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16 Historical Landmarks in North County San Diego to Visit (Master List)

In 1967, the City of San Diego established a Historical Resources Board and gave it the authority to protect landmarks from alterations that would deviate from their original design. Now, there are over 1000 designated structures with many receiving inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

Should you want to experience a touch of early architecture, here is a list of historic landmarks in North County San Diego that you can visit.

1. Historic Santa Fe Depot

carlsbad santa fe depot

Carlsbad’s historic Santa Fe Depot, which was designed by Fred Perris and originally constructed in 1887, functioned as much more than just a stop along the expanding railroad. This historic Carlsbad building has served as a Wells Fargo Express office, post office, telegraph office and general store. It also played a key role in shipping Carlsbad area produce and flowers across the nation in the 1920s and 1930s.

Due to the town being confused with Carlsbad, New Mexico, the town’s name and this rail station’s sign was changed to Carl in 1907 (the same year the current building was built to replace the original building), but strong sentiment from locals caused the name to be changed back to Carlsbad in 1917.

In the years following World War II, a decline in rail passenger traffic caused passenger services at this depot to come to a halt in 1957, which was followed by permanent closure of the station just a few years later. In the 1980s, the building received a full restoration and now functions as the Convention and Visitors Bureau office, including the Carlsbad Visitor Information Center.

As one of just a few rail depots dating back to before the 1900s, the Santa Fe Depot is of historic importance on both a local and national level and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

Any trip to Carlsbad should include a stop at the Santa Fe Depot to check out this historic building and pick up brochures about dining options and activities in the area. For locals, its downtown location makes it an easy stop if you are looking for new things to do in your hometown.

While you can no longer hop on a train and head up the coast from this depot, there are still plenty of passenger and freight trains passing by this rail stop each day, making this a must-visit attraction for train lovers. A few of the commuter trains servicing this area do stop just one block to the north of the depot, so Carlsbad commuters can catch a ride within walking distance.

2. Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center

agua hedionda pelican

The next time you are looking for a fun, educational way to spend the day in Carlsbad, you should definitely add the Agua Hedionda Lagoon and the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center to your list of things to do.

The Agua Hedionda Lagoon is a 400-acre lagoon in Carlsbad that is surrounded by threatened coastal wetlands and is home to a fish hatchery, a mussel and oyster aquaculture facility, a nature center, hiking trails, a power-generating plant and various recreational opportunities, like boating and paddle boarding. The lagoon’s ecosystem is also home to a variety of habitats, including upland plant communities, subtidal, intertidal mudflats and marshlands.

While you could simply spend the day viewing wildlife or boating on the lagoon, a visit to the Discovery Center will provide you and your family with an educational experience that will teach you more about the importance of preserving the lagoon’s habitat and the significance of native plants to early inhabitants of the area, as well as fostering a greater appreciation of our valuable water resources.

The Discovery Center, which was completed in 2004 and opened its first exhibit on Earth Day in 2006, is located at the east end of the lagoon and offers educational and outreach programs designed to teach visitors about the lagoon, the wetlands, native plants and wildlife, and the importance of maintaining the health of this important ecosystem.

The main exhibit currently on display at the Discovery Center is the Luiseño History and Cultural Exhibit, which was put together by the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Indians and CSU-San Marcos. The exhibit features displays and photographs depicting Luiseño culture with a particular focus on the important role of native plants in the lives of early inhabitants.

While you are there, you should definitely explore the Native Garden, which is home to more than 750 plants from more than 50 plant species, including multiple types of sage, Manzanita and wild lilac. This is a great way to learn about plants that were used as food and medicine by early inhabitants, some of which we still use today as natural remedies for headaches, cold symptoms or arthritis.

You can also learn about more than 20 species of birds that live at the lagoon, or migrate through the lagoon each year, at the Birds of Agua Hedionda Lagoon photographic exhibit, and view displays of native amphibians.

All of this is owned and operated by the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation (AHLF), which is a non-profit organization established in 1990 with the mission of preserving and restoring the lagoon, and maintaining a balance between public access and protecting the land and ecosystem.

