Best Balboa Park Trails for Families, Dogs, Running, or First-Timers

How do you choose the best of 65 miles of Balboa Park trails? Here are your top choices if you’re with family, dogs, running, or for your first visit. I did hours of research for a recent family trip so you don’t have to. Enjoy more time on park paths rather than reading about them…or getting lost as I did.

The best Balboa Park trail for families with toddlers is the easy Sixth & Upas Trail #1. Golden Hill Trail #23 through Florida Canyon is tops for adult hikers. Dogs like Morley Field Trail #12 best for the bunnies. Runners will enjoy Park Boulevard Trail #33’s variety. First-time visitors take Marston Trail #44 for an overview of the park’s attractions.

Read on for more details about these Balboa Park trails. I’ve also reviewed two more alternatives in most categories. Because what is great for others may not be the best one for you. And you deserve a choice. 

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What Are The Best Balboa Park Trails for Families?

Which Balboa Park Trails Are Best With Toddlers?

The best toddler-friendly trail in Balboa Park is Sixth & Upas Trail #1. That’s because it’s short compared to others at the park and it’s a flat path. And it has both playgrounds and an exotic plants garden to appeal to both your youngsters and you.

Photo collage showing Balboa Park Trail #1 sign and a man and woman carrying two children.
  • Length: 1.5 loop trail
  • Terrain: Level, concrete sidewalks 
  • Time Needed: 25 to 40 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Easy

You and your kiddos will enjoy this stroller-friendly trail. Stop at the Sixth Avenue Playground first. It has a separate under-5-years section with a fire engined themed jungle gym. Your tots will have fun on the climbing bars, ropes, and slides. 

At the southern end of the loop, you’ll find the Trees for Health Garden. Take the  “5 Flavors Walk”. Make sure that you supervise your children and don’t allow them to chew on plants without you reading the signs first. But this area is sure to be a surprising taste and smell journey for both you and your tot.

Park Boulevard Trail #32 packs many varied sights into a short stroller-friendly jaunt that you’ll love as much as your kids do. In fact, you could spend a few hours along this path at all the attractions.

  • Length: 1.2-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Flat. Sidewalks and paved roads 
  • Time Needed: 15 to 20 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Easy

See cultural events at the International Cottages, cacti, sleek black A-12 Blackbird, and Convair YF2Y-1 “Sea Dart” planes, plus views of downtown San Diego and the bay, and maybe even Spiderman! Yes, this route takes you past the new Comic-Con museum.

If you have extra time and a bit of cash, catch a puppet show at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater. Visit the San Diego Automotive and the San Diego Air & Space museums. Then stop inside the Comic-con museum to make your little superhero happy.

Another highly recommended Balboa Park attraction for families with kids is the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp. The link goes to my guide to the San Diego children’s zoo. You’ll need to pay to enter the zoo, but it’s probably the very best way in San Diego for your kids to run wild.

Kid-friendly Balboa Park free walking tours are one of the best ways to see the highlights of Balboa Park. There are four of them. I’ve written about them all on my 53+ Free Things to Do in Balboa Park page. The free tours are all on flat terrain and are easy to navigate with a stroller. 

Looking for more cheap fun for toddlers? Check out my page on Sesame Place San Diego discount ticket deals for everyone.

Which Balboa Park Trails Are Best for Adult Hikers?

Golden Hill Trail #23 is the overwhelming favorite of experienced hikers in Balboa Park. The second choice is the Jerry Schad Memorial Trail (#43). The third’s the #5 Trail from the Sixth & Upas Gateway. Balboa Park trails are known more for their diverse cultural and natural landscapes, rather than extreme physical challenges.

Florida Canyon is the most popular hiking area because it is a large wilderness area with a network of paths to wander in. It’s a precious remnant of the once widespread Coastal Sage Scrub habitat. And you can string the trails together to make a hike 7 miles or longer. 

