It’s no secret that I like to find secret places for our family to explore — wherever we go. This is what I call our Secret Family Hike on the Old Presidio Historic Trail in Old Town San Diego — in the midst of a huge tourist magnet. When I’ve given away this “secret” to friends, I don’t think anyone has ever admitted to exploring this area of Old Town.
Directions to Old Town: From Orange County, take Interstate 5 South and exit at Sea World Drive and drive towards Sea World. At Fiesta Island, you’ll turn left (away from the island) at the first light onto Fiesta Island Road which turns into Pacific Coast Highway. Turn left at Taylor and try to turn right onto Congress past the Red Trolley Station. There are a number of parking lots along Congress — the first one is directly across from the station. I like this one because there is a restroom there which makes it convenient for families.
This is where you’re headed. From underneath the boughs of old pepper trees, you’ll spy a flagpole up on the hill. And when I say “old pepper trees,” I mean OLD! The pepper tree on the patio at Casa Guadalajara restaurant down the street is rumored to be over 200 years old.
If you are standing at the Cosmopolitan Hotel right off the main square, then you’re almost to the interpretive trailhead on Mason Street. In spring, you’ll be greeted by scenes like this:
Look for signs marking the trail starting at the corner of Mason Street and Juan Street. This “What’s at the end of the trail?” question format gets the kids motivated for the next sign, especially when you are heading uphill:
It’s rough dirt terrain on a wide trail where we’ve spotted hawks catching the updrafts set against views of the San Diego Harbor, airplanes taking off from the airport, Point Loma, and the Coronado Islands in the distance. You can also take steeper dug-in-the-dirt stairs or side trails to reach the top. We go a different way every time, but you can always orient yourself to the flagpole above or Old Town below.
You’ll first come upon an Arbor and the Mormon Battalion markers.
It’s lush, shaded, and beautiful with grassy picnic areas at the top of the hill. There are quiet places to sit and usually a bit of an ocean breeze from the bay. Explore the park and trails and you’ll eventually end up at the Serra Museum.
It’s a photographer’s dream and has quite the view all its own towards Mission Valley. The arches are reminiscent of California mission architecture.
And be on the lookout for spring color!
- All of the Old Presidio Historic Trail Interpretive Sign Markers are here in a PDF for a preview of what you will learn (or just be surprised when you get there!)
- Perfect outing for 4th grade homeschoolers learning about California history and missions
- Check Serra Museum website for official hours
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park official website
- Presidio Park Map
- Use the restroom before you leave Old Town. I believe there’s one at the Serra Museum, but the museum is not always open.
- In their explorations of the trails, the kids stumbled upon a tiny homeless encampment. No big deal, just be aware of your surroundings.
- Not really stroller-friendly, unless you walk up Jackson Street (but cars drive fast and there’s no shoulder).
- There is quite an elevation gain, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to run up the hill.