The Great Outdoors in San Diego County’s Parks

By | March 01, 2017
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san diego county parks
Photo courtesy of SDC Dept. of Parks and Recreations

“The Upside of Outside” is the theme of the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation’s newly redesigned website.

“That’s one of our mantras,” said Jessica Geiszler, the department’s Marketing and Public Outreach Manager. “We’re constantly looking for ways to get people outdoors and active, and with more than 100 parks and preserves, that’s an easy thing to do.”

The county system covers some 50,000 acres, including 36 local day-use parks, 19 regional parks, 9 camping parks, 24 open space preserves, 11 historic sites and 3 community centers. Some 360 miles of trails offer visitors the chance to experience the county’s variety of environments.

“We have so many different climates,” Geiszler said, “mountains, desert, forests and we have the border.”

As an example of the variety in climates, she mentioned the 900-acre William Heise County Park in the mountains near Julian, which is at 4,200 feet elevation. That means in the winter months “you might see snow,” Geiszler said. Then there’s the change in the forest canopy with the coming of spring and summer. “You feel like you’re outside San Diego County,” said Geiszler, in that “you experience seasons.”

A little further east of Heise is Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Geiszler recommended the ascent to the summit as “a good hike, five miles roundtrip, moderate to difficult.” The mountain’s peak at 5,353 feet can offer a view of all of San Diego County from the mountains to the coast on a clear day. Another incentive for taking that hike, said Geiszler, is a “carved wooden secret picnic bench” at the summit. “You only know about it if you go.”

Then there are the desert parks. Agua Caliente is especially popular in the winter both for its beauty and solitude, and for the soothing mineral waters in its two naturally fed pools. Next door to Agua Caliente is Vallecito, which offers abundant wildflowers in the spring like the other desert parks. Vallecito is also home to a historic site: the reconstructed sod Butterfield Stagecoach station, one of the stops on the line which delivered passengers and mail between San Diego and the midwestern U. S. from 1857 to 1861.

Guajome Regional Park in Oceanside offers the best of the coastal environment. “It’s on the Pacific Flyway,” said Geiszler, “so hundreds of species of birds pass through.” At least 186 different species of birds have been observed within the park’s boundaries.

Past and present blend together in many of the county’s parks. Just off State Route 76 in Pala, at the northernmost edge of San Diego County, lies the rock foundation of a building with a large, cast-iron waterwheel attached to it. The foundation and wheel are all that remain of the Sickler Brothers Mill, which operated from 1881 until about 1890.

The Sickler Brothers’ operation was the first, and for many years, the only grist mill in North County. The site “exemplifies the ranching and homesteading period of the late nineteenth century in northern San Diego County,” according to a report published by the parks department in 2005. The parks department acquired the site in 1973 as part of the Wilderness Gardens Preserve. Gristmills attracted farmers who needed a large mill to grind and bag their grain from crops such as wheat, corn or barley to be ground into flour for sale.

The site offers a window on the county’s agricultural history, one that might have special appeal to Edible San Diego readers. The mill offered processing services to local farmers, a good example of local and sustainable agriculture in its day.

While preserving this history of local agriculture, the county parks are also working with other organizations to promote continuing sustainable agriculture today. The largest community garden in San Diego County is located in Tijuana River Valley Regional Park. With the help of a federal grant, and in association with the Greater San Diego County Resource Conservation District (RCD), the parks department opened the garden in 2002, offering leases to the public for 96 plots. The number of plots has now grown to 136, covering five acres, according to Ann Baldridge, Education Coordinator for the RCD.

“Members of the community garden come from all walks of life,” reads a description on the RCD’s website. “Young and old help each other, trading gardening advice, time, and the fruits of their labor—literally.”

Geiszler noted another community garden was opened in 2012 at Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. “Both [of the gardens] have waiting lists,” said Geiszler, who added that the department plans on making more plots available at the Tijuana River Valley garden.

horseback riding
Photo courtesy of SDC Dept. of Parks and Recreations

Other cool parks in the system:

Lake Morena Park in Campo: the parks department’s only official fishing lake.

El Monte County Park in Lakeside: a day-use park whose trail crosses the path of the historic flume that used to carry water from Lake Cuyamaca to the city of San Diego. Today the trail affords great views of the flume’s remnants, El Cajon Mountain and Blossom Valley.

Whether you’re a hiker, horseback rider, camper, gardener, or all of the above, the county parks system offers a hand-on experience of the outdoors.

To get all the info on what the parks system has to offer, visit their website.

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