San Diego: Exploring Fauna, Flora, and More in Balboa Park

Photo by Brett Shoaf

For culturally minded visitors, San Diego makes it easy. Some 15 museums are located in one beautiful urban space: Balboa Park, a jewel located in the heart of the city. Established in l868, and encompassing almost 1,200 acres, the park hosts 13 million visitors annually.

They come to explore everything from  art to history to zoology.

Known as the Smithsonian of the West, the park offers the added attractions of eight gardens, walkways, hiking trails, an IMAX domed theater, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, where free Sunday concerts are held at the world’s largest outdoor organ.

And there’s still more — a separate area of Balboa Park acts as the site of the famed San Diego Zoo.

I  began my exploration with a guided walking tour that left from the Visitors Center. As we strolled along El Prado, a wide, palm-tree lined walkway, we learned about the park’s wide-ranging flora. Our guide pointed out a huge Moreton Bay fig tree, one of the largest trees in the U.S. (The tallest tree in the park is a 180-foot-tall eucalyptus, he added.)

The museums, too, are impressive in their diversity. One building alone houses the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Model Railroad Museum and the San Diego History Center.  Most of the Spanish Colonial buildings date from San DIego’s 1915-1916 and 1935-36 expositions.

The Mingei International Museum focuses on folk art, while the San Diego Museum of Art,  the city’s largest art museum offers an outdoor Sculpture Court Café, a delightful place to relax.

Another highlight was the Old Globe Theatre, which is actually three theaters. The best known one is the Old Globe, a circular building which looks just like the original in London and hosts summer Shakespeare festivals. But there’s also a larger open air theater and an arena stage.

The theater complex is situated behind the Museum of Man — one of the park’s most striking buildings. Built in 1914, it’s the tallest structure in San Diego. Its tower is crowned with a beautiful tiled dome.

Photo by Richard Benton

The next day, I visited the world-famous San Diego Zoo, home to more than 4,000 animals, including exotic and endangered species like the giant panda. (You can find them in just three other American zoos.)

Since the Zoo covers a large expanse, I began with a guided bus tour. It’s also an accredited botanical garden with 6,000 different trees and plants, I learned: including numerous banana trees, from which the Zoo’s gorillas daily feed.

We zipped by the 7.5 acre Elephant Odyssey, where we caught glimpses of these 12,000-pound animals. Not only do these thirsty creatures drink 30-50 gallons per day, our guide also noted that they get a daily pedicure.

Other areas we passed included the Polar Bear Plunge, Monkey Trails, and Gorilla Tropics.

When the tour was over, I followed signs to re-visit a few areas and get close-up views of the animals in their habitats. They seemed entirely undisturbed by the visitors peering at them with cameras pointed.

After two days, I’d still barely scratched the surface of Balboa Park’s multi-faceted offerings, but the beauty of the natural — and man-made — gems whet my appetite for future visits.