Finding a personal path

San Diego is a suburban jungle — a maze of freeways that snake among tract-home ghettos and vibrant community centers. But punctuating the cityscape of new construction and older urban areas are patches of green.

Lyon Liew
Guardian

The land in San Diego County buckles and folds, and canyons are tucked away between suburbanized mesas. Mountains rise from the east. Many of these areas are parks: designated outposts of wilderness within the dense development.

The trails that wind through the parks of San Diego can provide tranquillity and a sense of solitude in the midst of the crowded city; others are overrun with hikers and bikers and traffic that rivals La Jolla Village Drive’s at rush hour. Some are paved and easy to navigate; others send their visitors crashing through underbrush or straining uphill. The county’s outdoor hot spots vary, and many are within easy reach of UCSD.

Lyon Liew
Guardian

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Just a few miles north of RIMAC on North Torrey Pines Road, where the gated communities and wooded bluffs give way to the windy coastline, the entrance to the Torrey Pines State Reserve sits unassumingly at sea level. Once past the fee station and the first parking lot, the park road winds upward.

About 8 miles of trails branch from this road. A handy map guides the always-numerous hikers, who range from youthful parents with toddlers in tow — some of the trails are that low-impact — to Spandexed, Walkman-toting power-walkers, to students out for fresh air and dramatic views.

Torrey Pines’ trails feature a surprising variety of terrain. The trees that give the reserve its name frame sandstone formations and all is underscored by the beach below.

The park’s phone number is (858) 755-2063. There is a $2 parking fee, and the park is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until sunset.

Marian Bear Memorial Park (San Clemente Canyon)

A dramatic contrast of man-made urbanization with the beauty of rare riparian landscape is visible in San Clemente Canyon, where the 52 freeway links Interstates 5 and 805.

It shares the canyon with Marian Bear Memorial Park. A stream rushes parallel to the freeway. Paths cross and re-cross the stream, and forks slide under hangings of poison oak and low-slung branches of oaks and sycamores.

The bulk of the trail — especially the section between Genesee Avenue and I-805 — is flat and relaxing. However, the densest shade and greatest sense of isolation can be found west of Regents Road because the trail winds through a light-dappled grove of trees. Of course, the trickling of the stream is nearly always eclipsed by the roar of cars on the 52.

You can park off Regents Road or Genesee Avenue, just below the 52. Also, a particularly pretty path from behind Standley Park in University City will lead you into the park. Information is available through the Tri-Canyon Open Space Park Ranger at (858) 581-9961.

Tecolote Canyon Natural Park

Nearly 7 miles of trails spread through Tecolote Canyon, which is one of the largest canyons in the county. The park within this canyon stretches its many fingers from Mission Bay to Clairemont.

Along the rims of the canyon are houses the values of which are largely due to their peering view of the park below, and the nearby Tecolote Canyon Golf Course, which is within park limits.

The best place to enter the park’s system of trails is at the Visitors and Nature Center at the east end of Tecolote Road. From there, the trail is easygoing, and the vegetation is calming. In the last mile of the trail, it climbs steeper and runs along a creek.

Like Marian Bear Park, Tecolote Canyon Natural Park is also administered by the Tri-Canyon Open Space Park Ranger, whose phone number is (858) 581-9961.

Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve

Mira Mesa may seem like the last place in San Diego where one would expect to find a bit of woodland preservation. The development that has occurred there in the last decade has turned most of the area into a monotonous landscape of planned communities. But off Black Mountain Road and Mercy Road is an oasis of trees and coolly shaded hiking.

Los Penasquitos Canyon’s 3 miles of trails wind through 3,000 acres of lush preserve. The hikers there are those in search of a hidden spot in suburbia and the rush of the Los Penasquitos Creek “”falls”” — really little more than a charming area of constriction in the creek’s flat route.

The preserve lies between Interstates 5 and 15. Information is available from the park ranger at (858) 538-8066.

Bayside Trail, Cabrillo National Monument

At the tip of Point Loma, one can look west to the Pacific, south toward Mexico or east to the San Diego Bay, Coronado and downtown beyond. Bayside Trail hugs the southeastern coast of the point, and offers dramatic views of the boats slipping in and out of the bay.

Along the gravel-covered trail, wildlife struggles for a niche among the rocky coastline terrain. The trail is educational, as well, as sporadic plaques have much to say about the character of the vegetation.

The walk is gently graded and steep in places, but the gravel makes it far from challenging. From the lighthouse, the mile-long trail descends 300 feet in elevation, and ends 90 feet above the water. Trail-end views of the ships, birds and city are dramatic.

The phone number for visitor information about the Cabrillo National Monument is (619) 557-5450.

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