My husband, Larry, and I like inexpensive or free activities but found that many places in San Diego, California, were out of our price range. We were delighted when Escapees Marilyn and John Bintz #27791 told us about Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (SHP) and the surrounding area, as well as Cabrillo National Monument.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is one of the few free state parks in California. In 1968, the state acquired the six square blocks surrounding the original town plaza. They removed the nonhistoric buildings and restored or replicated the buildings from the 1821 to 1872 era.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is just what it implies: the original, old San Diego, which transitioned from a Mexican pueblo to an American frontier town. The many buildings focus on some aspect of Old Town’s development such as the printing shop, Wells Fargo history, the school, the jail, the stables and the blacksmith shop. The rest of the buildings are leased to shop owners and restaurateurs to sell products that fit into the theme of Old Town. This helps fund the park.
Our first stop was the visitor information center at the end of the plaza, where there were also historical displays. We then took a free ranger-led tour that allowed us into buildings that are not open to the general public. All the buildings are interesting, but I’ll highlight a few.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel was originally a one-story house, but it was enlarged to a two-story hotel/stage coach operation, which over the years was used as a boarding house, olive factory and restaurant. In 2010, it once again opened as a hotel, yet it still provides a real sense of what it was like to stay there in the 1800s.
The original La Casa de Estudillo (the house of the Estudillo family) had been converted for various other uses, but the restoration brings visitors back to the life when the Estudillo family lived there. Most of the rooms open onto the courtyard gardens. La Casa de Estudillo is considered to be one of the finest adobe haciendas in the state.
The livery has stagecoaches and wagons that provided income and transportation for the early settlers for moving equipment and getting agricultural products to market. The mail wagons were also a very important part of the early history.
In the same neighborhood as Old Town are three other places worth visiting: Presidio Park, the Mormon Battalion Historic Site and the county Heritage Park.
Presidio Park is on a hill that offers views of the surrounding area. It has monuments to honor the Mormon Battalion whose march of over 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego helped win California for the Union and opened a new road through the desert to the Pacific. There is also a monument to Fort Stockton, which under different governments had a variety of names and uses. The Mormon Battalion was housed there when they arrived in San Diego. The Junipero Serra Museum (requires a minimal charge when it’s open) is housed in the 18th century Mission San Diego de Alcala on the Presidio Park grounds.
Mormon Battalion Historic Site
Down the street is the Mormon Battalion Historic Site with an outstanding interactive program using holograms, sound effects, colorful displays and other multimedia to help visitors understand the Mormon Battalion journey. When the presentation is over, visitors move to a play area where children and the young-at-heart can pan for gold, build with clay bricks, wash clothing on a washboard and lead hobby horses to drink. They can also climb the stairs to a tower with a 360-degree view of the city. A farewell gift to visitors who have “taken the march” is an old-fashioned picture postcard of each visitor, framed with the words “Honorary Member of the Mormon Battalion.” The Mormon Battalion Historic Site is located at 2510 Juan Street, in Old Town San Diego. It is open daily, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., every day of the year including holidays. Large groups should make reservations by phoning 619-298-3317.
Next to the Mormon site is the county’s 7.8 acre Heritage Park with six old houses that had been saved from a wrecking ball and moved to the park for restoration to preserve their Victorian architecture. The houses are completed on the outside, and the county has plans to start renovating inside. Heritage Park also has Temple Beth Israel (1889), the first synagogue in San Diego, which also became a temporary worship center for many religious groups prior to establishing churches of their own.
With all there is to see and do, we wished we’d had more than the one day in the Old Town area. There are several free parking lots around the Old Town State Historic Site but are not for large rigs. For budgetary reasons, the state is closing some of the buildings certain days of the week, so before you go, check online (http://www.parks.ca.gov?page_id=663) or call the visitor information center at 619-220-5422 to learn if any of the closings may affect the day you plan to visit. The park is located on San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street in San Diego. Take Old Town exit 19 from I-5 and follow signs to Old Town.
To learn about other museums and older homes in Old Town that are outside of the State Historic Park, download guides and view helpful information at www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com.
Another enjoyable visit is the Cabrillo National Monument, which is on a hill on the tip of a peninsula in San Diego on the Fort Rosecrans Naval Reservation. With our Golden Age pass, we got in free. Both sides of the road were lined with a national cemetery.
Once inside the monument, we walked a coastline trail and watched surfers. We ate lunch on a bench overlooking the ocean and then drove to the visitor center, where there was a short walk to the original lighthouse and a statue of Cabrillo. We also watched a movie about Cabrillo, who was the first European explorer to discover the West Coast of the U.S. There were great views of San Diego Harbor and the naval yards.
For driving directions, go to www.nps.gov/cabr/planyourvisit/directionstocabr.htm, which gives directions from four different points of departure. Cabrillo National Monument is open 364 days a year, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but closed Christmas Day. For security purposes, all visitors must exit the park by 5:00 p.m. The entrance station closes at 4:30 p.m., while the main gate into Cabrillo National Monument is closed at 4:45 p.m.
So, thank you, Marilyn and John Bintz #27791, for giving Larry and me two days of free sightseeing while enjoying San Diego.