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Right off the 94 Freeway in San Diego's Oak Park neighborhood, a dense grove of eucalyptus trees conceals one of the more pleasant oases of the inner city: Chollas Lake Park. On any warm, summer evening, as the sun's coppery rays and a cooling breeze sifts through the aromatic leaves, a hundred people or more are making their way on foot and bikes around the curving, unpaved trackway surrounding the lake.

People-watching along the lake's 0.8-mile looping path is always interesting, as you'll see a fairly representative cross-section of San Diego's diverse ethnic population. Most people circle this perimeter trail in the counterclockwise direction. If you travel clockwise, you'll soon have a nodding acquaintance with nearly every visitor.

Chollas refers to the native coastal cholla cactus that grows in sometimes-dense clusters on undisturbed hillsides from here through parts of east and southeast San Diego toward San Diego Bay. Cultivated specimens of this fearsome plant can be seen along the park's short nature trail, which rises north of the lake. Below (west of) the earthen dam lie more chollas in their native habitat, clinging to steep, dry slopes.

The below-the-dam section of the park, a broad canyon rimmed on its north side by a tall and obviously artificial berm of earth, is crisscrossed by dirt roads and single-track pathways -- all good for additional exercise. At one time this bowl-shaped depression was slated to receive municipal refuse, but that never panned out. Today, planners look forward to converting this somewhat raw-looking landscape into more civilized parkland -- and indeed the picnic ground on the canyon rim and a new ball field in the canyon bottom are partial realizations of this goal.

The entrance to Chollas Lake Park is located on College Grove Drive, 0.2 mile west of College Grove Way and west of the College Grove regional shopping center. The main parking lot often fills to capacity, but plenty of additional off-street parking is available in the picnic area farther west on College Grove Drive. The park is open from 6:30 a.m. to sunset. Call 619-527-7683 for more information.

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