LITTLE TRAVELED TRAIL IN BALBOA PARK HAS HISTORY
By Priscilla Lister
Far from the madding crowds in the center of Balboa Park is a trail in its southwest corner that takes you to a little-known historic building, a grove of Coast Redwoods, and under the boughs of some beautiful old trees.
It’s a part of trail No. 5 on the map of Balboa Park Trails, a new downloadable document available on the Balboa Park Web site, at http://www.balboapark.org/maps/TrailMapBalboaAndSixth.pdf.
The entire Trail No. 5 covers a lot of ground in the park — 6.6 miles of it, in fact.
But of course you don’t have to walk the entire trail in one fell swoop. I covered just the southwest corner and found a lot to enjoy.
Located between Sixth Avenue and State Route 163, this area southwest of Cabrillo Bridge is little traveled — and still seems to harbor some sad realities. Nearest to downtown and culminating in the flagpole at Marston Point, this part of the park attracts some homeless campers, whose deep-canyon digs near 163 I glimpsed from this trail.
But I encountered no trouble when I was there midday. And the city continues to make efforts to keep the homeless from making permanent camps in the park. They are allowed to sleep overnight, but are not allowed to camp in one place for long periods of time.
Before I began my walk, I bought a Balboa Park Recreation and Trail Guide map ($3) at its visitors center near The Prado restaurant. This is by far the best map for the park’s trails. You can download the basic map (see above), but this map for purchase is far more detailed in its trail markings.
I parked just south of Laurel Street and El Prado on Balboa Drive and began my meander on the concrete walkway to the west of Balboa Drive.
Right away was the first attraction here: old Brazilian Pepper trees bending over the walkway along with lots of yellow-blooming Chinese Flame trees, making for really pretty shadow plays.
I passed the horseshoe pits and headed down to Marston Point. Views of much of the downtown skyline are afforded here, since it’s really close to these very same buildings.
The flagpole that marks Marston Point was dedicated there by the Free Masons of San Diego County in 1927.
That was the same year the city fathers chose Robert Snyder’s Spanish Colonial design for the Fire Alarm Building, which opened in 1928. Few people know about this historic building, and it was kind of intended that way from the beginning.
“First of all, it was located on city park property, but far enough removed from the highly visible Panama-California Exhibition Buildings to afford privacy,” wrote Alex Bevil in his 1988 article, “Forgotten Sentinel on Marston Point: The History of the San Diego Fire Alarm Communications Building, 1928-1971,” for The Journal of San Diego History for the San Diego Historical Society (http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/88fall/forgotten.htm).
Secondly, Bevil wrote, since the building was on city park property, it wouldn’t be threatened by public or private buildings nearby for a long time. Thirdly, it had a commanding view of the city and could be easily reached by fire department headquarters then located at 10th Avenue downtown.
Snyder’s architectural partner was William Templeton Johnson, who had designed the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery building in the park (now San Diego Museum of Art) in the same Spanish Colonial style in 1926.
For over 40 years, Snyder’s building served as the fire alarm telegraph station for the city. The fire alarm communications network was finally moved in 1970 to the city hall complex downtown.
Today, the Fire Alarm Building by Marston Point is home to the city’s Park and Recreation Department’s administration.
Continuing along the walkway past the Fire Alarm Building, I encountered the chain-link fencing that protects the seasonal home of The Haunted Trail (now under construction). This annual Halloween event takes place this year from Sept. 25-Oct. 31, Sundays through Thursdays from 7 to 11 p.m. (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays except Oct. 26 and 27); and Fridays and Saturdays from 7 p.m. to midnight. You can buy tickets ($15 per person) online at its web page, www.hauntedhotel.com.
Walking along the back side of this fencing, I eventually hooked up to the part of Trail No. 5 that’s not paved, and headed down into the canyon through which State Route 163 whizzes.
It’s a steep stairway down through a very natural part of the park. To see the historic Cabrillo Bridge from below is an interesting sight.
Wandering back up into the park from the north side of that bridge, I continued on an unpaved trail and then hit the redwood trees.
Coast Redwoods are not really well suited for our climate, and you can see that they aren’t as hardy here as they are in Northern California. Some have had to be cut down when they died. But many of these mighty evergreen trees survive, having been planted for the 1915 exposition. Lots of that historic nature makes Balboa Park the gem that it is.
And Trail No. 5 shares a little more of it.