Beaux-Arts & Deep Ravines
Up above the skyline of San Diego just 2.5 miles from the Embarcadero, wind the Cabrillo, Florida and Palm Canyons. In 1868 these rugged gorges sweeping down from the mesa were a barren and undeveloped 1400 acres then known as City Park. This is where the first of two innovative women enter the story. The first, Kate Sessions, was a botanist, horticulturalist, teacher and business person. Are you, like me, beginning to feel like an underacheiver? Just wait. Sessions inked a deal with the city leaders of the time to plant 100 trees a year with the caveat that they deed 30+ acres to her for a plant nursery to support her business. She has a litany of other acheivements across the San Diego region.
Kate and Alice Conquer the Canyons
While there are other figures in the development of the park, these two , in my opinion, are the lodestones of human energies which transformed the fallow mesa canyonlands into a gorgeous natural park with an arts complex. Here now, along with gardens and mostly undisturbed canyon trails, stand Spanish Colonial, Mission and Pueblo revival structures which nearly five million persons visit per year.
Meet our second innovator, Alice Klauber. Alice was born in San Diego in 1872. She was a painter who studied with Robert Henri, a major American “Ash-Can” Realist who exhibited at the groundbreaking Armory Show. Alice was also a poet, interior designer, arts administrator and cultural influencer.
Her influence on what would become Balboa Park, was to launch, as chairman of the art department, the first major contemporay art exhibition at the 1915 Panama California Exposition. The Exposition itself commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal. Henri, whom she convinced to move to San Diego, was also on the board and his work was featured. The exhibition would bring to the American West an event that, while not of the trend-changing magnitude of the Armory Show, would be the first of its kind west of the Continental Divide.
As regards the architecture for the Exposition: of the seven major structures, many are still standing as permanent museums. This includes the ornate baroque influenced buildings and the bridge spanning 1500 feet across Cabrillo Canyon. Other buildings have been added over the years as the plaza developed into the central arts district of San Diego.
There were many women innovators like Alice Hauber largely unaccounted for in the stories of the winning of the West. One transcribed the songs of first Americans. Others were principal in development of the art colonies we know as Sante Fe and Taos. If you’re interested, please check out Lesley Poling-Kempes’ eye-opening book: “Ladies of the Canyons.” Not demure by any stretch of the imagination, these “ladies” rode the range across extraordinary distance and encamped in the high desert when it was primitive, unthinkably dangerous and virtually roadless. Lesley can tell you the rest in her informative and entertaining book.
Up the Junctions
This blog is about natural areas, not cultural history, right? Truth. But, I will break the rules often.
There are trails, lots of them, many maintaining the features of the original terrain especially on the eastern section of the park. The Florida Canyon Trail can be difficult hiking in sections and virtually all of the paths are dirt and scrabble. Heat can be punishing there in the Summer. My two experiences have been in the mild but breezy first weeks of October when the Santa Ana winds roll in from the Great Basin. It is landscaped in portions, especially the cultivated cactus refuge at the edge of the canyon. Flowering cholla and prickly pear bring vibrant contrast to the frequently pale landscape, with their wine, ochres and yellow hued brilliance. There’s plentiful buckwheat also ranging across the dusty landscape. It blooms in pale red to maroon and ivory.
The other easily scalable hike is within the heart of the park in Palm Canyon. Commencing near the Japanese Friendship Garden, it contains 58 species of palm, is shaded, and teeming with pollinators: bees , monarch butterflies and western hummingbirds. Should you be overcome with a sudden onset of patience you’ll see them all. Like Central Park, all of this is in the center of a major city.
One of the most stirring visions you’ll experience in a non-intoxicated state in the Palm Canyon is the sprawling rootwork of the Banyan-like Moreton Bay Figs. Imagine a mythic story where unseen powers transform a waterfall’s torrents into wood. (George R.R., are you listening?). Something like this happened in this canyon where roots cascade over a man-made stone and mortar wall. Others flow across rock and leaf-bedded slopes merging into the sunken ingress to the public trail.
Along the less traversed canyonlands of the park, like Florida Canyon, there are constant reminders of the Wild, Abandoned theme: as you develop near natural areas, constrain the urge to conquer and subdue the terrain too much. The terrain and its flora, native or otherwise, often win. The designers of Balboa Park seem to have agreed. Please stay on the trail.