The lakes at Santee Lakes Regional Park were built on 190 acres by the Padre Dam Municipal Water District in the 1960s to handle the wastewater disposal issues of a growing suburban community. The way in which the problem was handled was unique and ahead of its time. What started out as a wastewater treatment facility became a series of seven man-made lakes that are clean enough and attractive enough for a public park and resort-like activities.
The hikes are on flat terrain and are paved around the lakes. Although not much of a challenge for the athlete, the trip is worthwhile for anyone with even a passing interest in birding. The lakes support a wetlands ecology, boasting 175 species of birds, both native and non-native. American coots, mallards, wood ducks, cinnamon teals, great blue herons, great egrets, and many other water fowl can be easily spotted in the lakes. The coots and mallards are particularly tame and will approach people since the park office/general store sells bird food. The herons and egrets are less approachable, but good photography opportunities abound, even for those without a telephoto lens.
Take time to view the trees as well as the water for backyard birds such as jays, finches, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, goldfinches, swallows, and many others. For those new to birding, bring binoculars and a warm jacket if the weather is cool. Viewing birds often requires a bit of time standing still, so you are not likely to work up a sweat in cooler weather. The best time for viewing birds is early in the morning, so arrive as soon as the park opens (6:00 a.m., Friday through Sunday) for the most bird activity. Food and drinks are sold at the general store, and there are restroom facilities throughout the park.
Be on the lookout for native plants, as well. One end of the park sports a native plant garden, but throughout the park both native and non-native species can be found.
Santee Lakes has many other recreational activities to offer. The lake is stocked with fish for the aspiring angler. Daily fishing permits, sold at the park, are required. There are camping facilities, including cabins on the lake, boat rentals, and playgrounds. Check the website for special events: santeelakes.com.
The park charges $3 per car during the week and $5 per car on the weekends. Camping, area rentals for parties and other activities also require fees. See the website for details. While bicycling to the park can certainly be done, you will likely find that you want to park your bike when you get there and walk around the lake to best enjoy the birds and avoid the many anglers. Pets on leashes are also welcome.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 19 miles. Allow 25 minutes. From I-15 or SR-163, drive east on SR-52 and exit on Mast Boulevard and turn left (east). Drive for 1.4 miles, then turn right (south) onto Fanita Parkway. After 0.8 mile, the Santee Lakes entrance will be on the right (west).
Hiking length: Three trails of 1k (.62 mile), 3k (1.86 miles), and 5k (3.1 miles) that loop around the lakes.
Difficulty: Easy. Great for small children. Handicap access to one of the lakes and a playground. Facilities.
Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes: