23 HIDDEN GEMS IN BALBOA PARK
**THIS IS AN ONGOING PAGE OF UNIQUE HIKES AND PLACES TO EXPLORE IN BALBOA PARK**
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Balboa Park is one of the city’s most cherished treasures. It is actually one of the oldest parks in the United States dedicated to public recreational use, being reserved in 1835. The park gained notoriety during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition, both of which left architectural landmarks.
This place is BRIMMING with hidden gems all over the place. Every little nook has potential for a secret surprise and I really recommend keeping your eyes peeled. Here are our favorite spots (some secret and some just plain old amazing) that we recommend exploring while at Balboa!
1. BALBOA DESERT GARDEN
This is a historic garden that was created under the supervision of Kate Sessions in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition. Some of the largest cactus and succulent varieties can be found here. It is rumored that Dr. Seuss was inspired by the plants grown here and used these inspirations for the plants illustrated in his books.
2. JAPANESE FRIENDSHIP GARDEN
The Japanese Friendship Garden is an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama. It illustrates two cultures and creates an immersive experience into Japanese culture.
3. MARSTON CANYON & FOOTBRIDGE
Heading over the Upas St. footbridge takes you over highway 163, heading into downtown. This bridge was built in 1946 and connects Balboa Park to Hillcrest. The canyon is filled with multiple trails and greenery all year long!
4. MUSEUM OF MAN
Specializing in cultural anthropology, the Museum of Man explores the human experience from multicultural perspectives to spark dialogue, self-reflection, and human connections. During your visit, you’ll explore a variety of unique, interactive exhibits that cover a vast range of human history and culture.
5. NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
The San Diego Natural History Museum traces its roots to an enthusiastic group of amateur naturalists, who formed the San Diego Society of Natural History in 1874.
6. BRIDLE TRAIL
This trail is located west of Route 163 in Balboa Park, and in fact, during parts of the trail you will walk right alongside the freeway and underneath the Cabrillo bridge! There are redwood trees growing here, though sadly most have died within the past few years.
7. PALM CANYON
Palm Canyon is a tropical oasis, containing more than 450 palms (58 species) within its 2 acres. A true hidden spot in Balboa Park, the winding paths take the visitor into a shady, lush canyon.
8. SPANISH VILLAGE
Located between the Zoo and the Natural History Museum, these quaint buildings and colorful courtyard were originally built in 1935. They depicted a charming old village in Spain for the second California Pacific International Exposition. In 1937, the Village reopened as an art destination by a group of dedicated artists. During World War II the U.S. Army used the village for temporary barracks, and in 1947 it was reclaimed and restored by the artists.
9. BALBOA BOTANICAL BUILDING
The view of the Botanical Building with the Lily Pond and Lagoon in the foreground is one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park and a “must-see” destination in San Diego. Built for the 1915-16 Exposition, along with the adjacent Lily Pond and Lagoon, the historic building is one of the largest lath structures in the world.
10. MARSTON HOUSE & GARDEN
The Marston House was constructed in 1905 and was designed and built by the internationally renowned architects William Sterling Hebbard and Irving Gill for businessman George Marston. Today the home and garden are open to the public for tours.
11. HOUSE OF PACIFIC RELATIONS INTERNATIONAL COTTAGES
Housed in historic 1935 Exposition cottages, 32 groups promote multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural programs. Open Houses: noon-4:00 p.m. every Sunday, showcase the national traditions from many lands.
12. OLD CACTUS GARDEN
This historic garden was developed under the direction of Kate Sessions for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. It contains some of the largest cactus and succulent specimens in the Park and has also been developed to include the exotic African and Australian Protea plants. It is located on the west side of the Balboa Park Club.
13. BALBOA BMX BIKE TRAILS
Whether you are a hiker or biker, this area offers plenty of challenges and scenic beauty. With jumps, inclines, drops, twists and turns, I would imagine this to be a dirt biker’s heaven. This will connect you to the Bridle Trail, which is another beautiful, hidden gem in Balboa Park.
14. ARCHITECTURAL DETAILS
Have you ever looked at the details of the buildings? They are rich and often help to tell stories of the past. I’ve barely begun to examine them, but the more I do, the more significance I see in them.
15. WORLD BEAT CENTER
As a non-profit multi-cultural arts organization, they are dedicated to promoting, presenting & preserving the African & Indigenous cultures of the world through Music, Art, Dance, Education & Technology.
16. NIGHT EXPLORATION
Everyone knows how beautiful Balboa Park is in the day. But how often do you appreciate it at night? Yes, there are the nights of events when it is PACKED, but try going on an empty night when you practically have it to yourself. You’ll notice a whole new magic.
17. CENTRO CULTURAL DE RAZA
San Diego’s Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park was founded in 1970 as a Chicano Community Cultural Center and functioned as an alternative space that encouraged and facilitated artistic growth and cultural interchange in the San Diego/Tijuana region. The Centro’s mission is to promote preserve and create Mexican, Chicano, Indigenous and Latino art and culture.
18. BALBOA’S TREES FOR HEALTH GARDEN
Trees for Health is a 3.5 acre garden with over 77 medicinal trees and shrubs. Each plant comes with its own plaque identifying it as well as educational guides of the plant’s uses. What a gem of a spot!
19. GOLDEN HILL PARK
Golden Hill Park actually has the oldest features in the entire park, which is an old, stone fountain and staircase. It also has some gorgeous views of the city!
20. ZORO’S GARDEN
This sunken grotto built in 1915 is presently a beautiful butterfly garden, with plants favorable to butterflies at all stages of life. But back in 1935-36, it was a nudist colony causing quite a stir with the public!
21. SECRET BRIDGES
Balboa Park has many secret bridges, but one of our favorites is the one that take you over the 5 freeway. For now we don’t want to entire blow it up, so the freeway is your hint. See if you can find it!
22. INEZ GRANT PARKER MEMORIAL ROSE GARDEN
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden has over 2500 rose bushes (over 200 varieties), sitting on 3 acres of land. The rose garden is filled with a large variety of fragrant, colorful roses and oh so beautiful.
23. MINGEI INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM
The museum displays pieces by anonymous craftsmen of ancient times, from traditional cultures of past and present and by historical and contemporary designers. Their rotating exhibits have never failed to disappoint over the years and I always leave with a sense of uplift and inspiration. There are SO many talented artists out there!
Thanks to my sister who lives in La Mesa I am now aware of more than I imagined gracing Balboa Park. I lived in Escondido from 1955 thru 1969 and never visited any of these places in the Park. Thanks to my sister I will look forward to hopefully seeing all of these spots in the near future.
Escondido class of 1963
You left off one important place. . .SDHS! The “castle on the hill” still has the original gargoyles out front. Since 1892 San Diego High has been a gem for a number of reasons. Visit the Caver library to see notable graduates, look at past yearbooks, and read past issues of “The Russ” student newspaper. There’s also a super cool dvd that tells the history of the school and shows its many architectural changes. The school is set to change again, but thanks to Balboa Park, it has a renewed 50 year lease.