Urban Hike at Balboa Park Loop vs Downtown San Diego Walking Loop

Skip the wilderness hike and explore these exciting urban hiking destinations, including a trail through Downtown San Diego and the trails at Balboa Park.
Todd Sarouhan
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means if you make purchases through them, I may be compensated at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
Balboa Park Loop vs Downtown San Diego Loop
Urban Hiking Overview
Hiking Destinations
Explore & Save
Urban Scenery
Accessibility & Parking
Things to Do
Trail Regulations
Best Overall

Highlights

Balboa Park Loop vs Downtown San Diego Loop
Scenery
Parking
Tips
Balboa Park Loop vs Downtown San Diego Loop
Scenery
Parking
Final Verdict

See Downtown and Balboa Park in an All-New Light on an Urban Hike

Parks and Gardens at Balboa ParkMany Kinds of Restaurants to Try in the Gaslamp Quarter

When you picture a hike, you probably think of undisturbed nature and winding trails through the wilderness. San Diego has its fair share of these kinds of hikes - see the rare torrey pine at Torrey Pines State Reserve, explore the Mission Trails Regional Park, walk Sunset Cliffs, or travel further from the coast to hike a mountain trail at Black Mountain or Cowles Mountain.

While these more natural areas may be enticing for some, there’s another type of hike you might not have considered: the urban hike! Some of my favorite places to walk in San Diego are within the city hub, especially the Balboa Park Loop and the Downtown San Diego Walking Loop.

The loop around Balboa Park is more of a traditional hiking trail with an urban twist. The Downtown loop is less of a designated trail and more a hiking path of our team’s own making. It’s an excellent walk through the city for urban explorers who want to stretch their legs.

The Delicious Richard Walkers Pancake House in the Gaslamp
The Delicious Richard Walkers Pancake House in the Gaslamp

Hiking Goes Urban

As San Diego’s largest urban park, the 1,200-acre Balboa Park has long been a favorite for hikers and bikers. The trail loop will take you past the park’s many museums and other attractions, plus a segment through the Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve that introduces some nature.

The route Downtown is a little more nebulous, beginning at PETCO Park and following K Street out to the Embarcadero. From there, you can spend some time in Seaport Village before heading back the way you came, or walk north a bit along the coast of the San Diego Bay and cross back through the Gaslamp Quarter to complete the loop.

Long MTS Bus in Downtown San Diego
Long MTS Bus in Downtown San Diego

Why Go Urban Hiking?

Southern California and San Diego in particular have beautiful natural vistas, but benefits of taking an urban hike include being able to visit different attractions along your path (and save with a Go City San Diego pass when you do!) and having the option of using public transit like buses and rideshares if you get tired.

Looking Through the Torrey Pine Tress at the Los Penasquitos Lagoon
Looking Through the Torrey Pine Tress at the Los Penasquitos Lagoon

What Else Is Free?

Many of the best hikes in San Diego are completely free. For other things to do around the city, check out our team’s picks for the best free things to do in San Diego.

Local Tips
The Best of the Embarcadero
Don't miss the opportunity to visit the iconic and popular USS Midway in the San Diego Bay. This once active aircraft carrier is now home to the USS Midway Museum, a naval history museum.

What Makes these Loops Hiking Destinations

Though the Balboa Park and Downtown San Diego loops are different from traditional hikes, they’re still excellent ways to stretch your legs and get your blood pumping while seeing everything the city has to offer.

Desert Garden Path at Balboa Park in San Diego
Desert Garden Path at Balboa Park in San Diego

A Look at the Balboa Loop

The Balboa Park Loop is easy but fairly long. While there isn’t much elevation to worry about Downtown, there are a few short sections on the Balboa Park trail with a steep incline. Still, you won’t be walking uphill for most of the 4.5-mile loop, which has a total elevation gain of just under 350 feet.

Seeking a hotel near an urban San Diego trail? Our Best Hotels near the Convention Center and Best Hotels near the San Diego Zoo articles are filled with picks for hotels near Balboa Park.

Looking up at the Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown
Looking up at the Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown

What to Expect from the Downtown Loop

Depending on your route from Downtown, walking to Embarcadero and back is around 2.5-3 miles, with the option to detour or hop on public transport at any time. With plenty of places to take a break on a park bench or in a restaurant, even hiking newbies will find these loops breezy.