Photo montage - Balboa Park #23 trail sign and landscape along path.

Golden Hill Trail #23 is the most popular Florida Canyon trail among adult hikers because of its variety of natural and cultural landscapes and it’s rather long compared with most Balboa Park trails.

  • Length: 6.8-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Dirt paths, roads, and sidewalks. 
  • Time Needed: 1.5 to 2 hours 
  • Difficulty: Although marked “Difficult” on the Balboa Park Trails map, it is only challenging if compared with other paths in the park. If you are accustomed to some of the tougher east San Diego County hikes it will only be invigorating.

Trail #23 wanders through Florida Canyon and along the eastern border of Balboa Park. Then you go through the heart of Balboa Park past attractions like the Air and Space Museum, the Spreckels Pipe Organ, and the Bea Evenson Fountain. This trail also features vista views of the downtown San Diego skyline, the bay, Switzer Canyon, and the Balboa Park Golf course.

This popular Florida Canyon trail is beautiful during spring. In March the pear trees near the Bea Evenson fountain explode with fluffy white blossoms. And in mid-April through May, the canyon hills are splashed with wide swaths of yellow flowers. 

Marston Point Trail #43 is the second most popular trail among adult hikers because it winds through some of the most striking and oldest botanical specimens in Balboa Park

  • Length: 2.6-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Mostly sidewalks and road surfaced paths 
  • Time Needed: 35 to 50 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Medium. Only when compared to other Balboa Park trails. Closer to “easy”

On this tree-lined trail, you can play horseshoes at Balboa Club. Talk to the Kate Sessions bronze statue in Sefton Plaza (tell her that you appreciate all the planting she did in the park). Try lawn bowling. Then see the sausage tree in the Trees for Health Garden. Yes, they’re a real thing in San Diego. Unfortunately, burrito bushes are not.

This path was named for Jerry Schad, one of southern California’s most influential outdoor writers. His 2007 book, “Afoot and Afield: San Diego County: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide” covers 250 local hikes from the ocean to the mountains and deserts. Anyone interested in exploring San Diego on foot will find his book useful. 

Sixth and Upas Trail #5 is adult hikers’ third-rated Balboa Park trail because it takes you to see the most remote, least-visited parts of Balboa Park. 

  • Length: 6.6-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Varied. Mostly sidewalks and road surfaced paths but a quarter is steep dirt paths. 
  • Time Needed: 1.5 to 2 hours 
  • Difficulty: Rated “Difficult” only if compared with other Balboa Park paths. Closer to “Medium” if you’re accustomed to east county trails.

Trail #5 has a variety of walking surfaces and terrains. A quarter of this hike is steep dirt trails that can be slippery when wet. But there’s also plenty of peaceful walking on trails shaded by tall pines and oaks. 

Cultural highlights are the Marston House gardens, Desert Garden, Inez Parker Memorial Rose Garden, the Lockheed A-12 Blackbird in front of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and the bronze statues in Sefton Plaza. 

Which Balboa Park Trails Are Best For Dogs?

Leashed, well-controlled dogs are allowed on all Balboa Park trails. Remember to bring bags to pick up your pup poop. And a full water bottle along with a collapsible drinking bowl is always a good idea, especially in August and September when it’s usually hot.

Photo montage of Balboa Park Trail #12 sign and golden retriever wearing a blue bandana and holding a leash in its mouth.

Morley Field Trail #12 is great for dogs who crave natural scents and glimpses of bunnies and squirrels. It goes through less-traveled native landscape areas of Balboa Park. It’ll raise your heart rate with some major elevation changes

  • Length: 2.4-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Varied. Mostly dirt paths with some rocky sections 
  • Time Needed: 15 to 30 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Medium

If you’ve got a high-energy dog, walk the trail before you enter the Morley Field Dog Park

To do this, park your car at the Morley Field Dog Park parking lot. Then instead of going to the park, head north towards Upas. Turn left and cross Florida Drive. The trail will turn left. If you see Lion’s Optometric Clinic on your left you’ve missed the trail turnoff. Go back and take one of the trails headed into the park. 

