San Diego: Places Worth Visiting
San Diego’s self-anointed nickname “America’s finest city” is maybe too cliché to underwrite what is in most respects a fine city. The weather in this city of 1.35 million is impeccable. With a dry, moderate year-round climate San Diego is roughly at the same latitude as Charleston, South Carolina, (32 degrees North) but without the humidity. For those who need to compare its geography and its climate it can best de described as something between desert subtropical and Mediterranean. These factors naturally make it a draw for tourists and vacationers and a number of top attractions have people pouring into the city year-round. It’s also the oldest city in California established by Spanish Franciscan friars, who founded the Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first of the twenty-one California missions that line the El Camino Real as far north as Sonoma.
Air travelers find themselves landing at Lindbergh International Airport, a mere two miles from downtown. It might as well be downtown: if you drive I-5 aircraft fly no more than 300 feet over head on their approach to the runway. Lindbergh Airport also happens to be the busiest single runway in the United States and flights leaving and taking off have to wait their respective turns. If you are sitting on the right hand side of the aircraft you won’t help noticing a sea of gold buildings adjacent to the runway. Locally known as MCRD, or the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, it is one of two in the United States. Its sister facility is Parris Island, South Carolina and it is on one of these two basic training facilities that America’s finest fighting force cut their teeth and are turned into the few and the proud. The facility has existed since 1919 and is one of many military installations in San Diego. San Diego’s designation as a “navy town” grew out of World War I when the harbor was improved for a navy facility. The rest is history and the city has gone from expanding on its military economic base to diversifying into high- and bio tech and, of course, tourism. Visiting MCRD is well worth the trouble of checking in at the gate and getting a pass. Start at the museum across the street from the main gate. Later, drive around to the parade-deck and look at the buildings. Most of the buildings are listed on the national historic register. Built in a hacienda style with red tile roofs they beautifully reflect the history and culture of the area. This makes it one of the most unique and beautiful military bases in the United States.
Close to the airport and MCRD is Point Loma, a beautiful peninsula with rugged headlands that top out 400 feet above the Pacific Ocean. If you drive to the end of the point you’ll reach Cabrillo National Monument, which is open from 0800-1700 hr. A five dollar entrance fee will allow access for a week. Often overlooked by visitors the views from the Point are excellent. On clear days you can easily see Tijuana, Mexico and the Coronado Islands. Great views of the city skyline can be seen from the promenade behind the visitor center. There is little if nothing left behind of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 landfall except for some artifacts in a small interpretive museum adjacent to the visitor center. However, a nice monument commemorates Cabrillo, who was a Portuguese sailing under the Spanish flag. The highlight of this small national park is clearly the natural setting. Take some time to explore the tide pools on the west side of the park and a walk up to the old lighthouse is also worth the effort. While Cabrillo was the first European to set foot in what is now San Diego, the city’s foundation began more than two hundred years later and the original old town now preserved as Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is another site, free of charge, that shouldn’t be missed. Located close to the junctions of Interstates 5 and 8, visitors can get a glimpse of what San Diego was like in the nineteenth century. Situated below Presidio Hill, OldTown has a number of original structures that date as far back as 1827. There are a number of interesting buildings to see in OldTown and not to be missed is the Casa de Estudillo, the oldest building dating from 1827. Build in adobe style it is one of the oldest surviving structures in the state. Down the street is the Whaley House. Although not part of the state historic site, the Whaley house has its share of history. The Greek Revival House, built in 1857, is a popular tourist attraction mostly because it is said to be haunted. Just up the hill within walking distance of Old Town is Heritage Square, a collection of beautifully restored Victorian buildings. Overlooking OldTown is Presidio Hill, the site of the original Presidio of San Diego. Although only foundations of the fort remain it is a nice place for a picnic and there is a museum that documents the earliest of San Diego’s settlement.
Just north of downtown San Diego is Balboa Park, which is a huge city park famous for its many museums and the world famous San Diego Zoo. Of all the things to see in the city, arguably the Zoo is a must and should be a priority on anyone’s list. The size of its collection ranks it as the world’s largest zoo, with well over 4,000 species, and its specialty is rare and endangered animals. Top attractions include the Giant Panda, Koalas, and the newly opened (Spring 2009) Elephant Odyssey. Founded in 1916 the Zoo also includes the California Condor and the Komodo Dragon among its denizens. Some of these rare species are at the Zoo’s Wild Animal Park in Escondido, about 30 miles to the north. WildAnimalPark has a smaller collection themed mostly along African species and it has a shuttle-driven safari which costs extra. Entrance fees to the Zoo are $33.00 per adult at the time of writing. Active duty military can get in free if they show their military ID card. Besides a collection of art, history, natural history, and air and space museums, Balboa Park has a beautiful cactus garden that is worth the extra side trip. Located along Park Avenue the museums are free on Tuesdays.
Downtown San Diego has a number of attractions mostly located along the waterfront along Harbor Drive. The U.S.S. Midway is permanently docked there and is now a floating museum. Good views of North Island Naval Air Station across the bay, where the active carriers dock when they are in port. The CoronadoBridge is not high enough to allow these huge ships to go pass underneath where the main San Diego Naval Station is located. The Embarcadero has other things to do as well and it is here where cruise lines embark mostly to Mexico and whale watching tours can be met. Close to the Embarcadero is the Gaslamp Quarter. A Bohemian, run down area of the city until urban revival in the 1980s and 1990s transformed it into a trendy district with bars and clubs. Many of the buildings are Victorian high rises that are a century old, hence the namesake. Another neat little downtown neighborhood is Little Italy, which has a number of, you guessed it, Italian restuarants. It's within walking distance of the Embarcadero. Across the bay is the independent municipality of Coronado. Ferries stream across the bay to and from San Diego mostly to ferry commuters. The city is most famous for its iconic hotel, known locally as “The Del”, or in full the Hotel del Coronado, which was built in the 1880s.
