This hike explores key areas in Balboa Park that were part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. As you walk, consider the fact that visitors were enjoying much of the same sights 100 years ago. Start your hike by the Moreton Bay fig tree in front of the NAT. The 80-foot-tall giant is a 104-year-old ficus macrophylla tree with a trunk 42 feet around and a canopy spanning 145 feet. The tree, native to eastern Australia, was planted in 1910 as the focal point of a formal garden for the exposition.
Begin walking down Village Place on the west side of the museum, past the Casa del Prado Theatre. Turn right onto El Prado, past Casa de Balboa on the left, which houses the San Diego History Center, the Model Railroad Museum, and the Museum of Photographic Arts. Casa del Prado, on the right, houses a variety of arts groups. Do not forget to look up and around; the Spanish-Moorish architectural features of the buildings are fascinating with exquisite detail. Feel free at any point to visit any museum that attracts your interest. If you have taken advantage of the Balboa Park Explorer annual pass, one pass will get into 17 different museums that normally charge individual general-admission fees.
Continue down El Prado to the lily pond, on your right, in front of the botanical building. The pond has a lovely collection of lotus and water lilies, with colorful koi swimming in the water. You may see a family of ducks swimming among the lily pads. If the botanical building is open, take a walk through this free arboretum for a cool and beautiful side excursion.
Next, the path curves in front of Mingei Museum, marked by colorful statues. Pass the museum and walk down the steps into the lush, green Palm Canyon. Abruptly, it feels as though you have stepped in the midst of a tropical forest, dropping below the level of the main promenade. Follow the path until the first fork, then head to the left to join up with the main Palm Canyon trail. At this point, either walk up the steps and follow the sidewalk next to the Houses of Hospitality or continue to follow the Palm Canyon trail along a parallel lower path. The path will eventually rise up to the left, back to street level, with some easy riser steps marked by wooden rails.
Back at street level, pass the Balboa Park Club. Walk around the back of the club to find a lovely xeriscape garden. Although the garden is not exclusive to native plants, it is quite beautiful with artistically arranged planters of cacti and succulents at the back of the building. For a rest stop, pause at the benches and tables behind the club next to the cactus garden overlooking the canyon. The garden contains a wide variety of cacti, succulents, acacias, creosote, agave, and protea.
After coming back out of the xeriscape garden, pass the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre and the Recital Hall on your right and head back toward the museums. The Air & Space Museum is next. Be sure to circle around the back of the museum to see a spectacular cityscape view. Then pass the Starlight Bowl, followed by the San Diego Hall of Champions sports museum. Cut back through the courtyard of the Houses of Hospitality. On Sundays, one of the countries’ houses could be holding a cultural event, including food for sale.
After exiting the Houses of Hospitality courtyard, walk to the Organ Pavilion. There are usually free organ concerts on Sunday mornings, as well as many other special events. The Japanese Friendship Garden is on the other side of the Organ Pavilion.
For a restroom and refreshment break, stop by the courtyard next to the Prado restaurant. Afterward, return to the El Prado way and walk toward the fountain between the NAT and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Cross the bridge over Park Boulevard to get to the rose garden. After admiring the roses, enter the larger cactus garden. When you view the spectacular and fanciful shapes of the cacti and succulents, it will suddenly become apparent where Theodor Geisel might have found his inspiration for the fanciful tree drawings in his Dr. Seuss books. Finish the hike by crossing back over the bridge and returning to the NAT.
- Distance from downtown San Diego: 2 miles. Allow 7 minutes driving time. From Broadway, turn north on 11th Ave., then east (right) on A Street, then north (left) on Park Blvd. Turn west (left) onto Village Place and park. Parking is free in the lots in front of the museum and across the way by the carousel. This hike begins and ends at the San Diego Natural History Museum (the Nat), located at 1788 El Prado.
- Hiking length: 3-mile loop.
- Difficulty: Easy, with less than 50 feet elevation loss/gain on pavement with stairs/trail in Palm Canyon. This walk can also be on pavement only. Come early in the morning for cooler temperatures and easier parking. Good for children.