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San Diego Zoo, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Anza-Borrego Desert

Winter is a great time to enjoy Southern California’s Mission San Juan Capistrano, the San Diego Zoo, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Along the way south from Seattle in December 2023, we redid two favorite hikes in Northern California — in Castle Crags State Park and Chico’s Bidwell Park. For more tips, see Tom’s California guide.

Images on this page are favorites gleaned from Tom’s PhotoShelter galleries: “2023 Dec: CA: Castle Crags, Bidwell, San Diego, Anza-Borrego” and subset “California: southern coast, San Diego Zoo.” The photographs are from my 37-ounce Sony RX10 IV camera (Amazon) with versatile 25x zoom lens. 

Mission San Juan Capistrano

My childhood visits to historic California Missions paid off years later with a fascination for bygone times.

Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776 by Padre Junípero Serra. Sited next to the native village of Acjacheme, Mission San Juan Capistrano was the seventh in the chain of 21 religious outposts established between 1769 and 1833 in what is now the state of California. The missions were established by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order to evangelize indigenous peoples, backed by the military force of the Spanish Empire — part of expansion and settlement within the Alta California province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The Mission was named for Saint John of Capistrano (1386–1456) — a friar, Catholic priest, preacher, theologian, inquisitor, and “Soldier Saint” from the Italian town of Capestrano, Abruzzo. The Great Stone Church completed in 1806 was shortly destroyed by the earthquake of 1812, leaving the ruins shown below. The Mission was secularized by the Mexican government in 1833, then returned to the Catholic church in 1865 by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln. Restoration efforts date from around 1910. Today, the mission compound serves as a museum.

Above: The iconic Bell Wall displays bells recovered from the adjacent ruins of the 1806 Great Stone Church which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1812. The two smaller bells are originals (one shown below) and the two larger bells have been recast.

Above: Within the compound, Serra’s Chapel built in 1782 is the oldest building in California still in use — it serves as a chapel for the Mission parish. The Mission’s founder Junipero Serra celebrated Mass here.

Below: St. Peregrine’s Chapel nestles to the side of Serra Chapel.

Above and below: the Central Courtyard of Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Succulent plants adorn gardens of the Historic Mission.

Above: Forming one wall of the Sacred Garden, the iconic Bell Wall was built in 1813 at California’s Mission San Juan Capistrano to display bells recovered from the ruins of the 1806 Great Stone Church which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1812. The two smaller bells are originals (one shown above) and the two larger bells have been recast. The Bell Wall connects the ruins of the Great Stone Church (at left) to the Historic Sala building which contains the Legacy of Saint Serra Exhibit.

Above: Rising outside of the Central Courtyard, Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano was completed in 1986, designed after the nearby Great Stone Church which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1812. Below is the sanctuary of Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano:

Torrey Pines State Reserve

protects the nation’s rarest pine tree (Pinus torreyana) and one of the last salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California.

Above and below: Admire the vast Pacific Ocean and sandstone bluff patterns on a loop from from West Overlook Trail to Beach Trail in Torrey Pines State Reserve, La Jolla.

San Diego Zoo

is the most visited in the United States and is my favorite zoo in the world (besting number two, Australia’s Taronga Zoo in Sydney). The San Diego Zoo was conceived in 1915 when a doctor named Harry Wegeforth drove past a menagerie left over from the Panama-Pacific Exposition and heard the roar of Rex, a lion. “Wouldn’t it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo?” he supposedly asked his brother, and a year later he’d built one. The Zoo commemorated this legend in 2018 with the unveiling of “Rex’s Roar” (shown below), a 27-foot-long bronze lion balanced on one forepaw, with the back half of his body floating in the air. Anchoring the world’s largest cantilever bronze animal statue required 50 tons of concrete.

Below: Skyfari Aerial Tram at the San Diego Zoo.

Blue tree monitor (Varanus macraei). The blue tree monitor is found on the island of Batanta in Indonesia.

An Angolan python (Python anchietae).

The green crested basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons) is native to lowland forests from Honduras to Panama.

A Komodo dragon swaggers at California’s San Diego Zoo. (See also our 2023 trip to Indonesia’s Komodo island.) As the world’s largest lizard species, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) grows up to 10 feet long and 150 pounds in the wild. Komodo dragons live on only six islands in southeastern Indonesia: Flores plus five islands within Komodo National Park (Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, Gili Dasami, and Padar). On these rugged and hilly volcanic islands covered with forest and savanna grasslands, dragons hunt on the smallest home range of any large predator in the world. Their main natural prey is the Timor deer, plus they also eat snakes, dead fish along the shore, pigs, and water buffalo. Aside from a reliable water spring built for their survival, Park regulations forbid feeding the dragons. Dragon populations are currently stable but endangered by climate change, habitat loss, and deer poaching.

The pompadour cotinga (Xipholena punicea) is a bird species found in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Guianas.

The wattled jacana (Jacana jacana) is native to Trinidad, the Guianas, and eastern Bolivia to Argentina.

The pink form of the oblong-winged katydid (Amblycorypha oblongifolia). This species is common throughout the northeast of North America, plus the Midwest.

A Patagonian mara (Dolichotis patagonum).

The giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) is native to Honduras through Brazil and northern Argentina.

This young lowland nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) is a spiral-horned artiodactyl antelope native to Southern Africa.

Thomson’s gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii) is the most common type of gazelle in East Africa. This small antelope can run up to 80–90 km/h (50–55 mph) — the fourth-fastest land animal, after the cheetah (its main predator), pronghorn, and springbok. It’s named after explorer Joseph Thomson.

