Splendor of San Diego
• Photo gallery: San Diego
By Allan Seiden
Special to The Advertiser
If I had to live on the Mainland, I'd choose either Manhattan or San Diego: Manhattan for its growing-up-there familiarity, high energy and grand scale; San Diego for its casual sophistication and easy access to the great outdoors.
Sandwiched between the Pacific and California's inland desert, San Diego offerss a glimpse of the glories that have lured millions to settle here, despite decades of explosive development.
Here are five ways to make the great outdoors part of a San Diego visit.
POINT LOMA / CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT
Point Loma juts into the Pacific in a rise of steep, rocky cliffs that climb to a 422-foot summit adjacent to Point Loma's historic lighthouse, providing a bird's-eye view of downtown San Diego and its surroundings. Battleships, ant-sized on the horizon, grow into formidable war machines as they head past Point Loma, heading toward San Diego's navy shipyard. Still a key naval base, San Diego was home to the U.S. Pacific Fleet until February 1941, when Pearl Harbor took the title.
The view extends well beyond the city — south to the mountainous Mexican border, east to desert flatlands, and west toward the deep-blue Pacific's western horizon, a brilliant sun burning a long path across an ever-changing pattern of waves and swells, open ocean all the way to Hawai.
The lighthouse, built in 1855, is now the centerpiece of the Cabrillo National Monument that includes much of Point Loma. If your timing is right, there are talks and excursions by National Park Service rangers, but the park's trails are easily navigated and enjoyed.
Visitors can choose a short summit trail to the lighthouse or a longer, more strenuous walk to the coast, where a new, automated lighthouse is located. The wind blows in strong gusts, often carrying misting clouds that block the sun, dropping temperatures 20 degrees in just minutes. During the summer, spouting humpbacks in transit to Mexican waters and smaller grey whales can be seen amid the whitecaps.
How to get there: From I-5 South or I-8 West, exit at Rosecrans Street; turn right on Canon Street then left on Catalina Boulevard. From I-5 North turn left on Hawthorne Street exit, right on N. Harbor Drive, left on Rosecrans, right on Canon, and left on Catalina. www.cnmf.org.
TORREY PINES STATE NATURAL RESERVE
This 2,000-acre preserve to the north of downtown is renowned as one of the wildest stretches of Southern California coast, home to the endangered chaparral ecosystem that includes the rarest of all pine species, the Torrey pines. The visitor center provides an orientation to the reserve's eight miles of trails, with ranger-guided nature walks offered on weekends and holidays.
There are cliff-top and coastal segments to the reserve. Bluff-top trails cross deeply gullied terrain favored by the hawks that find these hills a congenial home, feeding on small mammals and an occasional rattlesnake, which inspires hiking with a cautious eye.
Overlooks provide long coastal views and the wide expanse of beach at the base of these sandstone cliffs. Time a beach hike for the afternoon when the low-lying sun paints the towering cliffs in brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow and creamy white, evidence of the sedimentary layers that formed them.
Sunsets can be spectacular, red-orange sky silhouetting flocks of gulls and other species. Be prepared with a sweater, since sunset also means a rapid drop in temperature.
How to get there: Located between La Jolla and Del Mar, Torrey Pines is reached on Highway 5, exiting on Carmel Valley Road, driving west to Highway 101. Turn left and proceed along the beach for about a mile. www.Torreypine.org/parks/basic-information.html
SAN DIEGUITORIVER PARK
This effort at ecosystem restoration begins with the wetlands that form where the San Dieguito River enters the sea at Del Mar. It's a flat landscape carved by the meandering flow of the San Dieguito. The walk to a bridge ends midstream. Now a bridge to nowhere, it once crossed the San Dieguito to reach the airstrip built on landfill decades ago. Storyboards tell of the restoration effort that saw the removal of the landfill and airfield, restoring 115 acres to this intertidal marsh.
Today, quiet beauty prevails, with birds, not planes, taking to the sky with many species on view from the boardwalk and trail that skirt the wetlands' southern border. These wetlands are the first portion of a riverine park that, when completed, will run all the way to the San Dieguito's headwaters at Vulcan Mountain, 55 miles to the east, with non-contiguous portions of that trail already open to hikers.
How to get there: For directions and trail brochures for the San Dieguito Park, www.sdrp.org.
ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK
Anza was a Spanish explorer, Borrego the name for the resident bighorn sheep that still populate this wild landscape of flatland desert and rocky hills. California's largest state park, its 12 wilderness areas offer many miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty.
We've decided on the streamside trail that winds its way uphill into an increasingly narrow canyon. All is peaceful now, but there are clues to less tranquil times, with giant palm trunks wedged between boulders by surging, muddy waters marked on boulders high above me. En route I spot a quick-moving Kit fox and several mule deer, ever alert to danger, their movements monitored by golden eagles circling overhead, scanning the landscape for a meal. Shrubs and cacti dominate as we make our way upstream, reaching our goal — an oasis of tall, thick-trunked palms wreathed in layers of dried fronds that remind me of the elegant, ground-length feathered capes once worn by Hawaiian chiefs. As the sun retreats behind the mountains, we head back, a dinner stop in the rustic desert town of Julian the perfect finale to the day.
How to get there: Plan for two hours from San Diego proper, heading east on Highways S22 and 78. The road offers spectacular views of the Colorado Desert. Highway S2 enters the park from the south off I-8. The rustic town of Julian, about an hour from Borrego, is a great place to stock up for a hike (water, snacks) and as a stop for shopping and a meal. www.parks.ca.gov.
MISSION TRAILS REGIONAL PARK/COWLES MOUNTAIN
Cowles Mountain, the centerpiece of the 5,800-acre Mission Trails Regional Park, rises 1,592 feet from the dry suburbanized flatlands only eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego. The park offers many miles of trails, the most popular being the hike to Cowles Mountain's summit, with seven trails to choose from.
The meandering trail up the mountain's north-facing flanks is a popular choice for families with nonstop, ever-wider panoramas offered by a sometimes steep, sometimes gradual ascent. The landscape is dry with lots of exposed rock, dirt and clusters of hardy shrubs, with nothing tall enough to block the view. The summit rewards the effort of the uphill climb with 360-degree views that take in everything from ocean to desert, accompanied by a cooling breeze and a warm sun.
How to get there: Interstates 5, 8, and 805 get you to the state roads that lead to the Mission Trails Regional Park. For directions and trail options, www.mtrp.org.