Hiking the Lagoon

Explore the lagoon, and view native plants and wildlife, from the .5-mile Hubbs Trail, the one-mile Kelly School Trail or the .25-mile Discovery Center Trail. Visit the foundation’s hiking trails page to learn more or get directions to each trailhead.

Events at the Discovery Center

The Aqua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation hosts a variety of events, festivals, workshops and classes throughout the year, including a summer camp, yoga classes, the annual World Water Day Festival and the annual Birds & Bees Festival. They also offer monthly garden tours of the Native Garden, and provide a venue for meetings, weddings, and special events.

The Academy of Environmental Stewardship

The center also offers an environmental education program for third-grade students that provides hands-on learning experiences that foster a better understanding of our natural surroundings and how they are affected by human activities.

Volunteer Opportunities

If you would like to donate your time to further the mission of the Discovery Center, you can volunteer as a docent, help with school field trips, assist in maintaining the Native Garden or help the foundation maintain the trails. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit the foundation’s website or call the office.

3. Buena Vista Lagoon and Audubon Nature Center

buena vista lagoon

There are lots of great things about living in or visiting North County, one of which is the plethora of outdoor activity options and family-friendly attractions this area has to offer. The Buena Vista Lagoon, which is bordered by Oceanside to the north and Carlsbad to the south, is one of these attractions and, if you haven’t been there yet, you are missing out on a great opportunity to view wildlife, learn about native plants and spend a tranquil afternoon enjoying the great outdoors.

Buena Vista Lagoon is a 223-acre wetland habitat that is owned by the California Department of Fish and Game. In 1969, the lagoon became the first area in California to be protected as an ecological reserve, and it is also the only freshwater lagoon in the state. Because this is a protected area, recreational activities are limited, but there is still plenty to do, see and learn at Buena Vista Lagoon.

Visitors to the lagoon can fish, picnic, hike on established trails, view the flora and fauna, or visit the Audubon Nature Center for classes, exhibits and docent-led nature walks. They can also take part in monthly bird counts on the fourth Saturday of every month, meander through the Buena Vista Audubon Society Native Plant Garden, attend workshops on low-water gardening, or join the Buena Vista Native Plant Club, which meets on the third Sunday of each month.

Birdwatching is one of the main activities that take place at the lagoon, and more than 200 bird species have been seen in and around the reserve throughout the years. It is known to be home to at least 103 species of birds, 18 mammalian species, and 14 species of reptiles and amphibians, and it is a temporary home to many more birds during migratory periods.

The Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center officially opened to the public with a grand opening event in September of 1988. It is owned and operated by the Buena Vista Audubon Society, and a staff of volunteers helps to ensure that visitors have a fun, educational experience each time they come to the lagoon. At the Nature Center, you can partake in a docent-led nature walk, visit the well-stocked library, or view exhibits of local wildlife.

The Buena Vista Audubon Society also organizes multiple off-site field trips each month, most of which center on birding in nearby areas. For young visitors, there are free tours for elementary school classes, as well as Joey’s and Johnny’s Clubhouse, which is a kid-friendly afternoon of games and activities that takes place at the Nature Center from 1:00pm to 4:00pm the third Sunday of each month.

4. Magee House

magee park

The Magee House is a worthwhile stop on Highway 101 in Carlsbad for those who are interested in the area’s history and gardening. Built in 1887 by Samuel Church Smith (one of the founders of Carlsbad Land and Water Company), the craftsman-style house is made of pre-cut lumber, ordered from a mid-Western catalog of pre-designed homes. It’s now home to the Carlsbad Historical Society’s museum and archives and open to the public.

The gardens surrounding the home are designed to demonstrate Carlsbad’s agricultural past including a Victorian Herb bed, a native Southern Californian bed, a Carlsbad commercial growers bed, a Patriotic Red, White and Blue bed and a nationally-registered Rose Garden. The latter includes about 225 rose bushes representing 15 families of rose. The rose gardens have been cultivated to reflect Carlsbad’s 2002 title of “An American Rose City”. One garden is modern roses and the other garden contains Old Garden roses and shrubs. A new miniature rose garden was planted in 2003. This magical garden is maintained by the members of the California Coastal Rose Society and established by Ivy Bodin of Vista but the rest of the gardens are maintained through the combined volunteer efforts and city staff.