Another hotel worth highlighting is Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown. I love that it’s right by the incredible restaurants of Little Italy, and on-site amenities like the pool and fitness center are ideal for active vacationers.

Sidewalk in the Gaslamp
Sidewalk in the Gaslamp

Trail Experience Winner: It’s a Tie

We think both hikes are equally enjoyable walks at about the same difficulty level. Since Balboa Park is a bit more nature-focused while Downtown is more urban throughout, your choice here boils down to personal preference.

Visit PETCO with Go City Pass!
PETCO Park Tour
Experience PETCO Park Tour
Whether you are a die hard, or a casual baseball fan, the PETCO Park tour has something for you. With your Go City Pass, you can visit all the restricted areas of the ballpark. The interactive tour takes you through press row, the dugout and much more.
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Local Tips
Where can you purchase a Go City San Diego pass?

It's best to purchase your Go City San Diego pass in advance to maximize your savings!

Combine Go Visit San Diego's exclusive 5% discount with the Go San Diego pass' already great deals and save big! To get our exclusive discount click on the "Buy Now" link and use the code GVSD5OFF to start staving.

Explore Urban Scenery

The views in the city are just as beautiful as untamed wilderness.

One of the many Grassy area great for a Picnic at Balboa Park
One of the many Grassy area great for a Picnic at Balboa Park

The Scenery of Balboa Park

Balboa Park is teeming with greenery, from sculpted topiaries and curated gardens around the park to native plants and wildflowers in the trail’s more remote sections.

There’s no bad time of year to hike either trail loop, as the urban setting prevents the weather from impacting the condition of the trails too much.

The park contains 19 different gardens, and the blooming flowers frequently attract butterflies around Zoro Garden in the springtime.

Downtown San Diego with the Unconditional Surrender Statue in the Foreground
Downtown San Diego with the Unconditional Surrender Statue in the Foreground

Exploring Downtown’s Sights

Exploring the city up-close Downtown is quite the sight, especially on sunny days. Looking out over the bay from the Embarcadero is breathtaking.

Thanks to San Diego’s year-round warm weather, Downtown is just as pleasant of a walk in winter months as it is during the summer.

Botanical Building in Front of the Koi Pond at Balboa Park
Botanical Building in Front of the Koi Pond at Balboa Park

The More Scenic Hike: Balboa Park Loop

The views of the bay on the Downtown Loop are excellent, but the Balboa Park Loop feels more like you’re getting out of the city and experiencing natural landscapes, all without leaving the heart of San Diego.

Accessibility and Parking Information

Getting to these urban trails is a breeze, and hiking them is even easier.

Caboose of the Coaster Train in San Diego
Caboose of the Coaster Train in San Diego

Parking and Conditions at the Balboa Loop

Balboa Park has many free parking lots throughout, plus street parking. The closest lot to the start of the trail loop is on Texas Street, right off Upas Street.

On a sunny day these lots can get crowded, and using public transit may be less stressful. The UC San Diego Blue Line stops outside the park, as does the COASTER.

On the Balboa Park loop, the portions of the trail that cross into more natural areas are generally well-maintained. You will have to walk uphill for part of the hike, but these sections are short and easily cleared - just step carefully around any loose rocks.

Fred Shuttle in the Embarcadero
Fred Shuttle in the Embarcadero

Getting Around the Downtown Walking Loop

Like Balboa Park, Downtown also has lots and street parking, though most are paid parking. Spots near Petco Park can get pricey, especially if there’s a game, so consider leaving the car behind and using public transit to get around. Trolley routes are your best friend here, especially if you’re coming from another neighborhood.

Better yet, take the FRED electric shuttle to get to a starting spot Downtown and walk the rest. Electric shuttle programs are popping up all across San Diego in neighborhoods like Carlsbad with the Carlsbad Shuttle and Pacific Beach with the Beach Bug.

We just wrote a series covering each of these shuttles so be sure to check them out in Downtown and beyond!

As for trail conditions, walking in an urban area means you won’t have to worry about muddy paths or downed trees. The Downtown loop is entirely urban with no obstacles to worry about. Most of the loop by the bay is on the boardwalk, which makes for an easy path without any concerns about trail conditions.

The More Navigable Trail: Downtown

Thanks to its abundance of transportation options and the boardwalk path that can be walked in any conditions, Downtown is the winner in this comparison.

