Challenge made, challenge accepted.
Four years ago, rangers at San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park came up with an idea to show hikers that heavily used Cowles Mountain – the city's highest – isn't the only climb in town. They developed the 5-Peak Challenge.
Hike to the top of Cowles, Pyles, Kwaay Paay, South Fortuna and North Fortuna. Take selfies at each of the summit markers and submit the photos to park staff. Get a certificate and a pin.
The first month, 400 people did it. And they kept coming. Now the total is almost 12,400. About 60 hikers each week finish the challenge.
There is no time limit for accomplishing it. You can do one peak a week, one peak a month, one peak a year. But increasingly, hikers are upping the challenge and doing all five climbs in one day. Depending on where they park their cars, that's 14 miles, maybe as many as 20. And a total elevation gain of over 6,000 feet.
Some people run it, too, with several reporting completion times of less than four hours.
"They just keep finding different ways to take it on," said Heidi Gutknecht, a ranger who helped develop the challenge.
A one-legged man did it. A group of hikers, all over the age of 70, hiked them all in the same day, which may be how they got their name: the "Monday Maniacs." A group of high school students from Point Loma completed the challenge to raise money for a homeless charity.
"So many inspiring stories," said Gutknecht, who posts some of them on the park's website, mtrp.org.
San Diego regularly ranks high on lists of "America's Fittest Cities," and hiking is a big part of that for many people. The parking lots near Iron Mountain, Torrey Pines, Los Penasquitos, Mount Woodson and other spots fill up early on weekends.
But not even a backdrop of regular outdoor activity prepared park officials for how popular the 5-Peak Challenge has become, and not just among San Diegans. One day last week, on a sign-in sheet for challenge finishers at the park's Visitor's Center, there were names from New York, Oregon and Houston.
On a wall nearby was another indication of the project's success. There are 5-Peak T-shirts for sale now, with a panoramic view on the back of all the mountains.
Created in 1974, Mission Trails Regional Park covers 7,220 acres and is one of the largest urban oases in the nation. Among its amenities: Lake Murray, the Kumeyaay Lake Campground, 60 miles of trails, and the Old Mission Dam, a nationally registered historic landmark that was the source of drinking water for Mission San Diego de Alcala in its early days.
Located just 8 miles northeast of San Diego's downtown skyline, the park offers what its officials call "a quick, natural escape" from the hustle and bustle of city life.
The quick escape is what makes Cowles Mountain so popular. Close to a half million people climb it every year, 1.5 miles up from the most popular starting point, off Golfcrest Drive. That's a lot of footsteps pounding the dirt and rocks, eroding the trail and leaving it slippery and treacherous in places. Maintenance crews are out there constantly.
The heavy traffic got Gutknecht and another ranger, Levi Dean, thinking about ways to divert folks elsewhere. Dean, who had come to Mission Trails after working for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and in various state parks, had seen multi-climb challenges work in other places. He thought it might work here, too.
Gutknecht helped flesh out the idea. A flier was made advertising the climbs: "You may already know that the highest peak in the City of San Diego is Cowles Mountain, but did you know that Mission Trails is actually home to five amazing high peaks?"
The challenge was announced publicly on Nov. 7, 2015, at a press conference near the Kwaay Paay trailhead. Several elected officials were there to greet a few hikers who had done four of the peaks on other days and were conquering the last one that morning.
In a sign of things to come, one climber did all five that day, starting at 4 a.m. so he'd be finished when the press conference began at 10 a.m.
In the weeks and months since, the challenge has meant different things to different people. It's been a source of motivation to cancer survivors like Lawrence Gediman, who could barely get out of bed when his chemotherapy ended. "I felt such a rush of accomplishment," he wrote after climbing the five peaks over a period of two weeks.
For others, it's been a way to honor dead friends or relatives. One group hiked all the peaks in a single overnight excursion, carrying photos of 30 U.S. service members – many of them Navy SEALs – killed in the downing of a helicopter in Afghanistan eight years ago.
A lot of families have done the hikes together. Moms carrying babies in chest packs. Sons and dads on Father's Day. A great-grandmother and three generations of descendants.
And dogs, of course. Many people bring their dogs. But a cat? An orange tabby named Gumgum completed the challenge, too, carried by its owner.
Each person who climbs all the peaks (and can prove it with selfies from the summits) is invited to email the evidence to park officials, who then print out a certificate with the hiker's name and leave it at the front desk of the Visitor Center. (Those submissions are how officials know how many people have completed the challenge.) When the hiker comes in to pick it up, she or he also receives a pin with the 5-Peak logo.
Except dozens if not hundreds of people have never come in to claim their certificates, which suggests that for them, it's the achievement that matters, not the mementos. It also suggests there may be hundreds who have done the challenge without telling park officials about it.
One downside to the project's popularity: Cowles Mountain isn't any less crowded. And now the other peaks are busier, too, which could mean more maintenance issues in the long term, an important consideration as officials move forward with a master plan update that aims to add another 2,600 acres to the park.
The update was approved by the City Council in May and is headed to the county Board of Supervisors later this year.