The museum portion houses turn of the century style furniture and other items on display that reflect the lifestyle of the early settlers of Carlsbad who once owned the house.

When the home’s owner, Florence Shipley Magee died in 1974, she left the house and land (about 5 acres)–located just a block away from the beach–to the City of Carlsbad. She wished it to be used as a park and historical museum, which is exactly what happened. The home was recently refreshed with new paint and other touch-ups and remains one of the oldest in the area.

Guided tours of the museum and grounds are available with advance notice. The Carlsbad Historical Society has also developed a special tour for local third graders to learn about the city’s history on the grounds. December is a particularly popular time to visit as volunteers decorate the home for the holidays using native plant material–just like the early Carlsbad settlers did.

Support the Carlsbad Historical Society by visiting the Magee House or by becoming a member (a family membership is just $35 a year) which entitles you to attend the society’s lectures, social events, trips, and tours for its members as well as local students while supporting their overall efforts.

5. Historic Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

mission san luis rey

Most of the missions still in existence in California primarily function as historic sites with museums, gift shops and educational programs designed to teach visitors and school children about the Mission Era and how it shaped California’s history. Many missions offer masses and retain their function as a Catholic church, but this is generally where the similarity ends when it comes to comparing their historical and current functions.

While the role of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in today’s society may be different than its use during the Mission Era, this is still very much a working educational and religious center where you will likely run into Franciscan friars during your visit. In fact, this is probably one of the most active missions you will ever visit with everything from religious retreats and several annual celebrations to cooking classes and movie nights.

Of course, there is still a gift shop and a museum with plenty of historical displays, making this is a must-see North County attraction for anyone interested in frontier life and the significant role missions played in changing the area and the lives of early inhabitants.

A Brief History of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

Today, this mission’s primary role is as a parish church, retreat center and National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. But during the Mission Era, it was one of the largest Spanish missions, covering more than 950,000 acres and nicknamed King of Missions. Established in 1798 and named for King Louis IX of France, the mission was home to thousands of Luiseño people, who inhabited the land in this area before the arrival of the Spaniards. During this time, much of the land was used for raising livestock and growing oranges, wheat, corn, olives and grapes.

After Mexico gained independence from Spain and secularization of the missions began, much of the land was distributed as land grants to Luiseños, such as nearby Rancho Guajome and Rancho Buena Vista, which were once part of Mission San Luis Rey.

The mission was then used by the United States Army as a military outpost from 1847 to 1857, during which, California came under the control of the United States. After being petitioned by California’s bishop to give the missions back to the Church, President Abraham Lincoln returned Mission San Luis Rey in 1865, but it was not until 1892 that the Franciscans returned to the mission to begin restoration efforts under Father Joseph Jeremias O’Keefe. Religious services were also reinstated at the mission during this time, and it served as a seminary from 1950 to 1969.

Other historical points to note include the 1830 planting of the first Peruvian pepper tree to be planted in California (now known as the California pepper tree, which is popular throughout the state) and the filming of the first season of the television show, Zorro, at the mission in 1957.

Mission Museum and Gift Shop

The museum at the mission features a variety of exhibits, including artifact collections related to Native American life, mission life, military periods and Mexican secularization. Guided tours are available for groups of 15 people or more, and there is also a behind-the-scenes group tour available. The mission’s fourth grade study program provides students with a tour of the museum and mission grounds, which teachers can schedule by visiting the mission’s school tours page.

The Old Mission Gift Shop offers a range of religious and Southwest gifts, as well as books on mission history, and global goods – including a focus on fair trade products and artisans.