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Things to Do Along the Loops

Urban hikes are unique for offering plenty of options to take a break and explore a museum, dine at a restaurant, or have a picnic.

Casa Del Prado Theater in Balboa Park
Casa Del Prado Theater in Balboa Park

Explore Balboa Park

Balboa Park is famous for its museums, with over a dozen on the property. Many of these museums are part of the Go City San Diego pass.

Pick up an All-inclusive pass with the discount code GVSD5OFF to save when you visit the San Diego Museum of Art, Japanese Friendship Garden, and the Automotive Museum, all of which are connected to the trail via El Prado.

Amenities throughout Balboa Park include benches, picnic tables, dog parks, and playgrounds. More urban areas of the trail are lined with landscaped bushes and trees, providing some shade.

There are also a few places to eat, like the Prado, and some public restrooms in the park.

San Diego Padres Playing at Petco Park
San Diego Padres Playing at Petco Park

The Best Spots Downtown and at the Embarcadero

The Downtown loop starts off by the PETCO Park stadium, home of the Padres, which is open for tours when there’s not a game.

With countless restaurants, amazing views of the bay, and the shopping center of Seaport Village, the Downtown loop is filled with attractions that are well worth a detour.

As you approach the Embarcadero, you’ll see the USS Midway in the harbor from a distance. This massive aircraft carrier holds the USS Midway Museum, a naval history museum that’s also part of the Go City San Diego pass.

Since you’re walking through San Diego’s downtown, there are countless places to eat and take breaks. There’s a huge diversity of restaurants and bars, and most businesses have bathrooms for customers.

Where to Find Endless Amenities: Downtown

You couldn’t ask for more convenient amenities on any hiking trail than what’s readily available as you walk the loop downtown, making it the clear winner.

More Things to Explore

Gaslamp Brothels, Bites & Booze Tour
Gaslamp Brothels, Bites & Booze Tour
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Regulations to Keep in Mind

Since both Downtown and Balboa Park are public walks, you don’t have to pay any fees or hold any permits.

Here are some suggestions when walking these trails, plus some rules to keep in mind.

Balboa Park’s Crowds and Rules

Balboa Park tends to be busiest on weekends, especially in the summer. Some of this crowding is limited to the inner sections of the park like El Prado, with the trail loop getting less tourist attention. If you want to experience the trails with fewer people around, I’ve found mornings and early afternoons on weekdays to have the thinnest crowds.

Balboa Park welcomes leashed dogs. There are even three dog parks within Balboa Park, one of which is a fenced-in, off-leash park.

Navigating Downtown

Since you’ll be walking through San Diego’s Downtown on the Downtown loop, crowds are largely unavoidable. Traffic can also get backed up during rush hour, so plan to arrive outside of peak hours and use caution when crossing busy roads.

Like Balboa Park, leashed dogs are welcome to walk the Downtown Walking Loop.

Walking in Balboa Park
Walking in Balboa Park

The Trail With the Easier Regulations: Balboa Park

With fewer crowds to manage overall, Balboa Park tends to have a nicer atmosphere, which is the only major difference in these trails’ regulations.

Useful Info to Know Before Your Urban Hike Begins

Beautiful Waterfall at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park
Beautiful Waterfall at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park

Keep these tips in mind to improve your hike at both locations.

Balboa Park Tips

  • Balboa Park is great in any season, but personally I love visiting in the spring, when there are more flowers blooming along the pathways.
  • Many areas of the trail are open to the elements, so bring sunscreen and weather-appropriate clothing.

Insider Info for Downtown San Diego

  • Downtown’s walking loop doesn’t change much between seasons, so you can walk the trail any time of year.
  • There is more shade and wind protection thanks to the buildings, but it can get sunny by the waterfront.

The Best Overall Urban Hike According to Our Team

Hard Rock Hotel with the Gaslamp Quarter Entrance Sign
Hard Rock Hotel with the Gaslamp Quarter Entrance Sign

Which urban hike is the best between the Balboa Park Loop and Downtown San Diego Walking Loop? It’s a tough decision, as each trail has something unique to offer, whether you’re seeking the more nature-focused trails of Balboa Park or the cityscapes of Downtown.

Simply put, we can’t pick just one: it’s a tie!

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GoCar: Downtown & Balboa Park
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