You’ll cross Morley Field Drive before you get into the  Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve. Walking through this canyon will mellow out the most hyper dog. Canines love all the smells of the coastal sage scrub and you will too.

At the bottom of the canyon cross Florida Drive again and head north and climb out of the canyon.

The Morley Field Dog Park is at the end of this walk. By this time your four-legged friend should have burned off all of its nervous energy and will feel comfortable playing with the other canines.

Marston Point Gateway Trail #42 is a favorite for those looking for a heart rate-raising workout with beautiful views before taking their dogs to the popular Nates Point Dog park.

  • Length: 1.6-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Varied. Sidewalks, stairs, paved roads, dirt paths 
  • Time Needed: 35 to 50 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Medium

Trail #42 is not found on the Balboa Park app. You’ll have to use the pocket map sold at the Visitors Center instead. 

Park your car in the Marston Point Gateway parking lot which is close to the end of the loop road where Balboa Drive turns into 8th Avenue. Head north from there  to cross El Prado and drop by Founders Plaza on your left. Maybe take a selfie with you, your pup, and the full-size bronze statues of Ephraim Morse, Alonzo Horton, and George White Marston who were instrumental in creating Balboa Park. 

Then take a right towards Redwood Circle. Passing Redwood Circle on the left you’ll enter the Bridle Trail which goes downhill steeply to parallel the 163 freeway and go under Cabrillo Bridge.

Photo by _redditor4aday_

You’ll climb out of the canyon via the Juniper Staircase. Stop at the top for a bathroom break at the restroom and turn right towards the dog park. 

At Nates Point Dog Park your pup will meet plenty of canine friends to play with. And your four-legged friend with probably be as dog-tired as you in a very short time. Exit Nates and turn left on El Prado. Turn left again to get back to your car at the Marston Point parking lot.

Morley Field Trail #11 is a popular trail for older dogs. It has few elevation changes and has plenty of unusual sights for them to look at. It also takes you to the Morley Field Dog Park where your pup can play with others.

  • Length: 2.3-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Fairly level. Half grass, half dirt trails 
  • Time Needed: 15 to 30 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Easy

On your route, you’ll pass by the velodrome, tennis courts, baseball diamond, bocci ball, and pétanque courts. On weekends especially, your dog will have fun watching all of the ball games and you may be intrigued too. 

Morley Field Dog park is an open field, off-leash area. It has a dog fountain and several poop-bag dispensers. But the big field is not enclosed. Keep your dog leashed if they make a game of running away from you.

What Balboa Park Trails Are Best For Running?

Park Boulevard Trail #33 is the top running trail if you’re visiting Balboa Park in San Diego. It’s got a variety of elevation changes and gives you a sample of the diversity of cultural and natural attractions that Balboa Park has to offer. 

Photo montage Balboa Park Trail #33 sign, Florida Canyon and Administrative Garden Pavilion.
Balboa Park Trail #33, see wilderness and San Diego’s urban best.
  • Length: 3.7-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Varied. Sidewalks, paved roads, dirt paths 
  • Time Needed: 35 to 50 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Medium

Park your car in the lot by the Gateway sign on the northeastern corner of Park Blvd and Presidents Way. If you’re using the Balboa Park App, the location of the Gateway marker is shown on the wrong corner. Trust me. The sign is on the northeastern corner, not the northwest one.

The trail takes you through the seldom visited, but formally beautiful Administrative Courtyard Garden, the Rose, and Desert gardens. Then you go down, then up again through Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve. Afterward, you head to the more historical parts of the park. You’ll pass the Zoo, Botanical Building, lots of museums, the International Cottages, the 1935 Cactus garden, and the black jets in front of the San Diego Air & Space Museum.  