Events and Classes at the Mission

The mission hosts many events throughout the year, including the formal Old Mission San Luis Rey Heritage Ball and an annual Dia de los Muertos celebration, which is a free, family-friendly event with food, entertainment and vendors. There is also a variety of other activities, including movie nights and cooking classes.

To see which events and classes are coming up, visit the mission’s events page.

The Retreat Center at the Mission

The Retreat Center offers conference facilities, organized day and overnight retreats, workshops and private retreats on 56 acres with a basketball court, volleyball court, picnic pavilion, swimming pool, the Stations of the Cross, and meditation gardens. There are 51 guest rooms available to groups and individuals, and meals are served buffet style in a dining room that can hold up to 100 people.

Outside groups can rent indoor and outdoor spaces for conferences and meetings, and individuals can participate in formal, organized retreats or can enjoy the grounds and guest lodging for a personal retreat starting as low as $60 per night.

Couples interested in getting married at the mission can arrange to hold their wedding ceremony in the historic mission church and can rent a reception hall on the property; however, the mission does not allow garden weddings or receptions at the Old Mission.

6. Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park

leo carillo picnic area

The former working rancho owned by actor Leo Carrillo features adobe buildings, antique windmills, a reflecting pool and many other beautiful historic structures that give visitors a glimpse of what life in early California was like. Not to mention the gardens are stunning with gorgeous agave, bougainvillea, Birds of Paradise, plentiful trees, the infamous peacocks and much more.

Self-guided tours of Leo Carillo Ranch building exteriors and the park grounds are the most common way to explore the property and maps are available at the Visitor Center. However, free guided walking tours for those who would like to take a peek inside the buildings happen on the weekends. Allow for about 90 minutes. Leo Carrillo Ranch is also connected to the 4-mile Rancho Carrillo walking trail for those seeking a little exercise.

7. Olivenhain Town Meeting Hall

olivenhain meeting hall

German-speaking immigrants built the Olivenhain Town Meeting Hall in 1894 with the goal of maintaining a close knit colony. It was used for community functions including political meetings, agricultural discussions, weddings, and community dances. Its rustic charm still make it a popular choice for local events.

It was only in 1986 that the colony became a part of the City of Encinitas. The Town Council is still active and in charge of maintaining the Olivenhain Town Meeting Hall as well as making sure that the voices of residents are heard at Encinitas city council meetings.

8. Rosicrucian Fellowship Temple

The Rosicrucian Fellowship Healing Temple

Located on Mount Ecclesia, The Rosicrucian Fellowship Temple (also known as The Ecclesia) sits high on a mesa overlooking the San Luis Rey River Valley and the Franciscan Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. The spiritual center is based on a Christian Mystic Philosophy and focuses on spiritual healing of its members and anyone who wishes to receive the teachings.

Visitors may take meditative walks on the grounds via a map available online. The temple is historic for its combination of architectural styles: Late 19th and 20th century revival, Mission/Spanish revival and Exotic revival.

9. Las Flores Adobe

las flores adobe

The Las Flores Adobe was built in 1864 and is considered a perfect example of a 19th century Monterey Colonial style home—a Spanish-Mexican adobe with elements of New England frame architecture. It’s located just inside the Las Pulgas gate entrance to Camp Pendleton. Formerly listed on the National Park Service’s list of most endangered National Historic Landmarks, the adobe is currently undergoing a restoration.

Contact the Camp Pendleton Historical Society for tours of the Las Flores Adobe. The site is also available for camping, meetings and some events.

10. San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park

San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park Sign

Most people heading down Highway 78 just a few miles east of Escondido are likely on their way to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (aka the San Diego Wild Animal Park) and do not even notice the adjacent San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park. Unfortunately, most locals and visitors do not stop at the battlefield that is right next door and miss out on this great opportunity to learn about California history and experience living history programs and interpretative displays.

This is, of course, a must-see San Diego attraction for history buffs interested in historic battles or the well-known historical figure, Kit Carson, but this is also an educational opportunity to learn about the history of the San Pasqual Valley, the Native Americans who once called this valley home and the journey to California becoming a state.

