Historical Walk in Balboa Park

Balboa Park’s desert gardens
  • Balboa Park’s desert gardens

The 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition site in Balboa Park is renowned among San Diegans for its incomparably beautiful Spanish-Moorish buildings, its gardens, and the graceful Cabrillo Bridge. That area is the primary destination of the walk described here, which is one of 20 mapped and signed walks being developed throughout Balboa Park’s 1200 acres. You’ll be following signs for Trail 31 throughout. A detailed map of this route (and other park trails) is available at balboapark.org/maps/maps.php.

At the Park Boulevard/Presidents Way intersection, first locate the brand-new trail gateway sign at the northeast corner. Head east on the sidewalk leading directly toward the former Naval Hospital headquarters building —- now the administrative offices for Balboa Park. Climb the stairs, swing left around the headquarters building, and enjoy the pergola-bounded courtyard behind it. Comparatively few people visit this elegantly landscaped space.

From the courtyard, swing north and edge by the Balboa Park Activity Center (table-tennis, badminton, volleyball, and the like practiced inside). You emerge along the sidewalk following Park Boulevard. Continue north along the fenced perimeter of the current Naval Hospital. After a short distance you come upon the spacious Rose Garden, and just past that, the Desert Gardens, a hillside covered with exotic succulent plants from around the world.

At the far north end of the Desert Gardens, you emerge at the intersection of Park Boulevard and Village Place. Cross Park Boulevard at the traffic light there and head west past the massive Moreton Bay fig tree that stands in front of the entrance to the San Diego Natural History Museum.

At the next street crossing, jog slightly left and pick up Old Globe Way on the far side. You skirt the south boundary fence of the San Diego Zoo for a short while and then turn left, just short of the open-lath Botanical Building. Swing alongside the front entrance to the Botanical Building, passing right over the majestically serene Lily Pond. Need we say you should have your camera along?

Just ahead, you reach the park’s central square, Plaza de Panama, bounded by two art museums on the north and various historical structures dating from the 1915–16 Exposition on the south. The plaza is now devoted to parked cars, but it’s slated to be transformed into pedestrian-only gathering space in time for the Exposition’s centennial in 2015.

Following Trail 31 signs (which are plaques embedded in the sidewalk in the park’s historical areas), continue west along El Prado, past the Museum of Man’s lofty California Tower and all the way across the Cabrillo Bridge, using the north-side sidewalk. The 450-foot-long, 120-foot-high bridge, begun in 1912, uses a multiple-arched cantilever structure, which was innovative at that time and timeless in its form.

At the far side of the bridge, cross over the El Prado roadway and pick up the south-side sidewalk for the reverse passage (east) across the bridge. The historic Cabrillo Freeway (the 163) curves below, leading toward the cluster of high-rises that bolsters San Diego’s image as a true city. Many a classic postcard photo was taken from this vantage.

Returning to the California Tower, swing right just ahead for a passage through Alcazar Gardens, and edge along the lushly landscaped upper rim of Palm Canyon. You cross over Presidents Way and skirt the Organ Pavilion, which houses one of the world’s largest pipe organs. Travel north from there past the Japanese Friendship Garden, and return to Plaza de Panama.

Make a right now, and go east on the traffic-free section of El Prado, passing museums on both sides. Continue all the way to the circular fountain. Finally, make your way down to the west-side sidewalk on Park Boulevard, swing right, and follow that sidewalk back to the corner of Park Boulevard and Presidents Way, your starting point.

Historical Walk in Balboa Park
A newly signed trail route in Balboa Park highlights familiar and obscure park spaces.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 1 mile
Hiking length: 3.0 miles round trip
Difficulty: Easy

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