In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá established a fort, or presidio, very close to the Kumeyaay village of Koss’ai (Cosoy), overlooking the San Diego River. Mission San Diego was founded on the same hill location just a few months later by Father Junípero Serra. The mission later moved to its present location. After Mexico won its independence in 1821, residents settled at the base of the hill in the present-day location of Old Town. With Alonzo Horton’s “New Town” development in 1860 that led to San Diego’s current downtown by the harbor, there was a population shift away from the historic site. Despite this, Old Town remains one of the most visited areas in the state, now as a popular California State Park.
There are many places to start this walking tour, but the Old Town Transit Center offers both plenty of parking for drivers as well as access by trolley. In the underpass, take a moment to notice the mosaic illustrating the concept of geological layers. On the other side of Congress Street is the McCoy house and native plant garden. According to the California Native Plant Society, the McCoy house is located at Koss’ai, and the garden was planted with permission from the state park and in partnership with tribal healers to re-create an edible plant and ethnobotanical resource landscape. Like many parts of Old Town, the garden has also undergone changes since it was designed and planted, but this part of Old Town showcases important plants native to the region before the arrival of plants that residents and businesses brought with them. If the garden is closed, take a moment to notice the native birds and other wildlife that may be visiting there.
From the McCoy house, head to the main square, identifiable by the large flag pole, live oak, yellow elder, and pepper trees. Take a few moments to look around this square. The Robinson-Rose house is the visitor center and in front of it, you will find a sycamore tree and geraniums. If you turn left toward the Fiesta de Reyes, you will pass the Bora Bora restaurant where bougainvillea grows over the lattice. Note the tall palms, eucalyptus, and oak trees that rise about the roof tops of the historic buildings. One tree stands out in the center of Fiesta de Reyes, a tall pine tree.
While Old Town may be a place to find out more about contemporary foodways, the plaza of Fiesta de Reyes is a good place to find information about early eating in San Diego. Planted with fig and banana plants, various displays talk about the Columbian Exchange, or where Old World and New World foods came together creating cuisine not previously found in either place. Europeans brought to the Americas olives, grapes, and livestock, while the Americas sent foods such as corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, and chocolate to the Old World. There are also displays about the importance of cattle ranching, traditional ovens or hornos, and a display of the flags that have flown over San Diego. As a plaque announces, a specific California live oak (Quercus agrifolia) was planted in honor of the Kumeyaay. Prepared acorns were a staple for the first people of San Diego.
For more about the mixing of plants, visit the Mason Street School and Machado y Steward Museum. This area of the park is accessible from the main square by walking by the old courthouse, directly across the main square from Fiesta de Reyes. As you enter the area beyond the courthouse, heading toward the two museums, note the sycamores, pepper, tobacco, and olive trees as well as the succulents, like agave and prickly pear. Olive trees grow in an analogous Mediterranean environment in the Old World and were culturally important to the people who brought them here. In contrast, prickly pear could be used as a barrier, like a fence, to dissuade unwanted guests and contain livestock with its prickly pads.
Native agaves are an important sugary-carbohydrate food source. Just before the plant shoots its tall flowering stalk, its base is full of sugar. Native peoples throughout the Americas would harvest the agave hearts and roast them. To this day, one species, Agave tequilana (blue agave, native to Jalisco, Mexico) is used in many beverages for sale in Old Town, but many agaves can be juiced and processed in a similar manner. As you head to the small businesses, up to other museums and locations like the Whaley House or Heritage Park, what other plants do you see as evidence of the Columbian Exchange where the migrants brought with them a little bit of “home” to a new town on a new continent?
OLD TOWN WALKING TOUR
New World meets Old World at the base of Presidio Hill.
- Driving directions (Old Town): From downtown, take Pacific Highway north and turn right into the Old Town/trolley public parking lot, underneath the I-5 overpass. From I-8 west, exit on Taylor Street, cross over the freeway and continue toward Old Town. Cross the trolley/train tracks and turn left on Pacific Highway to access the trolley public parking lot. Also accessible via public transportation. Hiking length: 2 miles round trip. Allow 1 or more hours. Difficulty: Easy, 100 feet elevation change, though path may be steep. Facilities along route.