Head north on I-5 and you will come to Mission Bay Park, a huge waterside park with multiple bays and inlets and an outlet to the ocean. This park is great for biking, jogging, or boating. It’s also home of Sea World San Diego, one of the most visited theme parks in the United States. Opened in 1964, Sea World San Diego is the oldest of the Sea World theme parks, which are owned and operated by Anheuser-Busch. Coupled with the Zoo it is San Diego’s premier tourist attraction. Besides the rides, dolphin and orca shows, and the Shark Encounter exhibit, Sea World has an excellent collection of marine mammals on display. Before heading north on I-5, go east on I-8 down Mission Valley. Two historic sites are worth visiting. The Mission San Diego de Alcala, which was relocated to its present site in 1773, was moved to secure a more reliable source of water. Still an active parish, the current edifice dates from the early 19th century. Take some time to wander the gardens and courtyard. The botanical specimens are of interest. Related to the mission is Mission Gorge Dam, about a 5 mile drive to the east from the Mission on Mission Gorge Road. Located in Mission Trails Regional Park are remains of the dam built by the Kumeyaay Indians under the direction of the Spanish friars. If the dam itself does not impress you the surroundings will as steep and rocky granite peaks rise overhead. The park is a haven for bikers and hikers.
Head back toward the ocean on I-8 west, and then north on I-5 toward La Jolla. Before winding through La Jolla’s steep streets, drive up to Mount Soledad for unparalleled views of the city. The cross at the summit commemorates veterans and each has a picture etched out of granite with the years of service and their branch of service. Views are good all around. There is no entrance fee. Drive down into La Jolla and visit La Jolla Cove, which has a number of sheltered inlets. Children’s Beach usually hosts harbor seals and dolphins are commonly sighted close to shore. Snorkeling is also good here but the water is a bit cold. After you’ve seen La Jolla Cove you can also visit the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, another option and the only other Aquarium in San Diego with the exception of Sea World’s. The Birch Aquarium is small, owned by the University of California San Diego, but it specializes in the marine life of southern California and Baja. The kelp exhibit is a top draw of the aquarium as well as the sharks. The view from the back porch is expansive and takes in most of La Jolla. The last stop in San Diego is Torrey Pines. Better known for hosting the PGA classic, the Torrey Pines State Reserve preserves a unique specimen of pine, the Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana), the rarest pine tree in the U.S. It only grows here and on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands. Walk up to the bluffs and there are a number of trails along the cliffs’ edge that overlook the Pacific Ocean. You can also opt to walk the beach.
If you head north there are a number of interesting places to see. Some, like Legoland in Carlsbad, are for amusement while others such as the San Diego Botanic Gardens (formerly Quail Botanical Gardens) in Encinitas are great for walking and taking in the various flora, both foreign and native. The Botanic Gardens are free the first Tuesday of the month. Both Legoland and the Botanic Gardens are not too far off the I-5 corridor and Carlsbad is about 30 miles north of San Diego depending upon where you are in the city. Legoland is better suited for a young audience. The rides might not be too exciting for adults but there is also an aquarium at the park and the Carlsbad Premium Outlets just down the hill. Take some time to drive or better yet, walk, the Promenade to get sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean along Armada Drive. This walk is best done when the Carlsbad flower fields, just below the Promenade, are in full bloom. The explosion of color is amazing. North of Carlsbad is Oceanside. The most interesting thing to see is the Mission San Luis Rey, nicknamed “King of the Missions” Founded in 1798 the current structure, quite large in relative terms and in comparison to the other twenty California missions, dates from 1811. The interior is no less spectacular. There are some interesting historical sites on the grounds as well. If time allows drive U.S. 76 (east) to Palomar Mountain (6140’). Palomar is more of an elongated ridge than a mountain but its shear vertical scale becomes noticeable especially after a snowfall. A road goes all the way to the Palomar Observatory parking lot and it is free to visit the gigantic telescopes. If astronomy isn’t your thing the beautiful pine forests atop the mountain are a reprieve to the parched lowlands typically found throughout the county. You can see the high point of this huge mountain from the observatory grounds, marked by a lookout tower, but access by hiking is prohibited unless you hike from the east side of the mountain via the Oak Grove trail. Most of the land is within the Cleveland National Forest as is the Observatory parking/picnic area. Covering more than 600,000 acres mostly in San Diego County, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. A long, scenic, and winding drive up and down steep canyons is the only way there from points west. Follow routes 78 and S22. A full day there won’t be disappoint. At a minimum try to hike Borrego Palm Canyon, a three mile hike (RT), which follows a canyon sheltering groves of the gigantic Washingtonia palms. The park is also famous for the Desert Bighorn Sheep and spring wildflowers. Other sites of interest include the boulder fields, Maidenhair Falls (seasonal), Indian petroglyphs, and narrow canyons that are a few feet across at the top. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is recommended only between October and May as temperatures in the summer of 110 Fahrenheit are not uncommon. Along Highway 78, 22 miles east of Ramona is the town of Julian. Known for its apple pies and orchards the main drag in the town is lined with cute curio shops, candy, and pie companies. It's fun to visit this little town whose elevation at over 4000 feet brings some relief to heat in the lowlands and valleys. There are actually trees here too that are tall enough to be called trees, and not the typical shrubs you find in the Cleveland National Forest. Avoid the town on weekends, especially during the fall and holdiay weekends, as Julian becomes a virtual tourist trap.
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