For many San Diegans, going on a hike means heading up Cowles Mountain, the 1,592-foot peak that is the tallest in the city. Thousands of people trek it every weekend for the spectacular 360-degree view, and now it faces a dilemma familiar to popular outdoor destinations the world over.
It's being loved to death.
So Levi Dean, a ranger at Mission Trails Regional Park, came up with an idea to re-direct people's affections: the 5-Peak Challenge.
"I'm up on Cowles regularly, talking to hikers," Dean said, "and I'm always surprised how many people don't know there are other places here worth climbing."
Launched last month, the 5-Peak Challenge involves reaching the top of not just Cowles, but also Pyles Peak (1,379 feet), Kwaay Paay (1,194), South Fortuna (1,094) and North Fortuna (1,291). Combined distance to the top of all five: 11.5 miles.
To prove they've been there, people take pictures of themselves next to the summit sign on each peak, show the evidence to park staff, and receive a pin and a certificate marking the accomplishment.
There is no deadline for doing all five, no set time frame, but almost 400 people completed the challenge in the first month. That says something about San Diego, which routinely makes lists of America's fittest cities. This year, the American College of Sports Medicine ranked the San Diego/Carlsbad area third, behind Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis/St. Paul.
But there are other things about the 5-Peak Challenge that are revealing about San Diego, too. Some people have done the hikes with small children strapped to their backs or with their dogs. (We like our family outings.)
Several people have completed all five hikes in one day. (We aren't as laid-back as the stereotype says we are.)
And some have run, not walked, up the mountains, one after the other, finishing the challenge in a matter of hours. (There's very little in our lives we won't turn into a competition.) The current record: 2 hours and 20 minutes.
"Whatever their motivation," Dean said, "people are getting the idea that the park is not just one trail up and down Cowles."
Mission Trails is young as parks go, created in 1974. At more than 7,200 acres, it's also big for a park located only eight miles northeast of the downtown skyline of a major American city.
The park includes Lake Murray, a campground, a visitor center with a 94-seat theater, about 60 miles of trails, and the Old Mission Dam, a nationally registered historic landmark that was the source of drinking water for Mission San Diego de Alcala in its early days.
Originally used by Kumeyaay Indians, the "rugged hills, valleys and open areas represent a San Diego prior to the landing of Cabrillo in San Diego Bay in 1542," according to the Mission Trails website, which calls the park "a quick, natural escape from the urban hustle and bustle."
A quick escape is part of what makes Cowles Mountain so popular. The most frequently used route up the peak is the staging area off Golfcrest Drive, where there's a small parking lot that fills up early, especially on weekends.
People unable to use the lot park on the street, not just along Golfcrest, but in the adjoining residential neighborhoods of Navajo. The park regularly gets complaints about cars blocking driveways.
City officials have been tracking the number of hikers on Cowles, and a report is due soon. It's expected to show that close to a half-million people go up the mountain every year.
On busy weekend days, more than 1,000 people do the trek. All those feet pounding the dirt and rocks leave the trail eroded, uneven and slippery, "a constant maintenance nightmare," Dean said. "It's become one of the most popular hiking trails not just in San Diego, but in Southern California."
Dean grew up in Virginia, has a bachelor's degree in geography from the University of New Mexico and has been a ranger in Mission Trails for about two years. He worked previously for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and for various state parks.
He said it's not uncommon for parks to offer hiking challenges encouraging people to explore different areas. He thought the idea might work here, "get people to see all that Mission Trails has to offer."
But even he's been surprised at the way some people are tackling the peaks.
The challenge was announced at a press conference on Nov. 7 at the Kwaay Paay trailhead. Several elected officials were there to greet a few hikers who had done four of the peaks on other days and were finishing the last one that morning.
One guy there did all five peaks that morning, starting at 4 a.m. so he'd be finished when the press conference started at 10.
"That was pretty extreme," Dean said.
The challenge seems to be bringing out the extreme in others, too. Monique Vargas, who lives in Del Cerro and hikes in Mission Trails several times every week, did the hikes carrying her 15-month-old son, August, in a backpack.
"He loves it," she said. "It calms him down, and I get some exercise."
Vargas told some other moms about the challenge, too, and went on hikes with them to finish the last couple of peaks. When they went to Pyles, she noticed more people on the trail than usual - a sign, she thinks, that word is getting out about moving beyond Cowles Mountain.
Daryel Stager, a volunteer at the park, did the challenge in one day, starting at 6 a.m. at Cowles to avoid the crowds - "It's becoming a freeway," he said - and finishing at 3 p.m. on the Fortunas.
"People know Cowles because it's easy to get to," he said. "The others, you have to want to go. You have to make an effort."
Stager, a Spring Valley resident who retired recently after 20 years as an environmental specialist with the Department of Defense, started volunteering at the park in January. On his patrols, he tells people about the challenge and directs them to a map with the recommended routes. (In another effort to ease the traffic on Cowles, the map suggests doing that peak from the Santee side, out of Big Rock Park, instead of the Golfcrest staging area.)
A map is what caught the eye of Steve Luker, who went into the Mission Trails visitor center about three weeks ago.
He's an ultra runner, training for an endurance event held in Utah every September called the Wasatch 100 - 100 as in 100 miles. (When he did the race two years ago, it took him just over 35 hours.) He's also planning to run the San Diego 100, which starts and finishes at Lake Cuyamaca, in June.
When Luker saw the map for the 5-Peak Challenge, he started thinking about what's known in the trail-running world as the FKT, or Fastest Known Time.
"Whenever I'm on a trail, I'm wondering how fast I can go, and who's gone the fastest," said Luker, a technical writer who lives in North Park.
He spent a couple weeks scouting routes, and last Sunday, at around noon, he parked his car at the Corte Playa Catalina trail head in Tierrasanta, got out and started running. He did North and South Fortuna first, then Kwaay Paay, then Cowles and Pyles. When he stopped his timer at the top of the last peak, he'd been running for 2 hours and 20 minutes and had covered 15 miles.
He went in the middle of the day because he likes running in the heat; it was about 80 degrees in San Carlos last Sunday. "Anybody who wants to go after the record will probably start earlier in the day," he said. "I was hot and tired when I finished. But I had a big smile on my face."
It's been fun hearing about other ultra runners who have done the challenge, he said. "I knew I was going to put my own twist on it."
Barely a month old, twists galore on the 5-Peak Challenge.