Spring into Balboa Park's outdoor wonders

Balboa Park is in the midst of its 100th springtime since becoming the official cultural hub of San Diego in 1915. Translation: There is no better time than now to rediscover - or, experience for the first time - the park's outdoor wonders, from scenic hiking trails to unique gardens whose blooms are prime for picnic season.

It all started leading up to the Panama Canal opening in 1914, when San Diego became the first port town on the West Coast for boats traveling north. City leaders saw tourism dollar signs in San Diego's newfound geographical status and began developing Balboa Park as an attraction; by 1915, the Panama California Exposition kicked off what would become a two-year showcase of cultural events happening in the park. As planned, the local economy, and city's population got a boost, because believe it or not, once upon a time, people had to be convinced to move here.

For part one of Balboa Park Explorer, we're encouraging readers to stop and smell the roses by enjoying the park's outdoor offerings, including local and exotic flora, planted in many cases by Kate Sessions herself. Whether you're taking a cliché selfie in front of the park's Botanical Building, following a hiking trail that passes under Cabrillo Bridge, or enjoying a moment of reflection in Zoro Gardens, the former grounds of a nudist colony and current day butterfly sanctuary, getting in touch with Balboa Park's living legacy is the way to go this momentous spring.

Gardens in bloom

Hardly a day passes when there isn't a crowd gathered at the gardens accessible by the Park Boulevard pedestrian bridge. But right now, there's even more reason to battle it out with the tourists for a look, because it's the last month to catch blooms in the Desert Garden, which features more than 1,300 unusual varieties of cacti and succulents. The neighboring Rose Garden (Inez grant Parker Memorial) blooms from March to December with 130 varieties whose most dramatic displays happen in April and May. 2525 Park Blvd.

Postcard Picnic

At 100 years old, the Botanical Building, along with the adjoining lagoon and lily pond, is one of the most photographed icons in the park. Inside the wooden building-one of the largest of its kind in the world-there are more than 2,000 plant species. Pack a picnic for a postcard afternoon of lounging in the grassy areas surrounding this San Diego landmark; building hours are Friday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 1549 El Prado.

Nearby picnic supplies

With a selection of cured meats, artisanal cheeses and a wine vault stocked with selections from Baja's Valle de Guadalupe region, Back to Roots Market in nearby Bankers Hill is your one-stop-shop for Balboa Park picnic goods. Delectables, produced locally, along with special imports, give this gourmet grocery mass appeal. With convenient hours from 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, except for Sundays, when they close at 6 p.m. 3318 Fifth Ave. (619) 431-5009.

With Artisan Bento just a block away from Balboa Park's Laurel Street entrance, a fast, fresh, portable lunch from here is a no brainer. There's no better vehicle for an al fresco meal than this compartmentalized box of goodies with customizable mains like albacore tataki and ginger pork, plus a tasty selection of sides, including the beloved sweet potato or sashimi salads. 2505 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill. (619) 231-0700

Pause for self reflection.

For the ultimate in transporting, outdoor experiences at the park, look no further than the Japanese Friendship Garden. What began as a teahouse that symbolized peace between our nations in post-war America, 100 years later, the message holds strong despite the ground's expansion to encompass 14-acres with upper and lower gardens. Koi ponds, winding pathways and artful bonsai are meant to inspire contemplation; a new pavilion exhibition area and 250-seat amphitheater will be unveiled in conjunction with the centennial celebration on March 19. For tickets to the grand opening event of the recently completed expansion, call (619) 232-2721, and for a schedule of weekly educational events, like tea ceremonies and sushi making, visit niwa.org. Open 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with last admission ($6) sold at 3:30 p.m. 2215 Pan American Road E.

Hit the trails.

The Sixth and Upas Gateway trails lead to dramatic, and lesser seen perspectives of Balboa Park, from pine and oak tree shaded routes, to passing under the majestic arches of Cabrillo Bridge. Biking and hiking/running are also popular on the five trails that range from 1.5 to 6.6 miles of moderate difficulty. Paved walkways, dirt trails and in some cases, wooden steps leading up and down canyon walls make up the diverse terrain as you pass along the 163 Freeway and cross over the antique Bridal Trail Overpass. Trailhead information is at the point of entry at Sixth and Upas, where you'll begin the decent into the canyon. You can print maps of all the trails.

Another lesser known jaunt for your plant-viewing pleasure is the Palm Canyon Trail, where you'll experience 58 species of palms in the 2-acre, tropical oasis setting. Some of the Mexican fan palms here date back to 1912; it's also connected to the Old Cactus Garden, and is accessible from the Alcazar Gardens parking lot. 1549 El Prado.

Al fresco dining at Panama 66

Locals were stoked when the beloved brewpub owners of Blind Lady and Tiger! Tiger! Tavern announced they'd be opening a third craft beer-centric eatery at the San Diego Museum of Art. The outdoor dining space, adjacent to the sculpture garden, is unrivaled on a warm evening. You can even check out a blanket from the bar if eating and drinking on the grass, surrounded by artwork, is more your style. With 16 craft beers, a selection of California wines and a menu flecked with greatest hits from BLAH and Tiger! Tiger!, Panama 66 is a springtime must, especially during live music performances. The unbeatable location's brunch hours are Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Check Panama 66's blog for an updated list of bands, and modified hours due to private events. 1450 El Prado.

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