I recently wrote a piece for the San Diego Reader about the Tijuana River Valley trails. For my research, I made sure to hike these trails, which I had mostly avoided because they’re foreboding. Yes, that’s the word: foreboding.
Apparently, that’s the appeal.
It’s not that these trails are dangerous. No. It’s that they are located along the U.S.-Mexico border and, so far, no trail map exists to let you know where you can hike, bike or ride your horse. Additionally, the federal, state and county governments all own their little patches of land, but it’s difficult to know who owns what. That’s exactly what makes these trails an adventure, since no one is allowed on federal property, but county and state property are open to the public.
The Tijuana River Valley has only 42 residents. They are mostly horse ranchers. Knock on any one of their doors to say hello, (which I have done many times) and they’ll have all sorts of stories about the days when there was no boundary and celebrities came to enjoy the racetracks, smugglers, migrants and Gate No. 2. No doubt–locals and tourists who explore this region find serenity, history and adventure.
Drive along Dairy Mart Road (named for all the diary farmers that used to be here) and you’ll come to the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park. A trail head begins across the street from the San Diego offices of the IBWC at 2225 Dairy Mart Road. This is where Steve Smullen works in collaboration with the Sanitation Plant down the road.
A second trail head with a steep switchback begins behind the Ranger’s Office at 2721 Monument Road.
Stop in and say hello to the Rangers and they’ll provide you with brochures. Also, ask them about their exhibit and they’ll show you posters created by Cindy Stankowski of the San Diego Archeological Center about the Kumeyaay villages that once existed here. (I’ve written about it here.)
There’s also a glass case with silk worm information inside. Yep, there used to be an Italian man who bred silkworms in the valley. (More on that this Wednesday.)
The Blue House
A third trail head begins next to the little blue house on Hollister Street.
The Rangers have a key to this house and inside you’ll find a small exhibit created by historian Ellen Sweet from County Parks. She has mounted posters of newspaper clippings and photos that tell an exciting story about the rancho that once existed here, the real estate boom of the 1880’s and much more.
The Trails With No Map
Now it’s time to start walking — or biking, if you wish. San Ysidro Baika comes out here several times a week. Once you start to walk, you’ll notice there’s many places that are unmarked. Border patrol seems to be everywhere, which is why SY Baika wears shirts that say, “Yes I am” for when Border Patrol stops them and asks if they are American citizens.
Some of the areas are broad dirt roads that Border Patrol vehicles can drive through. Others are flat mesas.
For bikers and hikers, you’ll see stunning views and you’ll be mostly alone with no trail map — as none yet exists. There might be a few horses and maybe a few migrants running past. There’s lots of little gems to find along these trails, too. Look for the WWII military bunkers or the shepherd’s house, for example.
You might even notice the concrete holes between Mexico and the U.S. It’s hard to believe that in 1991 this area was known as the “cross-border toilet outflow.”
Cross Border Toilet
Ever since at least the 1930’s people have complained about this border region being full of sewage. Tijuana lies in a watershed 300 feet above sea level, so everything moves downward into the river bottom. In 1991 “A management plan for the Tijuana River Valley” was created that included a Sanitation Plant, which would remedy a lot of the situation. The idea of a park was also considered — and we finally have it.
In the Ranger’s office, another poster tells the story:
“The Tijuana River Valley is polluted by raw sewage. And illegal immigrants uses it as a corridor into the United States. Those two problems are points of contention in a valley stretching between two cultures: affluent San Diego, California, and poor, overcrowded Tijuana, Mexico. Tension has been growing for 30 years.
Devised mainly by students, this plan could turn the valley into an ecological model of cross-cultural cooperation. The San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department selected this valley for a new regional park, then chose a project team of graduate students and faculty from California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) at Pomona.
The team’s most pressing problem was how to tackle what is termed “cross-border toilet outflow.” Sewage from Tijuana, some partially treated, most raw, is now dumped into the Tijuana River. From Tijuana it flows north across the border and into San Diego County.
The sewage empties into the Pacific Ocean, staining the county’s white beaches, which often have to be closed. (The sole benefit of Tijuana’s sewage is that it keeps a trickle of water in the river, whose natural sources have long since been impounded behind dams.) The river valley has become a desolate, scrubby place where agriculture, the primary land use, is declining, partly due to water pollution.
Although the Cal Poly proposal is titled a “management framework,” it could as accurately be called a design for the valley. A series of ponds and wetlands could cleanse the sewage biologically, rescuing the beaches and beachfront waters for recreation.”