South Fortuna Mountain (Mission Trails Regional Park)
- Location: Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego at the junction of Jackson Drive and Mission Gorge Road. From I-15, take the Friars Road exit (exit 7A) and head east for 0.8 miles (turn right if you’re coming from the south; left if from the north). Merge left onto Mission Gorge Road and follow it 3 miles. At the junction with Jackson Drive, turn left and park in a lot. From Highway 52, take the Mast Blvd. exit (13) and head northeast on Mast Blvd (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if from the west.) Make a quick right onto West Hills Parkway, go 0.7 miles and turn right onto Mission Gorge Road. In 2.7 miles, turn right into the parking lot at the corner of Mission Gorge and Jackson. Note that the parking lot is sometimes closed due to weather; if this is the case, park at the nearby Visitor Center, adding 0.3 miles and minimal elevation gain each way.
- Agency: Mission Trails Regional Park
- Distance: 4.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,400 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, steepness, trail condition)
- Suggested time: 2.5 hours
- Best season: November – May (note that the hike begins with a stream crossing that can be difficult and potentially dangerous following recent rains; call the park at 619-668-3275 for the latest conditions and consider an alternate route if necessary).
- USGS topo map: La Mesa
- Recommended gear: sun screen; sun hat; hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here; trip descriptions of the loop with North Fortuna here (starting from an alternate trail head) and here; Map My Hike report here
- Rating: 7
For its seemingly unimpressive height of 1,094 feet, South Fortuna Mountain offers not only terrific views but a challenging and varied hike. The hike is perhaps best known for its infamously steep staircase that climbs up to the ridge, but since the approach described here, from the end of Jackson Drive, has about 300 feet of elevation gain on the return, South Fortuna gets you both coming and going. Much of the route is exposed so bring extra water, especially on warm days.
Begin by heading downhill for 0.3 miles on a gravel road that was part of a proposed extension that would link Jackson Drive to Highway 52. At 0.3 miles, you reach a junction with the Visitor Center Trail. Continue north and cross the San Diego River. Depending on the water level, the best route might be to go straight through the river, to use a concrete lip to the left of the main trail or to not do it at all. On the opposite side, you begin the first of two masochistic ascents. The trail climbs almost 400 feet in just over half a mile, reaching a junction. Stay right and begin heading east, with the bulk of the Fortuna ridge looming intimidatingly before you.
The trail levels out and then you begin another descent, bearing right on the S-Curve Trail. After dropping about 180 feet in 0.3 miles, stay right at the next two intersections. Keep an eye out for a picnic table beneath some oaks; this is a good rest spot on the return, as you will be re-ascending the S-Curve trail on tired legs. You enter Suycott Wash (1.2 miles from the start), an attractive, oak-lined canyon. A pile of rocks at the end of a small footbridge make a good resting spot to charge your batteries for the grueling climb ahead.
Leaving the wash, turn right and begin ascending the South Fortuna Trail, which gradually climbs as it makes a wide U-turn. At 1.7 miles from the start, you gain the toe of a ridge and are faced with what has been dubbed the “Stairway to Heaven”; a name which one has to assume is intended ironically.
The stairs are metal and wooden beams that have been embedded into the ridge. There are a few spots where the “trail” becomes faint, but by and large the route is obvious–and difficult. You will climb about 400 feet in 0.3 miles. Fortunately, the inspiring views will help keep you motivated and your job gets easier at the top of the ridge. Turn left and follow it 0.3 miles to the summit where you will be rewarded with views of downtown San Diego to the southwest, Cowles Mountain, Kwaay Paay Peak and Pyles Peak to the southeast and North Fortuna Mountain to the north. Hikers who crave even more action can continue north and make a challenging loop but those who want to call it a day can return via the same route, exercising appropriate care when descending the staircase.
Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
Such a fun hike, and there are so many trails to explore in Mission Trails beyond Cowles Mountain. Thanks for sharing!
You’re welcome Robb, thanks for reading! More hikes in Mission Trails coming soon…
Thanks for your review. A friend and I did South Fortuna and North Fortuna about a week ago. Great views.
Suggested addition to your gear list, plenty of water. I noticed several people with small water bottles. Also Trekking poles are a nice option on this trail.
Hi Brad, thanks for reading. I added the suggestion to bring extra water because the route is steep and largely exposed. I do include hiking poles (a term that I tend to use interchangeably with trekking poles) as suggested gear for this hike – they do come in handy on those steps. Happy hiking!