San Diego boasts more biodiversity than any other county in the nation and a great place to experience this remarkable display is by visiting local parks and gardens. From the manicured gardens of Balboa Park to the wild and rugged Anza-Borrego desert to beautiful protected lands along the coast, you'll find amazing outdoor experiences.
Recently rated in the top 10 parks in the United States in the Trip Advisor Travelers Choice Awards, Balboa Park features 16 unique gardens including the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden featuring over 2,400 rose bushes, and the Botanical Building with adjacent Koi and Lily Pond. The Botanical Building houses more than 2,100 plants including a fascinating collection of cycads, ferns, orchids and palms. Join the weekly 45-minute docent-led Botanic Building Garden Tour to learn about the origins, design and horticulture housed in the building. Balboa Park is also home to 15 museums and theaters as well as the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
And speaking of the Zoo, both the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, boast wonderful botanical collections. Both parks employ a team of horticulturists, arborists and gardeners who care for more than a million plants on a combined 1,900 acres. One of only six zoos recognized for their plant collections by the American Association of Museums (AAM), the Zoo holds distinctions in acacias, aloes, bamboos, coral trees, cycads, figs, gingers, orchids, and palms. Treat yourself to a self-guided walking tour, or join a monthly Botanical Bus Tour or look for special days with access to Orchid Odyssey. The Safari Park's accredited collections are the Baja Garden, Old World Succulent Garden, Conifer Forest, figs, palms, and the Native Scapes Garden.
A don't miss for plant lovers, the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas encompasses four miles of garden trails, including a wide collection of native and endangered plants, a whimsical children's garden, and the nation's largest collection of bamboo species. The garden offers a full line up of engaging events including workshops, plant sales and bird-watching tours.
Located on the eastern edge of San Diego County, an easy day trip from Downtown San Diego, is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California extending over 900 square miles. The park features 12 wilderness areas and hundreds of miles of dirt roads, offering visitors an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California desert. Wildlife in the park includes hundreds of species of birds, bighorn sheep, coyote, bobcat, kit fox and numerous reptiles and rodents. Each spring, the park explodes in color with an impressive display of desert wild flowers. The best way to plan a trip to the park is to start at the Park Visitor Center for maps and information. And be sure not to miss the over 130 metal sculptures created by artist Richardo Breceda. Located on private land in Galleta Meadows outside of Borrego Spring, this remarkable collection is free to the public and not to be missed if you're in the area.
Mission Trails Regional Park, located just east of the city, consists of 6,150 acres of open space. The highest point is 1,592-foot-high (485 m) Cowles Mountain, which is also the highest point in the city of San Diego. The park has over forty miles of hiking, mountain bike and equestrian trails, a rock climbing area, a campground adjacent to a small lake and the modern 14,000-square-foot Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor and Interpretive Center. The most popular hike in the park, Cowles Mountain trail, takes hundreds of people per day on a semi-strenuous hike to the summit for a 360-degree panorama of San Diego County.
One of the wildest stretches of land on the Southern California coast, the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Park is dedicated to preserving its namesake, the Torrey Pine tree and other indigenous wildlife in their native environment. A coastal wilderness of pine forests and sandstone canyons, the park offers hiking trails that wind their way along the cliffsand breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Look for seasonal sightings of migrating whales as they travel along the coast.
Just south of Torrey Pines, the Cabrillo National Monument Historic Park commemorates the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at San Diego Bay in 1542, the first European explorer to set foot on the West Coast of the United States. Apart from the historic significance, the park offers amazing views of San Diego's harbor and skyline, as well as Coronado and Naval Air Station North Island. Just below the monument, the stretch of coast has some of the best tide pools on the West Coast.
If water sports are your passion then don't miss a visit to Mission Bay Aquatic Park, the largest aquatic park in the United States. Encompassing 4,600 acres, the park offers water activities for all ages including kayaking, paddle boarding, wave runners and sailing. The park also has 27 miles of meandering shorelines with bike paths, play and picnic areas, fire pits and dozens of well-maintained restroom facilities. Mission Bay is also home to SeaWorld San Diego and excellent sport fishing with six public launch ramps, two fuel docks and a number of sport fishing boats at Mission Bay Sport Fishing, Seaforth Landing, Dana Landing and Sportsman's Doc.
San Diego's Wetlands are another wonderful place along the water to explore the region's diverse flora and fauna, as well as view a wide array of permanent and migratory bird species. Some of the more popular wetlands to investigate include the Tijuana Estuary, in Imperial Beach, the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge on San Diego’s Bay, and the Famousa Slough in Point Loma.
Located on the South side of Balboa Park, you'll find the Pepper Grove Children's Playground, named for the California Pepper Trees which provide shade to the expansive picnic area. The large playground is divided into two main areas, one for little tots and the other for older children—both feature large play structures.
The Waterfront Park, located adjacent to San Diego Bay is also a great place to play. The 12 acres of park space includes fountains, wading pools, playgrounds, and grassy picnic areas with views of the bay and downtown skyline.> Find out more about San Diego playgrounds
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For the ultimate guide to planning your San Diego vacation, view and download the San Diego Visitor Planning Guide, packed with useful information that will help you plan the perfect San Diego getaway.
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