River Park Board chair finishes 70-mile trail hike in Del Mar

By Karen Billing

Last year Jim Cunningham decided that he wanted to do more than just sit as the chair on the San Dieguito River Park Board, he wanted to get outside and take a hike.

Last week Cunningham completed a hike of the entire 70-mile stretch of the planned Coast to Crest Trail from the crest of Volcan Mountain, overlooking the Anza Borrego Desert, to the beach of Del Mar. Cunningham stretched his trek out over six days, starting in May 2013 and capping it off with a celebration at Del Mar’s Dog Beach after completing the last six miles on Feb. 11.

Cunningham, a councilman on the

Poway City Council, has been on the San Dieguito River Park board four years, voting on and overseeing projects all along the trail route. After being elected the chair in 2013, he decided he would make it his mission to hike the entire Coast to Crest.

“I thought it was important to really hike the entire trail so I could get a sense of the enormity of the project we’ve been working on for more than 30 years and also bring awareness to this incredible asset we have in San Diego, and maybe help in some way to complete the trail in the points that are not connected,” Cunningham said. “There are a lot of moving pieces to put all this trail together and hopefully this hike will help.”

More than 45 miles of the trail are complete and open to the public. To fill in the missing gaps, Cunningham worked with San Dieguito River Park rangers to secure permissions to hike segments of the trail that aren’t yet open to the public. Blazing the trail involved a fair amount of “bushwhacking” and climbing down waterfalls, but it was just the type of adventure Cunningham likes.

A marathon runner, Cunningham has raced in 11 marathons and as a member of the Poway City Council, he started a monthly report where he hikes, bikes and rides across Poway and highlights a different trail each month. Between the 70-mile undertaking and his Poway outings, he is pretty much hiking every weekend.

“I love a challenge,” Cunningham said. “I really enjoy going beyond what is normal and typical when it comes to adventures like this. It’s a great challenge to do something no one has done before.”

The hike started on May 11 last year at the eastern end of the San Dieguito watershed at Volcan Mountain. On several legs of his journey, Dick Bobertz, the executive director of the river park, tagged along, as well as Bill Simmons, a member of the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy.

While the river park’s joint powers of authority, made up of the county of San Diego and the cities of San Diego, Del Mar, Escondido, Poway and Solana Beach, plan, design and operate the river park, the conservancy is the nonprofit dedicated to maintaining the resource and helps to raise funds to purchase the properties that make up the trail.

As the Coast to Crest name implies, the terrain encountered along the trail is incredibly varied and as Cunningham discovered, there is something for everyone from hard-core hikers or trail runners looking for a challenge to a family looking to get outdoors and take a fun jaunt.

“There’s nothing like getting out in the back country and the views, it’s something I want everyone to have the opportunity to do,” Cunningham said. “There’s so much variety on the trail and every bit of it is beautiful in its own right.”

Cunningham said there are so many hidden gems along the trail — the carved out metates that Native Americans used to process grains and seeds; looking out over the San Pasqual Valley from Raptor Ridge seeing tons of hawks and wildlife; visiting the monuments at Mule Hill, which was a battleground during the Spanish-American War, and the restored Sikes Adobe from the 1800s; and the Rattlesnake Overlook made to look like a rattlesnake with a telescope that looks out to Lake Hodges Dam.

The longest day of his journey was the fourth leg through San Pasqual Valley where they left from Ramona and hiked through Clevenger Canyon and came out at the Sikes Adobe. It had been 11 miles to Sikes and Cunningham changed clothes and ran the rest of the eight miles around Lake Hodges to Hernando’s Hideaway in Escondido where he caught the fourth quarter of that day’s Chargers game.

One of the biggest adventures in the trek came on a day the group was hiking 17 miles from Mesa Grande near Julian. One of the hikers wasn’t feeling well and they were way up in the backcountry so Cunningham decided to go fetch the truck to bring it back. He had already hiked 12 miles in close to 90-degree heat, but he decided to run the 8 miles to the truck. He ended up running out of trail and having to climb 2 miles, follow a dry riverbed and then boulder and bushwhack down another 2 miles.

“It was quite an adventure, kind of ‘Survivorman’ meets Julian,” Cunningham said.

A great part of his trek was being the first one to forge some of the trail on the Coast to Crest, where there are no set trails other than wildlife trails and designs are still being decided.

“To brave new trails that folks will use in the future was a really humbling part of this adventure as well, it’s hard to describe it,” Cunningham said.

Education is one of the most important goals of the river park, for people to understand how important it is to keep the river thriving.

“That’s what it’s all about, making people aware of the trail and using it, getting more people to get outside,” Cunningham said.

He said the park is a living, breathing part of the community and the more people are exposed to it, the more they will see the value in protecting it as an important asset.

Cunningham said he is proud that the river park’s trails are some of the best in the country in terms of the way they’re maintained and built.

A big part of keeping the trails in shape falls to volunteers who are Cunningham’s “unsung heroes,” performing 95 percent of the work. Called the “Dust Devils,” they are out maintaining the trails and planting native plants, hand-watering every week. Even the bridges that criss-cross the river all the way down from Lake Hodges have been mostly built by Boy Scouts.

“Without these volunteers these trails would not be put together,” Cunningham said of the volunteers that he honored at the Feb. 11 celebration. “There were a lot of big smiles at the end of that trail. I wanted to give recognition for their tireless work and for giving something back to their community.

They want to leave something behind that will last for generations.”

In addition to volunteers and other members of the public, there were 40 juniors from High Tech High North County present at the Feb. 11 celebration. This group of 40 students has been inspired by Cunningham and will set off on their own 70-mile hike on March 3. Where Cunningham stretched his trek over six non-consecutive days, the group of students will aim to do it in five consecutive days, making a video along the way of their experience.

The experience, Cunningham promises, will be life changing. He may even sneak out and join them one day.

To learn more about the San Dieguito River Park and the Coast to Crest Trail, visit