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San Diego’s Biggest Park Gets Even Bigger

Matt Sanford, senior ranger of Mission Trails Park, stands in front of a piece of open space that will make San Diego's biggest park even bigger.
Katie Schoolov
Matt Sanford, senior ranger of Mission Trails Park, stands in front of a piece of open space that will make San Diego's biggest park even bigger.
Mission Trails Park Adding 1,000+ Acres
San Diego’s Biggest Park Gets Even Bigger
The addition of 1,300 acres is the latest chapter in the story of Mission Trails Regional Park.

Mission Trails Park is what San Diego used to be. Its 5,800 acres of mountains and river valley let people imagine a countryside that is untouched by modern life. And now, Mission Trails will add another piece of wilderness in the city, as one of biggest urban parks in the United States will get even bigger.

"It's been really untouched for a long, long time. And it's a really nice section of open space out here," said Matt Sanford, senior park ranger for Mission Trails Regional Park.

The land he's talking about is about 1,300 acres of now privately owned land. It's just north of an undeveloped part of Miramar Air Station and East of I-15. In the coming few months it will become city property, and part of Mission Trails Park. It’s the kind of place where you can hear only the wind, and see layers of mountain peaks recede into the distance.


It's also the latest chapter in the story of building an open-space park through decades of deals with developers and the U.S. government.

So far, the land has been equipped with a parking lot and six miles of hiking trails. These 1,300 acres are not contiguous with the existing Mission Trails Park. In fact there's about ten miles that separate the park from this area.

So how are people going to even know it's Mission Trails? Dorothy Leonard says they’ll put up a big sign.

Leonard is a former San Diego planning commissioner who has been called the Mother of Mission Trails for her decades of work acquiring the parkland. She said she and her husband like to come to the park at 6 a.m., to get the best feeling of being away from the city. Still, its proximity to the city is one of the park's great virtues.

"It's close to downtown. It's a people's park. It was started by citizens like myself working with elected officials," she said.


Leonard said Mission Trails Park began with the city’s purchase of Cowles Mountain in 1974. Later, the city added to the park the Mission Gorge area, where the San Diego River flows, and Lake Murray and its surroundings.

There's a grassland in Mission Trails, which was once military land. It was called Camp Elliot. In fact they still search the land for unexploded shells. Acquiring land from the U.S. military is just one of the ways Mission Trails has been cobbled together over the years.

The history of Mission Trails includes a multitude of deals, cut with the neighboring civilization. The acres being added next year are walking distance from a new development called Stonebridge Estates. That’s not surprising, since the city is getting the new parkland from the developer, in return for allowing the housing to be built.

Jim Madaffer represented the Mission Trails area on the City Council during the past decade. That's when developer Corky McMillan wanted to start building homes.

"And I thought why don't we figure out a way to allow McMillan to do what they want to do,” said Madaffer. “They can provide future housing for new residents or people who want to move up, and at the same time be able to add to our open space."

As the city plans to add those northern acres next year, it's also planning to add another 2,800 acres just north of the existing park. But doing that depends on dealing with a landfill.

The Sycamore Landfill, owned by Republic Services, is in the center of that additional block of open space, across Highway 52. Landfill manager Neil Mohr said in about 30 years the landfill will be closed. He hopes it will also become part of the park.

"What we're really working toward is a closure plan. And we're trying to blend it in with the surrounding hills and we're re-vegetating it,” said Mohr.“

“So when we're ultimately finished, we'd like to be available for the hiking trail to come right to where we are here, connect down and on top of the landfill, and see it as a network adding to Mission Trails Regional Park," he said.

For now, ranger Matt Sanford said he and his staff have to think about eradicating non-native plants and maintaining trails on the new property. Jim Madaffer said San Diegans should remember that expanding open space comes at a cost.

"You can always say God has taken care of it just fine all these years,” said Madaffer. “But you've got to prevent off-roading, you've got to protect the public. You've got to tell them about rattlesnakes. Let them know about unexploded ordinance. Let them know about issues in the park."

San Diego was recently ranked in the top ten, among American city park systems, mainly because of its impressive acreage. Mission Trails is the city's biggest park. So you have to say it's helped put San Diego parks on the map.