The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is native to the Primorye region of southeastern Russia and northern China and is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The takin (Budorcas taxicolor; also called the cattle chamois or gnu goat) is a type of goat-antelope found in the eastern Himalayas — it’s the national animal of Bhutan.

This cute female red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is named Adira at the San Diego Zoo.

A Gorilla interacts with humans behind glass at the San Diego Zoo. Gorillas are a genus of herbivorous, predominantly ground-dwelling great apes that inhabit the tropical forests of equatorial Africa.

The African spoonbill (Platalea alba) is a long-legged wading bird of the ibis and spoonbill family Threskiornithidae. The species is widespread across Africa and Madagascar, including Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The red river hog or bushpig (Potamochoerus porcus) is wild member of the pig family native to Africa, mostly in the Guinean and Congolian forests.

Allen’s swamp monkey mother and baby (Allenopithecus nigroviridis). This primate species  lives in the Congo Basin, the Republic of Congo, the west of the DRC, and Cameroon.

An orange flamingo.

An African bush elephant.

The capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is a giant cavy rodent native to South America — the world’s largest rodent species.

Distinguished by the single hump on its back, the dromedary camel species hasn’t occurred naturally in the wild for nearly 2,000 years. It was probably first domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula about 4,000 years ago, or maybe in Somalia where paintings in Laas Geel figure it from 5,000 to 9,000 years ago. In the wild, the dromedary inhabited arid regions, including the Sahara Desert. The domesticated dromedary is generally found in the semi-arid to arid regions of the Old World, mainly in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. A significant feral population wanders Australia. Products of the dromedary, including its meat and milk, support several North African tribes; it is also commonly used for riding and as a pack animal.

The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a New World vulture and the largest North American land bird. It became extinct in the wild in 1987 when all remaining wild individuals were captured for preservation, but has since been reintroduced to northern Arizona and southern Utah (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park), the coastal mountains of California, and northern Baja California in Mexico.

The Myrtillocactus plant (from Latin, “blueberry cactus”) is a genus of cacti found from Mexico to Guatemala.

Above and below: The hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) is native to the Horn of Africa and the southwestern region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Above: The gelada (Theropithecus gelada) is a species of Old World monkey endemic to the Ethiopian Highlands.

Above and below: The white-fronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) is found in woodlands of central and eastern Africa.

Above: The blue-naped mousebird (Urocolius macrourus) is found in open woodlands of central Africa.

Above: The northern carmine bee-eater (Merops nubicus) is found in wooded savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Above: Madagascar ocotillo (Alluaudia procera)

Above: Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) is a lemur native to Madagascar.

Above: The Rady Madagascar Habitat and Falls at California’s San Diego Zoo.

Above: Bubbles rise through kelp in an aquarium at the San Diego Zoo.

Above: African penguin (Spheniscus demersus).

Birch Aquarium

serves as the public outreach center for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. The hilltop site overlooks the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla Shores, and the Pacific Ocean. Birch Aquarium is popular for children and locals, but we two adults found less than an hour’s worth of interest. We prefer California’s impressive Monterey Aquarium, Washington’s handsome Seattle Aquarium, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, and Australia’s sparkling Cairns Aquarium and Sydney Aquarium. The next time we’re in Southern California, we’ll try Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific.

“The Legacy” (1995) by artist Randy Puckett — life size bronze sculptures of a breaching gray whale and calf — was installed in 1996 at Birch Aquarium, in La Jolla, California.

A spotted tang (Zebrasoma gemmatum).

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

takes its name from 1700s Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and borrego, a Spanish word for sheep.  With acreage including one-fifth of San Diego County, it is the largest state park in California and the third largest state park nationally. The Cahuilla Indians formerly lived in a village sheltered by Palm Canyon. California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera in the palm family Arecaceae) are native to the far southwestern United States and Baja California.

Above and below: the moderate Borrego Palm Canyon Trail leads to a beautiful oasis of native palm trees in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Below: see unique rock patterns along Borrego Palm Canyon Trail.

Northern California: Castle Crags State Park

Above and below: see impressive granite formations and krummholz (dwarfed) trees atop the Castle Dome Trail, in Castle Crags State Park, California — one of my favorite hikes in the state. Hike the Castle Dome Trail 5.8 miles round trip with 2100 feet gain. Geology: although the mountains of Northern California consist largely of volcanic and sedimentary rocks, granite plutons intruded in many areas during the Jurassic period. Heavy Pleistocene glaciation eroded much of the softer surrounding rock leaving soaring crags and spires exposed, now visible from Interstate 5 between the towns of Castella and Dunsmuir. Exfoliation of huge, convex slabs of granite rounded the towering domes.

Admire snowy Mount Shasta in December from Castle Dome Trail, in Castle Crags State Park.

Northern California: Chico’s Upper Bidwell Park

Big Chico Creek Canyon in late December, Upper Bidwell Park, Chico, Butte County. Land donation by Annie Bidwell (widow of Chico’s founder, John Bidwell) began the park in 1905. Today Bidwell Park stretches nearly 11 miles (18 km) along Big Chico Creek through Upper Park within the foothills of the southernmost Cascade Range. Rock formations include the unique Chico Formation sandstone and Lovejoy Basalt rocks.

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) spreads its wings in the sun in Big Chico Creek Canyon, Upper Bidwell Park.

Below: cheerful winter sun shines through yellow leaves of an oak tree.

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