A Brief History of the San Pasqual Battlefield

The park looks over the battlefield where U.S. soldiers and Californios fought what is considered the most controversial battle in the Mexican-American War, as well as the bloodiest. Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny and just over 100 soldiers from the Army of the West were on their way to join American forces in San Diego when they were met in the San Pasqual Valley by Californios Major Andres Pico and his men.

On December 6, 1846, after receiving word of Pico’s troops camped nearby, Kearny and his soldiers descended the hill towards Pico’s encampment at the Native American village of San Pasqual. They were met by Pico’s men, who had been made aware of the coming troops by a noisy reconnaissance group sent by Kearny the night before. The Battle of San Pasqual ensued.

U.S. forces experienced heavier losses than the Californios, but both sides declared victory, although most reports show that Kearny and his men had only continued as far as Mule Hill before they were attacked by the Californios again. There, they spent days under siege until additional U.S. troops arrived and caused the Californios to retreat.

This battle is deemed significant not so much for its importance in the acquisition of California from Mexico, but for the gallantry on both sides of the fight. It is also of significance because of the involvement of three factions: U.S. forces, Californios and Native Americans.

San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park Today

Overlooking the battlefield, you will now find a park, museum, monument, bookstore, visitor center, amphitheater and nature trail. Visitors to the park have the opportunity to watch a video about the Mexican-American War, view interpretative displays and a map of the battle, and visit the bookstore to brush up on their knowledge of California’s history and people. There are also several picnic tables for resting or enjoying lunch between activities.

One of the biggest draws for outdoor enthusiasts is the Battlefield Monument Trail, which can be accessed behind the visitor center and offers a great view of the San Pasqual Valley to those who make the .5-mile trek. Before you head out on this hike, be sure to stop by the visitor center to pick up a handout with information about the native plants you will see along the way.

For those most interested in the educational value of this historic site, it is best to visit the park during one the Living History Events, which take place the first Sunday of each month between October and June. You should also make sure to add San Pasqual Battle Day to your list of Escondido things to do. This annual event takes place in December and includes a battle reenactment, demonstrations of period crafts, entertainment, food, children’s activities and a military encampment.

11. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Kit Carson Park

queen califia

Those who have wandered through the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park may have noticed the brightly colored sculptures of Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. After all, they are a bit hard to miss. But few know that this eclectic work of art was the final major international project completed by French-American artist, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) and that it is the only sculpture garden Saint Phalle created in the United States.

Not only did Saint Phalle design and create this mythical garden, she personally financed its construction and presented it as a gift to the children of Escondido so that families would have an engaging space to play and explore this world of symbols and ideas. Completed and opened to the public in October of 2003, the garden took almost four years to design and create. Saint Phalle was an integral part of the process until shortly before she passed away in May of 2002.

She found her inspiration for this garden in the cultural and mythical history of California, including prominent imagery celebrating the mythology of the area’s indigenous peoples. Those who are familiar with Saint Phalle’s art will also notice an array of imagery that can be found in many of her works.

There was a time when European cartographers erroneously believed that California was separated from the rest of North America by a gulf. A bit like Atlantis, the Island of California gained notoriety as a paradisaical land and even had a mythical warrior queen, Califia. Queen Califia, the namesake of this sculpture garden, is prominently placed in the middle of the circle standing atop an eagle and is surrounded by eight totem sculptures displaying creatures and symbols from the mythologies of Native American and indigenous Mexican mythologies.

The circle also features a 400-foot wall that undulates like a wave around the garden and is topped with serpents covered in colorful pebbles and mosaic tiles. As you step through the entrance in this wall, you are greeted by a tiled maze that leads to the center of the garden where the warrior queen holds court. From inside the magical circle, you can look out over the dips in the walls to see the landscape beyond the garden or enjoy the built-in seating among native trees and shrubs.

If you plan on visiting Queen Califia’s Magical Circle the next time you are at Kit Carson Park in Escondido, you can certainly go just to enjoy the colorful, whimsical land Saint Phalle created within the garden’s walls. If you would like to also educate yourself or your children about this symbolic artwork and the cultures it represents, you may want to print out the fact sheet from the City of Escondido website, or visit the Queen Califia’s Magical Circle website before you go.

