Sam McManis

Discoveries: Border Field State Park draws a line in the sand

This has been derided as our ugliest state park – not an official designation, mind you, since beauty is so subjective. But it quantifiably is one of the least attractive, as in, attracting people to visit.

Only 57,000 people visited Border Field in fiscal 2012-13, according to state parks records. But, says San Diego park district superintendent Clay Phillips, that’s a 25 percent increase over the previous year.

Part of the problem is its location. To get to this sandy, swampy 400-acre site at the farthest southwest corner of the continental United States, you take Exit 2 off Interstate 5 and follow a winding road that gets progressively more cracked and bumpy as you go. When you finally hit the entrance gate, you almost always find it closed. A sign informs that the road into the park is open only Saturdays and Sundays and, even then, it’s often still padlocked because the road is flooded.

“Annual visitation is reduced by major flooding problems that prevent public vehicle access through the winter,” Phillips said. “We are working to solve the effects of flooding so that, one day, we’ll be able to provide year-round, all-weather vehicle access to the Monument Mesa portion of the park.”

So, most days, you really gotta want to visit and be up for hoofing it. That means a half-mile jaunt on a dirt path to the ocean, then a hard left along the beach for another quarter-mile until you reach the forbidding fences – yes, there are two running parallel about 15 feet apart most of the way – separating the United States and Mexico, and on a bluff just to the east, newly renovated Monument Mesa, where picnic tables, restrooms, barbecue pits and a patch of grass await.

Also awaiting you on that bluff and the trails, as well as along the hillside roads off-limits to the public, are omnipresent white Chevy Tahoe SUVs with green stripes and all-caps “Border Patrol” emblazoned on the sides and back. Really makes you feel welcome, even if you don’t plan on leaving U.S. soil.

But back to that entrance gate.

A kiosk gives information about where to go (roads and marked trails, only), where not to go (pretty much everywhere else near the border is under Department of Homeland Security jurisdiction), what to watch out for (“avoid walking through mud and standing water, which may be contaminated”). You are told that the Tijuana River Estuary, which runs through the park, can become flowing with sewage during rainy winter months, but in summer it “remains one of the healthiest coastal wetlands in the region.” As for frolicking in the ocean, well, it warns against it. Riptides, not sewage, apparently.

One nice touch in an otherwise bleak and dusty staging area is a stuccoed stone and shell sculpture that borders the entrance sign, with similar stucco benches nearby. The structures were constructed out of garbage fished from the Tijuana River and retrieved from Goat Canyon inside the park entrance. It’s the first of several cleanup and beautification projects within the park and the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, which lies within.

Using a $20,000 private grant, the nonprofit, bi-national environmental group 4Walls International in fall collected trash – plastic bottles, Styrofoam, wrappers and tires – and used it for the foundation for the sculpture and benches. It’s part of a larger effort the organization makes on the Mexico side of the border to clean up impromptu landfills, since 70 percent of the Tijuana River runs through Mexico before crossing to the United States and into the lagoon.

“There’s a part of the river called The Plug,” said Steven Wright, co-founder of 4Walls International. “It’s about 9 feet deep, 30 feet wide and 2 miles long on the U.S. side. That plug of garbage is about 70 percent plastics and Styrofoam and hundreds of thousands of tires. The idea is to repurpose the material (found) upstream as sustainable building material for affordable housing and creative gathering places and green spaces.”

Wright’s organization does most of its “repurposed building” in Tijuana neighborhoods, but he said he jumped at the chance to make a visual statement at Border Field’s entrance gate.

“Absolutely, it’ll bring more people here and raise awareness,” Wright said. “The problem with that trailhead is that it’s very forbidding and nondescript. The idea was to open it up a little, make it more inviting.”

Once you absorb all the warnings and pass through the gates, you can make a literal “run for the border” in a matter of minutes.

Even in November, it was dry enough so that you could take the direct route to Monument Mesa via the paved road. But it’s best to take the equestrian trail due west to the beach – one of the few beaches in the state, by the way, that allows horseback riding on the sand. This way, you’ll pass through the southern part of the estuary, where 370 species of birds have been spotted. A hawk perched on a wooden bridge not 3 feet away hardly ruffles a feather as you pass. It does take flight, however, a minute later when a Border Patrol SUV rumbled by.

You had the beach to yourself on this bright, crisp late fall morning. Not a foot- or hoofprint to be found on the sand, nary a speck of garbage anywhere. That is, until you came within about 100 yards of the border fence that extends several hundred feet into the ocean. There, a partially decomposed marine mammal – could’ve been a seal or sea lion – had washed up. That dissuaded you from thoughts of a quick dip.

Besides, Tijuana awaited. The fence on the shore is made of 6-inch steel slats with tight iron mesh making it impossible to stick a hand through. Any thought of wading out into the ocean and swimming to the other side is discouraged by a sign: “Peligro Fierros Bajo Del Agua (Danger Objects Under Water)” as well as the Border Patrol SUV ever watchful on the bluff above.

Walking upshore, you saw through the slats and iron mesh a man and dog walking toward you from the south. When he came close enough, you raised a hand and waved, like some Yankee yahoo. The man briefly raised one hand, the one holding the leash, perhaps in response, ducking his head.

So your attempt at cross-border international relations wasn’t exactly auspicious. Moving to Monument Mesa, you saw shadows of the Tijuana bullring looming and got a view of the neighborhood, Las Playas de Tijuana. Closer in, you also glimpsed Friendship Park, which formerly was part of Monument Mesa but now is part of DHS’ “Border Infrastructure Project.” You could just make out the 19th century tower that memorializes the land-surveying starting point along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since Friendship Park’s opening in 1971, it had been a meeting spot for family members in the United States and Mexico. But by 2009, the second fence blocking off Friendship had gone up, curbing access. Since March, the Border Patrol has eased restrictions slightly on weekends and allowed people limited access. The chain-link fence is so thick it’s nearly impossible to touch hands.

You can get much closer with the Border Patrol SUVs. Not to be paranoid or anything, but on the return trip to the entrance gate, not one but three vehicles passed by. Only the last driver waved. You ducked your head and kept moving.