Why you should care
Because there’s more to the border region than disgruntled government workers.
Along the 60 border miles of jet-black asphalt road between Mexico and San Diego County, cloudless blue skies crash into 4,000-feet peaks. As Highway 94 twists around Native American reservations and casinos and through layers of peeling cypress trees, there’s an intermittent buzz of U.S. patrol SUVs ripping through the arid terrain. But the area has much more to offer than spotting government vehicle activity.
Though often depicted as a bleak no-man’s land, the borderland stretching from the Pacific Ocean’s sandy shores to the edge of agricultural Imperial County has surprises that range from high-altitude wineries to giant babies.
Hike in a Protected Reserve Seeped in Military History
Imperial Beach, 15 miles southwest of downtown San Diego, houses the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, a refuge with numerous habitats and 370 documented species of birds. Explore the wetlands and wildlife along five-plus miles of foot and horse trails both inland and along the coast. An evening horse ride (Pony Land San Diego, $110 per person) leads to front-row views of glowing sunsets and, if you’re lucky, chirping dolphins.
Within the reserve is Border Fields State Park ($5 per car) — military training land that President Nixon established for recreational use in 1971. There, with the soundtrack of nearby mariachi tunes, view Monument Mesa, a border marker built in the 1850s, and World War II–era bunkers. Squint through the gaps in the walls and see families splashing in the water, street vendors selling fruits and teens loitering on benches.
Many locals remember the pre-border-crackdown days fondly, like Imperial Beach (IB) native Milo Lorenzo, co-owner of Barrio Logan Cafe. “I grew up in IB. I would walk across to the TJ [Tijuana] side and surf, and then we would walk back all the time,” he says. “Now things would be a little different.”
Drink Boatloads of Wine
Highway 94’s curves and dips open to a collection of six small, locally owned wineries between Dulzura and Campo. An alternative to the popular Temecula or Guadalupe Valley regions, these wineries are closer to San Diego and offer a vibe like you “turned the clock back decades,” says Westfall Winery owner Richard Westfall — similar to going to a small town in France or Italy. Tasters can sip a Syrah at Campo Creek Vineyard or Primitivo from Westfall Winery while glimpsing the U.S.–Mexico border just miles away.
Become a Political Art Connoisseur
Until last October, there was a giant baby posted above the Mexican side of the border wall in Tecate. No, it wasn’t just imagined by the winery visitors! The borderland is known for eliciting powerful political art. This latest installment was French artist JR’s interactive exhibit: a 65-foot-tall photo of baby “Kikito.”
Challenging perceptions of legality and illegality, the San Diego–Tijuana region has also witnessed a larger-than-life Trojan horse fixture and artist Ana Teresa Fernandez’s optical illusion that erased the boundary by painting sections of the wall sky blue, among other subversive statements. Until the next showstopper appears, get a taste for this genre’s message in the the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Barrio Logan’s resistant murals in Chicano Park.
Bonus: Not Technically Part of San Diego County, But …
Keep heading farther east on Highway 94 for some of the region’s wackiest attractions and delicious fares in Imperial County. Amid Jacumba Hot Springs’ eclectic Desert View Tower, nudist resort and Coyote’s Flying Saucer Retrievals and Repairs, you can indicate your politics with opposing sandwiches at Jay’s Southern Cafe. Jump on Highway 8 heading east until the agricultural town of Brawley, where you’ll find the original Johnny’s Burritos (now expanded to locations in Imperial and El Centro), established in 1963. Come hungry and fill up on the crowd favorites: taquitos and melted-cheese fries smothered in avocado sauce.
Tips for Visiting San Diego’s Borderland
- Rent a car. These sites require a lot of walking if you use public transportation.
- Bring your ID. There are several checkpoints along the route.
- Don’t forget your hat, sunscreen and lots of water.
- Be sure to call wineries ahead of time to make tasting appointments.