Admission is free, and the garden is accessible for wheelchair users. The park is usually open from 8:30am to 3:30pm Tuesday through Sunday, but it is closed on rainy days, Mondays and when vandalism necessitates closing the park for maintenance. This means it is always a good idea to check the City of Escondido website for park closures before you plan your visit.

The sculpture garden is located within the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park in Escondido, which can be found by plugging in 3333 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido into your GPS or smartphone map app.

When you visit the garden, be sure to keep an eye out for signatures and handprints left behind by the artist’s family members and the art team that helped make this important cultural landmark possible.

12. San Diego Archaeological Center

San Diego Archaeological Center

The San Diego Archaeological Center (SDAC) in Escondido is the perfect place to expand your knowledge of the history of San Diego County and the people who have called this area home. Dedicated to the preservation of archaeological artifacts, increasing cultural understanding, promoting education and conducting relevant research, SDAC provides an array of exhibits and programs to encourage understanding the past and how it affects the present and the future.

SDAC offers all sorts of great programs and events for students, scout troops, families and folks who love history, making this North County attraction the perfect place to spend the day learning about the Native American and immigrant cultures that have called this area home over the last 10,000 years.

One of the functions of the SDAC is to function as an archaeological research facility, but they also offer a variety of educational and outreach programs for the public, including a great museum, library and gift shop. There are plenty of children’s activities, games and crafts to inspire an interest in history and archaeology, as well as exhibits that are sure to be of interest to all ages.

The museum hosts changing exhibits that include such themes as historical childhood activities and toys, pottery, the importance of women in the area’s history and the field of archaeology, so even if you have been to the museum before, it might be time to plan another visit to learn about a different aspect of San Diego’s history.

San Diego Archaeological Center Programs

ECO Ambassador Program

This is a free K-12 educational program to teach children about the importance of recycling and reducing waste. Call the center for more information or to schedule a class.

Project Archaeology

This program is designed to teach the importance of understanding the past, enhancing cultural understanding and promoting scientific inquiry. This paid program includes options for K-12, scout badges and a summer camp. Call the center to make reservations.

Internships

Internship programs at the center include Collections Management, Collections Research, Library Science, Public Archaeology, Digital Photography, GIS – Geographic Information System, and Development and Marketing. To learn more about internship opportunities, visit their website or call the center.

Volunteer Program

The center is a small, non-profit organization working to preserve the archaeological and cultural history of San Diego County. To continue and expand their educational, research and outreach efforts, they rely on volunteers to take part in their speakers bureau, outreach, special events, marketing, programs and more. If you are interested in becoming a docent, speaker or library assistant, or participating in one of the other volunteer opportunities available, call the center for more information.

Events at the San Diego Archaeological Center

Second Saturday Events

On the second Saturday of each month, the center offers special events where community members can learn about making adobe bricks, archaeological photography, Native American basket making and an array of other topics. Check the event calendar to see which topics are coming up.

Lunchtime Lectures

Lunchtime Lectures take place on the third Friday of the month (but not every month, so check the event calendar) and include current research or student projects. The lectures begin at noon, and participants can bring a lunch to enjoy during the talk. Admission to these lectures is free with admission to the center and for members of the center.

Annual San Diego Archaeological Center Get-Together

The center hosts an annual event each summer to show their appreciation for the volunteers, interns and members that make their work possible. This event is open to the public and is a great opportunity to meet local anthropologists and archaeologists, and to participate in activities.

To find out about other events and classes taking place at the center, visit the SDAC event calendar online.

The ever-expanding library at the center is home to books, reports, photographs, journals and magazines related to the history of San Diego County. This is a great resource for students or history lovers, and is open Monday through Friday from 10:00am to 3:00pm. While appointments are recommended, they are not required. The library also accepts donation of materials related to San Diego archaeology and anthropology to assist in growing their collection and making this information available to the public.