Morley Field Trail #11 is a popular trail for cross-country high school competitions. It’s easy to follow, has unusual views, and offers additional fitness options for you to try.

  • Length: 2.3-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Fairly level. Half grass, half dirt trails 
  • Time Needed: 15 to 30 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Easy

On your route, you’ll pass by the velodrome, tennis courts and can watch the canines play frisbee at the Morley Field Dog Park. 

In addition to running this course, you can also do parts of the Perrier Parcourse Fitness Circuit. It has 18 fitness stations including a log hop, bench leg raise, and a balance beam. 

Morley Field Trail #12 takes you through natural areas rarely seen by most Balboa Park visitors. You’ll usually see some flowers no matter the season. It will also raise your heart rate with some major elevation changes.   

  • Length: 2.4-mile loop trail
  • Terrain: Varied. Mostly dirt paths with some rocky sections 
  • Time Needed: 15 to 30 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Medium

You can either park your car at the Morley Field Dog Park parking lot, and bypass the Morley Field Gateway sign, or park in the tennis courts parking lot. 

This path will take you past the Morley Field Dog Park. Sometimes there are some talented frisbee dogs there. Then you wind down through the Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve. Watch for automobile traffic as you cross Florida Drive. 

On the way back to your car you’ll follow the canyon north to Upas Street, and then take a right to go back to the Morley Field Gateway sign or dog park parking lot. 

Yellow flowers carpet this area in late April and May. And the coastal sage scrub habitat is always fragrant.

Balboa Park’s Best Trail for First-Time Visitors?

Marston Point Trail #44 is the best Balboa Park trail for first-time visitors. That’s because this route features the most popular gardens, ornate buildings, and museums in a walk that can be completed in under an hour. Or you can spend all day and explore all the attractions you’ll see along the way.

Photo montage of Balboa Park Trail #44 sign and Plaza de Panama fountain.
Balboa Park Trail #44 takes you past some of the most popular landmarks in San Diego
  • Length: 3.3-mile loop trail (take almost a mile off with the tip below)
  • Terrain: Mostly level, sidewalks and roads 
  • Time Needed: 30 to 50 minutes 
  • Difficulty: Medium

To make the walk a bit shorter, don’t start the trail at Marston Point Gateway. Begin at Balboa Drive and El Prado. To do this, enter the park at Quince Street and Sixth Avenue. Turn right on Balboa Drive where you’ll usually find parking spaces. Then walk down to El Prado and turn to go across Cabrillo bridge and through the Museum of Us archway. 

Highlights of this Balboa Park route are:

Balboa Park Trails Maps — What You Need to Know

To get the most out of Balboa Park trails you’ll need the official trail map, the park app, and your usual map program on your mobile device. That sounds like a lot, but they compliment each other. Together they’ll help to to easily navigate the paths and identify what you’re seeing along your route.

It’s hard to get lost in Balboa Park. This is an urban area, and it’s popular with hikers and walkers. There’s usually someone within shouting distance who can help you. And you’ll never be more than half a mile from homes or well-traveled portions of the park.

Travel with a buddy or a group of people. That way there will be someone with you if you fall or injure yourself or if you need assistance for any other reason.

Where Do You get Balboa Park trail maps? 

Download the official Balboa Park trail map PDF at the link or buy one at the Balboa Park Visitors Center. The last time I was there they were under $6 each.

Photo collage of the Balboa Park trails map unfolded and folded into 4" by 3" pocket size.

How to Read the Balboa Park Trails Map

The map key is complex and can be confusing. But once you get accustomed to it, the nomenclature makes sense. Let me simplify it here for you.

There are 5 “Gateways” or trailheads for hiking. They are named for their locations at: 

  • 6th and Upas
  • Morley Field
  • Park Boulevard (on the northeast corner of President’s Way and Park Blvd)
  • Golden Hill
  • Marston Point. 

