a popular recreational climbing area. During the fall sycamore and cottonwood trees that line the San Diego River will turn shades of orange and yellow.

Old Mission Dam and the MTRP Visitor Center

The northeastern side of the Father Junipero Serra trail is home to the Old Mission Dam. This registered National Landmark is a remanant of a dam that was placed along the San Diego River. Spanish settler and popular missionary, Father Junipero Serra established a settlement and mission in the region in the late 1700’s. The dam was placed to help provide a year round water supply.  

On the opposite side of the trail is the MTRP Visitor Center. This visitor center has a wealth of knowledge about the general area as well as some fascinating information about San Diego’s early history. The center is open from 9am to 5pm every day except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

On A Personal Note:

I’ve put in a lot of miles along the Father Junipero Serra Trail over the years. Although this is a paved trail, it presents a very easy way to access and be surrounded by chapparall covered hills and oak canyons. My wife and I enjoyed taking our newborn here as a simple way to get outside and enjoy San Diego during the fall while using a stroller. My favorite time to visit this area is when the trees in the river gorge turn for the fall or when the hills are bright green after the winter rains. 

I highly recommend visiting the MTRP Visitor Center at some point. There is so much information about the area including information about local plants and wildlife. This is a great place to take children and it offers a great learning experience for them as well.

Looking for a similar hike? 

Check out the nearby Oak Canyon trail. This short hike starts near the old Mission Dam and leads behind an oak/cottonwood canyon with grasslands behind North Fortuna. On a good rain year and after a big storm the creek through the canyon will be flowing and connect to Mission Dam. The area near Mission Dam makes for a great place to have a picnic. 

Have you recently done this hike? Please post your photos in or leave an update to the trail conditions in the comments section.

  • Overall Difficulty: 40% 40%
  • Overall Views: 60% 60%
Father Junipero Serra Trial Quick Facts:
  • Estimated Distance:  4.5 miles.
  • My Distance: 3.6 miles.
  • Total Elevation: Approximately 261 feet.
  • Elevation gain: Approximately 143 feet.
  • Estimated Time: 2-3 hours.
  • My Time: 1 hour 29 minutes total; 1 hour 14 minutes moving. 
Father Junipero Trail Directions:
There are two places to park to access this trail, one at each end of the park. There is ample parking at both trailheads. The MTRP entrance does fill up quite a bit on the weekends with people visiting the area.

Old Mission Dam Entrance

Open in maps. Trail access is very simple. Park at the MTRP dirt parking lot on Father Junipero Serra Trial. The gates open at 8am but close at 5pm from November to March and 7pm from April-October. Parking can also be done alongside Father Junipero Serra Trail closer to the Old Mission Dam. The road is also gated with the same hours. If you want to hike outside of the posted hours, park outside the gate along the street of Junipero Serra Father Trail. There is plenty of street parking space.

MTRP Entrance

Open in maps. There is a dirt parking lot adjacent to the MTRP center. This dirt lot is gated and closes with the MTRP hours. There is however plenty of parking outside of the visitor center gates along the road. 




Father Junipero Serra Trail Pictures:
Who Father Junipero Serra Trail Is For:
Novice Hikers: This is a great trail for new hikers, people that aren’t used to hiking, or those that don’t like hiking. The paved area is a great place to get outside and immerse yourself in the hills for those unable to access more difficult terrain. This is a great place for families as well. 

Advanced Hikers: For max difficulty, do this entire trail as an out and back. For advanced hikers with limited options to get outside, this area will be a nice relief to the hustle and bustle of city life.  

Expert Hikers:  Expert hikers may find the pavement relatively unimpressive. Still, this is a great place to take someone who is unfamiliar with who is unfamiliar with San Diego’s native vegetation and hills. 

It’s always a good idea to be aware of what type of hiking level you’re at.

Best Time Of Year To Hike Father Junipero Serra Trail:
As with most places in the valleys, the best time of year is going to be the cooler months. However, the ease of this trail and shaded portions don’t exclude this place during the entire summer. To avoid the hottest hours, visit this area in dawn or dusk. There are shaded areas near the gorge that retain some cooler air and have pockets of shade. 

As I mentioned before, my favorite time of year to be on this trail is during the fall when the temperatures cool down and the trees along the river display fall foliage. The next best time of year to be out along these trails is during the winter and spring. The hills turn a vibrant green and are filled with numerous wildflowers during rainy years. On a good rainy year, take a detour near the Old Mission Dam through Oak Canyon to see the San Diego River flowing at its best. 

It’s alwyas a good idea to check the weather before going out on a hike.

Father Junipero Serra Trail Conditions:

The trail is in excellent condition as it should be for a paved trail. The trail is actually an old two lane road that runs from Mission Gorge to Santee. One lane is designated for hikers. The other lane is accessible by vehicles however, it is one way only. Vehicles are only able to travel east on this road. There are plenty of bicyclists on this road so keep an eye out for them and cars. Rattlesnakes can be commonly seen crossing the road during the warmer months.  There can be poison oak in the canyon near the shady areas along the river.