Guide to Public Parks in San Diego

In a city as big as San Diego, public parks are not hard to find. Some are as large as several city blocks. Others are merely a few acres of land. Either way, there are more than 35 public parks near the downtown or greater metropolitan area.

Of all the parks, there are several that stand out. Mission Bay Park covers nearly half of the bay area; Balboa Park holds several major attractions within the city; and the Mission Trails Regional Park has the some of the highest elevations within the city’s limits.

Types of Park

According to San Diego’s Parks and Recreation website, there are two categories for parks. Some parks are considered open space parks while others are developed regional parks.

The difference between the two is in their names; open space parks are open plots of land with little or no development. Often, these are huge places with natural features such as rivers, mountains, meadows, lagoons or marshes.  Most, if not all, are natural preserves and offer overnight camping.

Developed regional parks have attractions and other added features. In San Diego these places may have museums, zoos, stadiums, or sports fields. Also, they have various types of trees or botanicals gardens planted along concrete pedestrian walkways.

Open Space Parks

Mission Trails Regional Park is possibly the largest. Located in eastern San Diego near the Santee border, the 5,900 acres of hilly land offers hiking trails and camping areas such as Kumeyaay Campground. This park has several peaks over 1000 feet. Also, it is the source of the San Diego River.

Another large park is a collection of canyon lands known as the Tri-Canyon Parks. Marian Bear Memorial Park, Rose Canyon Open Space Park, and Tecolote Canyon Natural Park and Nature Center comprises of up to 1,500 acres. The parks are popular among hikers and mountain bicyclist. Also, the area has natural habitats for birds indigenous to the area.

Other open space parks include Los Penasquitos Canyon Reserve, a 4,000 acre park with many endangered animal and plant species as well as a waterfall.  The Black Mountain Open Space Park (2,352 acres with hiking, biking and equestrian trails), boasts the highest point in San Diego with the 1554 foot summit of Black Mountain.

San Pasqual/Clevenger Canyon Open Space Park and Otay Valley Regional Park make up the other open space parks.

Another area of interest is Black’s Beach, which was once known as Torrey Pines City Beach or Torrey Pines State Beach. This two-mile long beach has 300 feet cliffs (used for hang-gliding), an unofficial nude beach area, and a preserve for one of the rarest coastal pine trees in the world, the Torrey Pines. The state beach is one of only two areas where these trees grow.

Developed Regional Park

Mission Bay Park and Balboa Park are two of the largest urban parks in the state of California. Also, they’re the ones the most visited. Mission Bay Park comprises much of the eastern and southern shores of Mission Bay.  Balboa Park covers two mesas to the east of downtown.

The two parks are the cultural and recreational centers of the city. Balboa Park contains San Diego’s 14 main museums, Balboa Stadium, and performance theaters such as the Old Globe Theatre – a reproduction of the original Shakespearean theater.  Also, the park contains the San Diego Zoo, possibly the most visited and most popular zoo in the country.

The 4,235 acre Mission Bay Park has the other main attraction in the city. Sea World is located on the bay’s southern shore near the area where the San Diego River empties into the Pacific. The aquatic theme park is a tourist destination known the world over.

While Sea World is the most popular destination in the park, it is not the only attraction. The half-water, half-land park has several islands including Fiesta Island and Vacation Isle. Fiesta Island has a campground and boat launch area. Vacation Isle has several restaurants, a beach, and a place to launch boats, as well.

Mission Bay is considered a developed regional park because the bay was created from a dredged wetland once known as False Bay.  Today, it has several marinas and coves used for anchoring watercrafts.

Another park of interest is Presidio Park. Located on a hill at the entrance to Mission Valley and above Old Town San Diego, this 50 acre park is a historical site. The Presidio was one of the first structures built in the region. Also, it has 2 miles of trails and a variety of native and non-native plant species.  It also has The Serra Museum which has artifacts from San Diego’s early days on display.

Finally, there’s the Shoreline Parks. Extending from Torrey Pines City Park South to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park outside Ocean Beach to the south, this region showcases San Diego’s most spectacular natural sites: its sea cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

This is not a full list of public parks in the region. However, these are some of its largest. More information for opening times, special events, and seasonal programs can be found at San Diego’s Park and Recreation website.