Balboa Park’s trail system is just about complete. After several years of planning and implementation, five trail “gateways” are in place, and a total of 19 trails emanate from those gateways. Throughout the park, sprucing up the trails and walkways have coincided with landscape improvements and police enforcement that has rendered the area much safer and more attractive to local residents and tourists.
Balboa Park’s exquisitely landscaped “West Mesa” section along Sixth Avenue is the destination for the hike described here. You’ll follow Trail 1, the shortest and smoothest (almost entirely sidewalk) of the five routes that emanate from the Sixth and Upas Gateway. This is one of the few trails in the park that (although not designated as such) might be considered viable for wheelchairs.
From the gateway sign at Sixth and Upas, head south on the palm-lined sidewalk along Sixth Avenue. At infrequent intervals, you see small trail signs guiding the way. The signage is innovative: Each sign has background color — blue for Sixth and Upas trails, and other colors for the other four gateways. The number for each trail lies inside a geometric outline (round for an easy trail, square for a medium-difficulty trail, and diamond for a difficult trail). Signs have directional arrows and often have a cumulative mileage figure.
After ten blocks of sidewalk travel, the Trail 1 sign directs you leftward on Laurel Street/El Prado, the street that crosses over the long Cabrillo Bridge to the east. As you make that turn, check out Founders Park on the left, with lifelike statues of Balboa Park’s early proponents. On the right, across El Prado, lies the statue of Kate Sessions, the horticulturalist known as the “mother of Balboa Park.” Starting in 1892, Sessions planted thousands of trees from around the world on what was at that time dry, scrubby hilltops and hillsides. Today, the landscaping on West Mesa serves as a de-facto botanical garden and arboretum.
Cross Balboa Drive, heading east toward the start of the Cabrillo Bridge (take the sidewalk across the bridge toward Balboa Park’s historic section if you are so inclined for a side trip). The Trail 1 route, though, veers left (north) just before the start of the bridge. You skirt a perfectly manicured lawn-bowling court and curve around a picnic site called Redwood Circle. Yes, those are coast redwoods planted around the periphery, far from their native foggy habitat up north. They do look a bit scraggly due to San Diego’s too-sunny climate.
As you continue north, now and again you’ll catch a treetop-level vista, off to the right, of the dominant building in the park’s historic area: the Museum of Man’s California Tower. Farther ahead lies a crossing of Quince Drive and a short passage through the Trees for Health garden, which highlights medicinal native and non-native plants and trees.
As you approach Upas Street, note a couple of gnarled oaks with puffy bark on the right. They’re in fact cork oaks. Dig your fingernails into the soft bark to find out for sure. On a bit farther, just short of the historic Marston House (tours offered), you return to your starting point.
Maps of Balboa Park may be obtained as PDF downloads by visiting balboapark.org/maps/maps.php.
Balboa Park’s West Mesa
Stroll through Balboa Park’s green and friendly west side.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 2 miles
Hiking length: 1.5 miles • Difficulty: Easy