Signage throughout the park is slightly confusing. The trails are numbered sequentially from each gateway. Here’s where each trail originates:

  • #1 thru #5 at the 6th & Upas Trails Gateway
  • #11 thru #13 at Morley field Trails Gateway
  • #21 thru #23 at Golden Hill Trails Gateway
  • #31 thru #34 at Park Boulevard Trails Gateway
  • #41 thru #44 at Marston Point Trails Gateway

Surrounding the trail number is a shape signifying the degree of difficulty.

  • Circle = Easy
  • Square = Medium
  • Diamond = Difficult

You’d think that San Diego’s parkland crown jewel would have excellent trail markers. But it’s hit and miss. Some trail markers are easy to see, and others are hidden or just gone. That’s why you’ll need the Balboa Park Trail Map PDF, and your standard mapping app like Google Maps. Printed, foldable copies of the Balboa Park Trail Map are available at the Visitor’s Center Gift Shop for under $6 (the price as of the last time I stopped in).

Photo of Balboa Park trail markers embedded in concrete sidewalk

Within the urban museum and plaza areas look down for signs. They’re often embedded in the concrete sidewalks at your feet. 

On the dirt paths, there are metal signs. Some are visible and useful. Others have been vandalized, knocked down, thrown to the side, or simply been overgrown by vegetation.  

The Balboa Park App Trails Map Geolocation is Erratic

Keep your usual mapping/navigation app operating while using the Balboa Park app. That’s because the user location shown on the park’s program can be off as much as a quarter-mile. This is evident from the screenshot images below. The Google Map screen has me located correctly within the confines of the park by Marston Point. However, the Balboa Park App shows me playing in four lanes of traffic on Interstate Highway 8.

Should You Download the Balboa Park Trails App?

The Balboa Park App is a disappointment but is still worth downloading. It’s good for general directions and showing you details of the major attractions that you see in the park.

In the “Tours & Trails” section there are short descriptions of each trail (except Marston Point Trail #42, don’t ask me why…), trail length, and how long it takes to finish it. It also has photos of suggested stopping places and what to look for along the way. But double-check your location against your usual mapping app.

You can download the free app here:

iPhone App Store

Google Play

There’s one more error on the Balboa Park Trails app. The Park Boulevard  Gateway sign is shown in the wrong spot. It’s actually located on the northeast corner of Park Blvd and Presidents Way instead of the northwest one. That makes sense. There’s a large parking lot on the east side of the street where hikers can park their cars.

What If You Meet a Homeless Person on a Balboa Park Trail?

You will see homeless people in Balboa Park. It is an unfortunate reality. But most do not want trouble. They have enough of that in their lives already, so they’ll usually avoid you.

If you do meet the homeless on a trail, confidently look them in the eye. Acknowledge them with a, “Hi”, “Hello” or “Good Morning”. Then move on. Kindness is contagious and very much appreciated by all people, especially by those who have little.

If you are asked for money, it is ok to say with strength, “I am not able to give money, but have a good day.” And walk on your way in a deliberate, focused manner. If they insist, say NO forcefully. Don’t argue. Just say “No” and move on.

Most homeless people will not get aggressive. But listen to your gut. If you’re suddenly worried about your safety, pay attention to that feeling! The best way to avoid trouble is to just not go there. If the situation seems unsafe, turn around and return to a spot with more people.

What’s The Best Balboa Park Trail for You?

I hope that you’ve found this article on Balboa Park paths useful. I’ve tried to make it as complete as possible and answer all the questions about navigating the Park that I could think of. But if you’ve got more questions or comments, leave me a message on my Contact Page. Now go forth and have an excellent adventure on a Balboa Park trail!

Nancy Ulrich

I'm nuts...about animals, polymer clay, mixed media art & husband Bob. Happily planted in San Diego among good friends, family that I would have chosen if given the choice and optimism for a bountiful future for us all.

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