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The Volunteer Diaries: Phil Hwang, Trail Guide at Mission Trails Regional Park

By day, Hwang is a software engineer. But in his spare time, you'll find him trekking across Mission Trails, leading hikes, and keeping an eye out for wildlife (including tarantula hawks).

At more than 8,000 acres and 2 million annual visitors, Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the largest urban parks in the US. It spans five peaks (one of which, Cowles Mountain, is the highest point in the city of San Diego), 65 miles of trails, Lake Murray and Kumeyaay Lake, a campground, the San Diego River, and Old Mission Dam, a national historic landmark.

The nonprofit Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation supports the city Parks & Rec trail guides, who lead walks on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from the Visitor Center.

Here, we catch up with trail guide Phil Hwang. By day, he’s a software engineer; in his spare time, he’s leading visitors through Mission Trails Regional Park’s rugged terrain, sharing the region’s rich history, and keeping an eye out for wildlife (including tarantula hawks, which are just as scary as their name suggests).

San Diego Magazine: Why did you want to become a trail guide? How did you learn about the program?

Phil Hwang: The park’s 5-Peak Challenge was one of the first hikes I completed moving to San Diego over a decade ago. I learned about the trail guide program while looking up other hiking things to do, I emailed them about taking the class, and after successfully completing the course, I’m now a trail guide!



What training is required to be a Mission Trails Regional Park Trail Guide?

The annual training is pretty extensive and involved. There’s a weekly course lecture and a weekly field lab. There are tons of awesome guests: San Diego rangers, geologists, botanists, members of the scientific community. The program covers way more than the simplified “walk a trail,” as we are trained to be aware of all aspects of life sciences, native uses, modern history, and the park itself. I especially love stories and lore and legends, and there’s plenty of those, too! The park is alive and changing with us, so we’re always learning.



What’s something surprising you learned about the park?

The history. There’s deeply rooted history with the Kumeyaay, with the military, and with the surrounding neighborhoods. What I find fascinating is how the park evolves throughout all time. Who knows how it will look in the future?

What’s your favorite animal in the park?

At Mission Trails I love seeing the graceful northern harrier. At Lake Murray I always make it a point to see the osprey. For the pure horror story of it all, I love the tarantula hawk and the nightmarish hell the prey goes through: paralyzed, buried alive, eaten from the inside out for weeks on end until the wasp larva pupates and bursts out an adult. What a growth spurt!

Tell us more about those volunteer opportunities.

As trail guides, we lead tracking walks, bird walks, and all sorts of school and scouting field trips. There’s also trail maintenance, habitat restoration and beautification, and volunteering at the visitor center front desk. Groups are encouraged to work with us to organize a half day of volunteer service for their company or community.

Besides volunteering, how can people support Mission Trails Regional Park?

Enjoy it! Make a donation to support the park through the MTRP Foundation, shop the park’s gift shop, book an event at the visitor center, and more! It’s fun to see Mission Trails hats and 5-Peak Challenge shirts outside the park. I’m always amazed at how many people tell me they grew up in San Diego or lived here for 50 years and never knew this place existed. Spread the word and bring others!

Plan your visit to Mission Trails here.


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