The odds are good that many residents and Mission Valley News readers have spent a few hours at the large commercial shopping center at Friars Road and Fenton Parkway, just west of Qualcomm Stadium. Perhaps they have popped into the fine Mission Valley Library at one corner, the much-visited Costco at the opposite corner, or major stores Ikea and Lowe’s. There are also a dozen or so smaller, but lively, restaurants, coffee shops and other commercial enterprises completing the hyper-active square.
The odds are also good that most shoppers have never noticed nor taken a short jaunt through the pedestrian tunnel under Friars Road. It’s simple to go over Friars from one side to the other at either of the two traffic lights, but definitely more fun crossing under that busy road via the tunnel. That lightly visited space enables the connection from the community of Serra Mesa down to the San Diego River. And it makes for an interesting activity, very different from the usual business pursuits that usually occupy people’s time in the area. It also is a neat way to walk off some of those edible delights that are so readily obtained (and consumed) at the nearby eateries, large and small.
So on a future visit, take along some good walking shoes, maybe serious ones depending on how far you’ll be trekking. Head over just northwest from Costco, east of the Islands Restaurant, park your vehicle and look for that tunnel entry right there below Friars Road. You might be surprised at how pleasant the area in front of the tunnel entry is, with a grassy section, some shade and benches built for relaxation — an environment rare in most major shopping complexes. As one person observed: “Looks like even if you didn’t enter the tunnel, the little landscaped area would be a nice place to read a book while your significant other does the shopping at Costco!”
Start your stroll by walking past the metal gates (closed at night), through the tunnel and onto the sidewalk on the north side of Friars. The walkway zig-zags uphill past a large solar panel array. Cross under a stone footbridge linking sections of the large Escala complexes of Courtyards and Portofino. You’ll notice it’s much quieter as you move away from Friars. In official documents, this walking route is designated as an urban pathway easement.
The walkway meets a wall, heads left, left again, then right. Continue a short ways to a long, slightly uphill walkway heading to the right over to Northside Drive. Walk left through a door-sized gate (beside it is the locked vehicle gate for resident use) and up the hill via Northside Drive. At the end, take a left onto Pompeii Lane. (Off to the right and uphill is an obvious grassy park area, for the use of residents and their dogs only.) A short walk along Pompeii leads to a short paved segment to the right, which ends after about 50 feet. From here on you’re in scrub brush on foot trails, rough in sections, heading north. This is where you’ll quickly realize you need tough walking boots and a good walking stick for stability, as the pathway is heavily rocky.
If you stay with it, after about 15 minutes you’ll be walking in the Ruffin Canyon water run-off creek bed. Plans have been discussed to create a typical dirt-type trail along here, under the auspices of the San Diego River Conservancy, but for now it’s a challenging walk. The reward is the scenery with canyon walls heading up both sides and lots of trees, cacti and rich foliage, with many flowers appearing in spring. Stay with it for a quarter mile or so and this Ruffin Canyon Trail becomes easier hiking as the stone sections fade. You’ll see from the right a trail coming in from Shawn Canyon, making for a fun hike up to Serra Mesa’s Mission Village Road.
Continue on straight and you’ll find this a pleasant hike all the way up to Ruffin Road where it meets Gramercy Drive by Taft Middle School. Head back on down or try a couple fun options: you could walk left, past Taft, to find a trail entry that heads down along the east side of Taft, eventually rejoining Ruffin trail; or, you can walk a few blocks to the south (right) to Shawn Canyon and head back down that trail and turn left where it meets the Ruffin Canyon Trail. Whichever your choice, head back down the hill toward Friars and through that enticing tunnel. Find a good spot for a coffee, cold brew, maybe a sandwich and reflect on what an unusual jaunt you just had.
Note: These Serra Mesa canyon trails have been significantly upgraded over the years under the diligent care of the Friends of Ruffin Canyon. For information about this group, visit serramesa.org/friends-of-ruffin-canyon.
Disclaimer: When you hike into publicly-accessible nature areas, it’s not the same as walking down the street. Exercise proper caution and respect for the rights of others; the author and this publication assume no responsibility for problems that might occur.
—Tom Leech is a long-time contributor to Mission Valley News. He’s the lead author, with Jack Farnan, of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping. For information about many ways to enjoy our natural areas visit www.outdoorssandiego.com. For info about all his books, visit www.presentationspress.com.