The Visitor Center Loop Trail is a great introduction to the 6,800-acre Mission Trails Regional Park.
The appropriately named 1.5-mile loop starts at the visitor center, where it’s worth spending some time exploring the excellent exhibits to gain a context for your hike. You'll find information about the geology of the area and the flora and fauna that make the chaparral and sage scrub their home. Information at the visitor center also details the human history of the region, from to the indigenous inhabitants and Mexican and Spanish periods to more contemporary interactions with the area.
The trailhead is located just to the east of the visitor center. Take the trail north through the chaparral plants, including laurel sumac, chamise, buckwheat, and chaparral broom. While the trail is mostly level, it is surrounded by hills, including Fortuna Mountain, which will be straight ahead. After about half a mile, the sound of the running waters of the San Diego River can be heard, but is difficult to see. As the trail follows the river, the fauna shifts toward a more riparian environment. Look for juncus, sycamores, and willows.
After roughly another half-mile the trail intersects with the San Diego River Crossing Trail, which in turn connects with a network of trails that will lead to Fortuna Mountain and other areas of Mission Trails Regional Park. Just after the intersection there is a trail that accesses the water where a toppled stone wall creates a small drop for the river.
Back to the trail, take the Visitor Center Loop south back toward Mission Gorge Road. This section of trail is wide, gravel, and arguably less interesting than the previous stretches. After the trail reaches the overflow Jackson Drive parking lot, follow it east back to the visitor center.
Dogs on leash and mountain biking are allowed on the Visitor Center Loop. The trail is accessible year round, but summer months will be quite hot, and there is little shade on the trail.