By Barbara Zaragoza / South Bay Compass
Hiking or biking in Otay Valley Regional Park is not only exercise, but an activist statement. We want parks for our communities. We want to repair our environment. We want a healthy place for our kids to live and play.
Open spaces haven’t always been a priority in the South Bay.
Freeway Construction vs. The Environment
In the 1950’s California passed legislation to approve a massive freeway system throughout the state. In San Diego, the head of freeway construction (known as District 11) was Jacob Dekema. He believed that the greatness of Roman civilization lay in their road construction. Hence, he once gave a talk explaining that historical preservation and community cohesiveness should take a back seat to freeway construction.
Dekema is the reason we have the I-5 and the I-805, among other freeways.
What’s that got to do with a regional park? Today, the county is moving away from that philosophy and returning to environmental repair. Otay Valley Regional Park is one example. When you bike through here, you’ll wander through ponds, reeds, hilly brush — and two freeways. That’s probably an unusual experience for those who would prefer to go out into the wilderness, far from civilization. Instead, this park is an “urban recovery” experience.
Not to be confused with the Otay Lakes County Park I wrote about before, the Otay Valley Region Park and the Otay Lakes County Park will eventually merge into one. You’ll be able to ride or walk on trails spanning from the Living Coast Discovery Center all the way to the Olympic Training Center; and that, let’s face it, is also an activist statement of unity since traditionally most locals consider Chula Vista to be separated between East and West. This trail ties them together.
A History Of Otay Valley Regional Park
“Otay” is an Indian word that may mean brushy, place of reeds, or wide knoll. Established in 1990, the Regional Park encompasses over 8,500 acres and extends 13 miles through the Otay Valley, from the San Diego Bay to Otay Lakes.
Otay Valley and the surrounding mesa were originally under ocean water several million years ago. Pliocene fossils found on Otay Ranch include a baleen whale, clams, mollusks and an extinct walrus. As the Pacific Plate moved under the North American Plate, the shoreline was pushed up, rising from San Diego Bay to a low coastal mountain range 5,000 feet above sea level. The water flow from these mountains to the coast carved five major river valleys into the southern mesa, one of which was the Otay River Valley.
Over 9,000 years ago, prehistoric Kumeyaay Native Americans were early inhabitants, taking advantage of the abundant natural resources found in the valley. In the 1770s, Father Junipero Serra chose the Otay River Valley as his first camp as he traveled North to establish the missions in what is now California. In the early 1800s, vast Spanish ranchos covered the area and cattle grazed on the gentle mesas surrounding the river.
In the 1900s, the Otay Dam was built to support growth in San Diego. The area was then cleared to create farmlands. Crops such as tomatoes were grown here until the 1970s.
In 2012, over 18,000 native trees, shrubs, herbaceous species, and grasses were planted across 55 acres of this former farmland in order to restore riparian habitat. This land is now part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Three Parts To Otay River Valley
In 1829, Governor Jose Maria Echeandia granted 4,436 acres of land to Don Jose Antonio Estudillo and it was called the Janal Rancho. By 1897, the ranch was sold to make a new water reservoir for the City of San Diego.
Fast forward to 1979 and the Eastlake Company purchased the area to build Eastlake Village. Ten years later, the Eastlake Company donated 154 acres for the Olympic Training Center.
This is the area that remains unconnected, but should open within the next year.
The Upper River Valley
In 1829, Governor Jose Maria Echeandia also granted 6,657 acres of land to Dona Maria Magdalena Estudillo. It was called the Otay Ranch and became a large cattle ranch. By the late 1800’s, the Otay Valley was an important grazing area for the sheep driven up from Mexico to graze during the winter. It is also where Nelson & Sloan started sand & gravel mining company in the 1900’s. Today, the Coors Amphitheater sits on 72 acres of the upper river valley. It was built in 1990.
The Lower River Valley
In the 1880’s the town of Otay was the largest of the many “boom towns” that cropped up in the South Bay. Otay also had a watch factory, financed by Frank Kimball. The town of Otay was washed away by the flood of 1916. In 1958 construction began on the I-805, which wasn’t fully completed until 1975. The freeway cut through the area.
The Ponds Are Actually Abandoned Quarries
As you make your way through the trail, know that the ponds of water along the river valley are actually abandoned quarries. Beginning in 1910, and continuing in limited form today, sand and gravel was commercially mined from the river valley. When mining ended, the pits filled with water and created the ponds found throughout the river valley.
With year-round water, larger trees and denser vegetation grew and a new wildlife habitat was created. Migratory waterfowl, fish, amphibians, and larger mammals made use of the pond.
It’s hard to believe that this natural environment was recent and man-made.
Native Plants & Animals
The park has coyotes, gray foxes, raccoons, desert cottontail and American badgers. Over two hundred species of birds can be spotted, including great blue herons, snowy egrets and American coot. You can also see several species of ducks wading in the ponds along the trail. The Pacific tree frog and garden salamander live adjacent to and within the pond areas.
Riparian woodland provides habitat for the endangered Least Bell’s Vireo and southwestern willow flycather. Butterflies and moths live in or pass through the park, including the Hermes copper butterfly and the Quino checker spot butterfly.
Supporting the abundant wildlife is a mixture of maritime succulent scrub, southern cottonwood willow riparian forest, alkali marsh, and Diegan coastal sage scrub. The Orcutt’s bird’s-beak is localized in several areas along the river valley and is the largest known population of this rare plant in the United States.
Along the trail, you’ll find a commemoration dedicated to John A. Willett. He chaired the OVRP Citizen’s Advisory Committee for over 10 years (starting in 1989) and spent thousands of hours coordinating clean up projects within the park. His commitment to restoring the Otay River Valley is the reason we have the park today.
Girl Scout Troop Mural
Another part of the trail near the Bayshore Bikeway has a mural created by Girl Scout Troop #5912. Eleven girls brought awareness about the wildlife living in the Otay River Watershed through this depiction.
The freeways are probably the most fascinating part of the trail. Some splashed with graffiti (you know I’m a fan), others just columns you amble through. Here, you hike and bike while observing wildlife surrounding a loud and windy freeway. That’s when you know you’re not on an ordinary wilderness trek, but rather on an urban recovery experience.
You’ll find several trailheads that lead to the Otay Valley Regional Park. You can start your hike at several trailheads. The Bayshore Bikeway connects with OVRP outside the Living Coast Discovery Center. You can park on Hollister Street near the San Diego Trolley. You can park in the lot along Beyer Way. An insider tip is you can park on Palm Avenue across the street from the historic Kretsinger house:
Tips For Hikers
- Take along binoculars to help you observe the plants and animals.
- Carry water and a snack. There is no drinking water available on the trails. Do not drink from any of the ponds.
- Hike with a companion and a cell phone. It’s still an urban experience, after all.
- Stay on the trails. The natural resources of Otay Valley regional Park are fragile.
Address: The Otay Valley Regional Park (OVRP) is located in the southern part of San Diego County four miles north of the international border with Mexico and eight miles south of downtown San Diego. For more excellent information, check here.