Balboa Park has 65 miles of trails that differ in length, difficulty, and scenery with 19 trails beginning at one of five gateways located at Golden Hill, Marston Point, Morley Field, Park Boulevard, and Sixth and Upas. Some of the trails are remote while others weave in and out of high tourist areas past museums and park venues.
This hike is a grand tour of the park that samples the best of what it has to offer. It links up both marked and unmarked trails and covers some of the more remote trails as well as interesting locations such as Morley Field Tennis Club, San Diego Velodrome, museums, the Starlight Bowl, and the renovated Japanese Friendship Garden and Tea Pavilion. The map and article describe a 10.4-mile walk or run that may introduce you to the numerous twists, turns, and unmarked trails within the park. It can be taken in sections or explored along the way, as there is no one correct route for this hike. Although some are remote, you are still in Balboa Park and never more than a mile or two from your vehicle.
The hike starts at the southeast corner of Upas Street and Sixth Avenue at the large map entitled “Balboa Park Trails – Sixth & Upas Gateway.” The route follows Trail No. 5 initially. Look for red-and-blue signs. From the large map, go east down the grassy slope and take the steep concrete path down toward SR-163. Cross over the Upas Street footbridge, built in 1946, and take a sharp left (north) turn after crossing the bridge. Follow the dirt trail over some steep but short slopes and take the left fork at each junction. Walking through this riparian area you will arrive at steep steps to Richmond Street. Turn right (south) at the top of the stairs and follow the road for about 400 yards where you will see another set of steps taking you down into the canyon again. Follow the No. 5 signs, again keeping to the left. Cross over the little wooden bridge built by Eagle Scouts and eventually arrive at the paved trail almost in the same place as you left it at the Upas Street footbridge.
Turn left (east), following the paved trail up and down until you arrive at a gate. Pass either side of the gate. Follow the road to the traffic signals on Park Avenue. Cross the street and just after passing the Optometric Vision Clinic, turn right (south) by the red curb onto an unmarked trail. This trail takes you to Morley Field Drive. Cross over the road and take the right-hand trail (unmarked) by the “Florida Canyon Nature Trails” sign. Follow this undulating trail until you join trail No. 12. Keep on the same trail until you see the No. 12 sign partly obscured by white paint. Turn sharp left down the hill and a further left (all unmarked) and over the wooden bridge to Florida Drive. Cross Florida Drive and pick up the trail to your left (north) going up the hill. Before reaching the dog park, bear right (south) onto an unmarked trail that will head back to the Morley Field Complex. Look for a No. 12 sign at the top. Follow a concrete path to the right to the San Diego Velodrome. Take the trail around the back (west) of the Velodrome to the main entrance. If it is open, you will be able to see cyclists. There are public restrooms near the front of the Velodrome.
Leave the Velodrome and head south following the line of logs by the trail. An unmarked trail dips steeply downhill. Take this path and follow the “Trail” signs down the canyon. You will eventually arrive at trail No. 22, which roughly parallels Florida Drive. Turn left (south). Follow the trail south. A left fork takes you back up to the to the canyon rim. Turn left and follow the trail past some bleachers (strange place to put them). You can take advantage of these seats to take a rest if needed. Follow this rim trail to the first clear trail to the left that will take you back down the canyon to trail No. 22.
This trail can be taken south for about a mile to the junction of Pershing Drive and Florida Drive. Make a U-turn at the Pershing Drive junction and follow the trail on the inside of the crash barriers up the hill to a point where Pershing makes a wide right-hand sweep. Go straight ahead on the dirt path for about 400 yards to where the zigzag path that you came up some miles ago appears. Take this trail down again to trail No. 22, and at the bottom turn right. You will come to a red gate and a tree. At this point you can cross Florida Drive to pick up the trail on the other side. A stream flows through here in the rainy season and you may have to jump a little to avoid getting wet feet. Follow the trail up to the first junction and turn sharp left (south) up the steep path to Zoo Place. Cross the street and pick up the concrete-and-dirt path that will lead you to the cactus garden, amazing elephant trees, and then to the rose garden. It is worth a stop here to smell the roses.
You are now in a more populated part of the park. Cross over the Park Boulevard footbridge to the Bea Evenson fountain at the east end of El Prado. The remaining part of the hike mostly follows trail No. 5. Look for the red-and-blue sign to your left at the Zorro Garden. You may see monarch butterflies here. Follow the trail down the canyon passing the exhibition hall then up the steep road. Cross President’s Way and walk across the grassy area to the back of the Starlight Bowl Theatre. This open-air theater is right under the flight path for Lindbergh Field. When airplanes flew over the theater, actors and musicians froze when a red light signal appeared; they did not continue the performance until a green light appeared, starting exactly where they stopped. Unfortunately, the theater bankrupted in 2011 with no performances since then, but plans are underway to renovate the theater and reopen it sometime after 2017.
From the theater, continue around the back of the Aerospace Museum, looking at the military planes outside the museum, and then continuing past the Automobile Museum to the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre. Here, there is a deviation from Trail No. 5. Immediately after the puppet theater, turn left down the steps to the beautiful 1935 Cactus Garden. This is a hidden gem. Take the canyon rim trail to the right and then turn left down into Palm Canyon. This is a beautiful shaded walk past massive eucalyptus and palm trees. Proceed to the wooden steps, turn left at the top along the boardwalk, across the parking lot to the Alcazar Gardens. When in bloom, the flowers here are spectacular. Take the archway exit opposite the Old Globe Theatre and turn left (west) past the Museum of Man and the spectacular California Tower (never a bell!). Walk over the Cabrillo Bridge, built in 1915, for excellent views of downtown San Diego still following Trail No. 5. Walk past the dog park and turn left (south) on Balboa Avenue. Either walk on the grass, take the path, or the road to the very end at Marston Point. Take a U-turn at the end, following the road until you see the familiar red-and-blue No. 5 sign. Take this concrete path to reach the Juniper steps. Go down this steep flight and continue to follow the No. 5 signs. The trail continues to wind through the park, under the Cabrillo Bridge and parallel to the noisy SR-163. Follow the trail to the steep concrete path — the same trail you came down when you started the hike — which takes you back up to the top. Marston House is on the right and the starting/finishing point is straight ahead after walking over the grassy bank.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 1 mile. Allow 10 minutes driving time (San Diego). Drive north on Sixth Avenue to Upas St. and park. The trailhead is on the southeast corner of the intersection.
Hiking length: 10.4-mile loop.
Difficulty: Strenuous. Elevation gain/loss 1350 feet. Includes dirt and paved trails, steps, and bridges. Facilities and water in Balboa Park. Dogs (on leashes) allowed.