Friday, March 24, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant
I’m sitting at one of my favorite spots.
The view is priceless, yet it costs nothing to get there. And you can stay as long as you want without buying anything.
You won’t hit traffic on the way, because you can’t drive your car. (The trip takes about an hour by foot.)
There’s no barista or bartender or busboys, but you’re welcome to bring all the food and beverage you can stomach. As long as you do your own dishes.
This spot’s not really on the map, which is a mixed blessing. Since most people don’t bother going there, you won’t have to look for a place to sit. But you will find people giving you weird looks when you tell them how much fun you had.
Don’t be duped by their inexperience – once you’ve looked at the city you know from the summit of North Fortuna mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park, it’s hard to picture at it the same way again.
See that little grove of pyramids and rectangles straight ahead, with the little black dots (planes) buzzing close by?
And that blue ridge far off to the left that seems to rise like an ocean wave out of nothing?
Up here, at the 1,291-ft. summit of the tallest pinnacle in San Diego’s biggest regional park, it feels like you can see just about everything in the city – because you can. The dual peaks of Mt. Fortuna shoot up like chaparral spires out of the periodic sprawl that cloaks the northeast corner of the city, dusty museums of sublime scrub that dominate the eastern horizon. Since there’s almost nothing else their height around (to the West), these backyard Kilimanjaros offer an unparalleled survey of San Diego – one that’s worth more than a mere “ooh-ahh” before returning to the real world.
The view is not the only thing that will give you pause. Although only about two and a half miles, the hike up to the top from the staging area at the end of Clairemont Mesa Blvd. will supply enough sense of accomplishment to make the granite boulders feel like Barca-Loungers once you get there. Thankfully, it’s only continuously uphill at the very end, as you climb out of Suycott wash to the saddle between the two peaks and then to the summit.
As you rise, a strange metamorphosis occurs. Like many urban preserves, Mission Trails hosts the strange juxtaposition of silent, lonely expanses in the midst of the daily chaos. Though you can see through to the outside world of subdivisions from its central valley, you can’t really hear them. The tranquil purr of desert winds competes only with the occasional service truck scooting past on dirt roads, giving the feeling that you’ve left at least most of civilization behind.
Hike up out of the wash, and the urban expanse turns up its volume to greet you. A distant booming becomes a military helicopter flying to Miramar, whose runways write an alien character in the mesa to the northwest. The 52 freeway approaching Santee materializes with a trebly rush over the eastern edge of the mountain.
Suddenly the charmed geography of Mission Trails becomes apparent. Mission Gorge, Lake Murray, Old Mission Dam and the North and South Fortuna peaks all reside within the park, which divides San Diego from Santee and La Mesa to the northwest. To the north are the vast empty knolls of Miramar’s Eastern half, crisscrossed with orange stripes where dirt roads have been carved in the brush.
It’s a strangely spiritual experience; sitting on top of that mountain on a clear day and watching normal life take place at a distance. Though you can hear Highway 52 at the foot of the peak, it seems as though the concerns of the shiny white and blue and red and black rectangles gliding along the pavement are far too narrow in their perspective at this single, beautiful moment. Far off by the downtown canopy, a line of jets noses down toward Lindberg Field. Behind you, the jagged, snowcapped Cuyamacas ascend formidably. Mission Valley runs a bright green swath along a straight-cut canyon wall – the north rim of San Diego mesa.
It’s all right there in front of you. These constructions we talk about so abstractly – the “city” of San Diego, the county, the border region, towns, suburbs, boulevards – stand, operate and change right before your eyes, almost fully revealed. The cars, the planes, the clouds all come and go; the ocean changes its glossy hue as the sun rides across the sky, and your understanding of where and how and why you live is somehow renewed.
Mountaintops, at least the few that I’ve been on, are special kinds of places. But glorious spots like the summit of Mt. Fortuna aren’t just for thick-calved and thin-waisted granola-munchers. Save for the last half-mile, where the trail goes stubbornly vertical, the sweeping views are accessible to anyone who can handle being an hour, by foot, from their automobile.
No din of cash registers and cell phone chatter; no bark of SUV congestion; no pressure for cash outlay. In an age and city where the moments of our lives seem increasingly removed from our control, ascending to the refreshing perspective granted by one of the country’s biggest urban parks – especially on these recent, acutely clear spring days – reinforces what we do it all for. Taking in the view from the top simply makes life at the bottom better.
Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at