In 1868 San Diego’s founders carved out a large swath of undeveloped land to create a public park, just outside downtown. Although Balboa Park’s (www.balboapark.org) fanciful buildings and road system were largely developed for two expositions in 1915-16 and 1935-36, the park is equally notable for its mature botanical collection.
Start your tour in front of the (1) San Diego Zoo (2900 Zoo Drive; www.sandiegozoo.org), which has free parking. Look for the (2) miniature railroad (popular with pre-teens) and continue south, wandering through the (3) Spanish Village Art Center (1800 Village Place; www.spanishvillageart.com), a working artist colony designed by Richard Requa. Exiting the art center, you'll encounter a colossal (4) Moreton Bay fig tree planted in 1915, with a canopy sprawling 120 feet (36 meters) across. It is one of the park’s many trees that stand as a legacy to horticulturalist Kate Sessions, who had a nursery at the northwest corner of the park starting in 1892. Known as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” Sessions (with landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr.) was principally responsible for the transformation of the park’s raw mesas and canyons into the botanical treasure it is today.
Head one block east on Village Place and cross Park Boulevard. Just beyond, in the undeveloped eastern reaches of the park, you’ll see stark Florida Canyon, one of hundreds of “finger canyons” that lace the city’s environs. The scrub-filled canyon is close to what Sessions and Parsons had to work with when they started planting and landscaping in the 1890s. Turn right and enter the (5) Desert Garden. Originally landscaped in 1935-36, many of the plants here are those that thrive in the typically arid conditions that are common in the eastern part of San Diego County. Most of the cactus, agaves, aloes, and euphorbias produce unusual flowers in winter. Wend your way south along the paths and you’ll come to the beautifully maintained (6) Rose Garden. The 170 varieties of roses—2,000 plants in all—are in bloom almost year-round, peaking around Easter.
A pedestrian bridge takes you back across Park Boulevard to a fountain and El Prado, a promenade through the heart of the park, passing a lily pond. At the prominent junction, (7) Plaza de Panama, turn left and head for the (8) Japanese Friendship Garden (2315 Pan American Road East; www.niwa.org), a museum celebrating Japanese gardening concepts. You’ll find a traditional sand and stone garden, wisteria arbor, bonsai exhibit, koi pond, and tea house serving light meals. Across the street a pathway leads into (9) Palm Canyon, the entrance marked by another enormous Moreton Bay fig tree. Follow the wooden footbridge and stairs into the canyon, where more than 50 species of palm thrive, including century-old Mexican fan palms. The trail leads up to the Old Cactus Garden, developed in 1935.
Return to the bridge and bear left into the (10) Alcazar Garden. Originally developed for the 1915-16 Expo, this formal garden evolved into a recreation of the palace courtyards of Seville, Spain. Pass through the garden to El Prado and head east toward the Plaza de Panama.
Immediately after passing the Timken Museum you’ll return to the lily pond, and just behind is one of the world’s largest wood lath structures, (11) the Botanical Building (1550 El Prado). The luxuriant display inside features ferns, orchids, bromeliads, palms, scent gardens, and carnivorous plots—more than 2,100 nonnative plants in all, most of which would otherwise find the local climate too dry. It’s a cool hideout on a hot afternoon and admission is free (closed Thursdays).
The little-trafficked road behind the structure leads back to your starting point at the zoo parking lot.
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