In San Carlos , you don't have to be a survivalist, or a jock, to enjoy the bounty of its wilderness, which includes 6,800 acres of rocky, mountainous landscape with the San Diego River running through it. Just a 15-minute drive from downtown's urban jungle, this outdoor playground awaits every level of physical endurance, whether you're into rock climbing, bird watching or all the hard work associated with chewing on a picnic lunch. Best of all, a day time retreat to Mission Trails Regional Park, considered the "Third Jewel" of San Diego, next to Balboa Park and Mission Bay, doesn't cost a dime.
The best things in San Diego are free, so escape the city's hustle and give your bank account a break, too, with a visit to the oft serene San Carlos, home to Lake Murray and Cowles Mountain, both features of Mission Trails Regional Park.
Know before you go
Weekend warriors frequent Mission Trails (mtrp.org), so to maximize on quiet time, you'll want to visit during the week.
Not sure where to start?
No problem. The Visitor and Interpretive Center (One Father Junipero Serra Trail, 619-668-3281) has information on free programming, plus hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and equestrian trails within the park. The center itself is pretty darn cool, with exhibits for all ages, including plant and wildlife identification and facts-watch out for poison ivy, rattlesnakes and elusive, yet present, mountain lions.
More neighborhoods to explore
Anza Borrego, Balboa Park, Coronado, Del Mar, East Village, Encinitas, Fiesta Island, Golden Hill, Hillcrest, La Jolla, Linda Vista, Mission Beach, Mission Hills, North Park: Part 1, North Park: Part 2, Ocean Beach, Point Loma, San Carlos, South Park, University Heights
DIY tips for exploring the park
The beauty of Mission Trails is that you can literally explore the options from the comfort of your ride. Driving past the Visitor Center on Junipero Serra Trail, there's a one-way loop with all trailheads visible from the road and corresponding shoulders to pull off and park.
A popular picnic site is the historic Old Mission Dam, where the San Diego River is flowing more steadily now thanks to recent rains. Here, there's shade, picnic tables and portable restrooms.
Though it's considered rare to spot wild animals here, there's a sightings log at the front desk in the Visitor Center that you can study to up your chances. In the last couple of months, there have been several bobcat sightings, as well as mule deer. The log tells you the species, plus the location and time it was spotted; be sure to fill it in if you're among the lucky ones to get to observe them. Early morning and dusk explorations prove the most fruitful.
Some of the guided walks include: The Lake Murray Walk and Talk (3rd Tuesday of every month), an easy stroll along the water's edge; Bird Walks (3rd Saturday of every month), which take a look at migratory and resident birds in the park; and Wildlife Tracking Walks (1st Saturday of every month), which covers the signs to look for in spotting wildlife.
The San Diego Astronomy Association meets at the Kumeyaay Lake Campground Overflow Parking Lot on the second Friday of each month. Here, participants can get a better look at outer space through provided high-powered telescopes. Meet-up times and locations can be found on the park's website.
Staycation, wilderness edition
The Kumeyaay Lake Campgrounds, located just off the Junipero Serra Trail, reopened recently after being closed due to budget cuts. Now, sites are available for $20/per night on Fridays and Saturdays only. For virtual tours and reservations, visit mtrp.org/campground.
Duo of trails to try at Cowles Mountain
This popular attraction includes several routes to Pyle's Peak (1,593 feet), the highest point in the city of San Diego with striking, panoramic views of the county on a clear day. It's packed on weekends and crowded by most standards during the week as well.
Brave the main trail (at Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road) if you like to hi-ho with company. Limited street parking is available, with 30 additional spots on weekends only at the neighboring San Carlos Library (7265 Jackson Drive).
Or, take the route less traveled
For the most rustic jaunt-with far better parking and fewer hikers-try the Mesa Road Trail, where overgrown brush forms a tunnel to hike through in places. Access it from Lake Murray Boulevard, but be warned, this bun-burner adds a 5-mile roundtrip to the hike if you complete the entire loop.
Did you know? Most San Diegans mispronounce the mountain named after rancher George A. Cowles. So now you know: It's actually pronounced "coals."
It's ok, you've earned it
After some morning exercise, there's no better place to quell your appetite than at The Trails Neighborhood Eatery (7389 Jackson Drive, thetrailseatery.com) where killer bloody Marys and hearty fare await. Breakfast is served all day (till 3 p.m.), so no need to rush on knock-out dishes like the chicken fried steak. This no-frills classic, along with cinnamon roll pancakes by owner Stacey Poon-who's been featured on Food Network-keeps locals coming back for more, and is a memorable stop for visitors with its warm service.
Post-hike refreshments, or fuel beforehand, can be found at Trinitea Tea (8680 Navajo Road, trinitea.us), a cute, peaceful lounge, where the house favorite is coconut milk tea, of the iced or hot varieties.