During your visit, be sure to stop by the gift shop for souvenirs, science kits, and handmade jewelry and gifts. The proceeds from gift shop merchandise support the center’s research, educational programs and outreach efforts.

If you have a personal collection of archaeological artifacts, the center also provides free guides to assist you in the proper curation of your collection and sells curation supplies.

13. Rancho Buena Vista Adobe

rancho buena vista lagoon

North County history lovers are fortunate to live within a short drive of some fantastic historic sites, particularly if you are interested in how the area’s early inhabitants lived and how they helped shape California’s history.

The Rancho Buena Vista Adobe is one of these local sites and is a great example of rancho life and adobe architecture in the Monterey style. Although previous owners have taken on major renovation projects, the architectural structure of this single-story home set on a cobblestone foundation has changed little over the last 160 years, making it an even more fascinating, must-see attraction for North County visitors and residents.

But it is not just the architecture and the historical importance of the land that make this particular adobe such an intriguing stop on any road trip; it is also the long and varied list of owners and visitors, which includes movie stars and locally famous families that played a significant role in the development of the San Diego area.

A Brief History of the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe

The land that became Rancho Buena Vista was once part of nearby Mission San Luis Rey and was given as a land grant to a Luiseño Indian, Felipe Subria, by Governor Pio Pico in 1845. His daughter than inherited the land and lost it to Jesus Machado to cover a debt. It was then inherited by his son upon Machado being killed in an uprising of indigenous people in Mexico. After his son lost the rancho to foreclosure, it was purchased by Lorenzo Soto, a gold prospector and politician from Los Angeles. Upon his death, his wife remarried and sold the rancho to Cave Couts in 1866.

If that name sounds familiar, that is because the Couts family was quite well known in this area and owned multiple ranchos, including nearby Rancho Guajome. Much like Rancho Guajome, Rancho Buena Vista was well known for its fiestas during the time it was owned by various members of the Couts family.

In 1886, part of the rancho was acquired by the Vista Land Company to create the city of Vista. In 1920, the portion of the property that is now Wildwood Park was given to the city by the rancho’s owner. In 1931, the rest of the rancho was purchased by MGM producer, Harry Pollard, and his silent movie star wife, Marguerita Fischer Pollard. During the two decades the Pollard’s owned the rancho, many of Hollywood’s elite visited the adobe. You can still see the remnants of this era in the rancho’s history by evidence of the magnolia tree in the courtyard, which was a gift from Joan Crawford.

After the Pollard’s, the rancho was owned by a Las Vegas casino owner, an ophthalmologist, and Rudd and Sally Schoeffel, who built the business complex next to the rancho. The rancho changed hands once again in 1989, when it was acquired by the City of Vista, and is now open to the public.

To learn more about the rancho’s history and previous owners, be sure to pick up the informational handout available at the visitors’ center.

What to Do at the Adobe

There are plenty of things to do and see at the adobe, including fun, educational activities for the whole family. You can, of course, take a guided tour of the grounds and rooms within the adobe while getting a brief history lesson regarding the adobe’s importance to the area and how early residents of the adobe lived. You can also tour the rose garden and learn about the history and variety of rose bushes on the property.

Any trip to the adobe would not be complete without checking out the adobe’s art gallery, which features photographic exhibits, quilts, oil paintings, and other arts and crafts created by local and regional artists. The exhibits change each month, so be sure to visit the adobe’s website to see what is currently on display. If you happen to be a local artist or crafter, you might also want to chat with the adobe staff about having your work shown there.

Be sure to stop by La Tiendita gift shop in the visitors’ center at the adobe for a great selection of CDs by local musicians, books, children’s items and unique gifts.

Before you visit the adobe, stop by the City of Vista’s website to confirm the current hours and to see if any special events are coming up.

Programs and Events at Rancho Buena Vista Adobe

The adobe offers several community programs, including scout badge programs, Adobe Days school field trips and a summer camp for children between the ages of seven and 11. The is also a volunteer program for history lovers interested in helping out as tour guides, with special events or in the gift shop. To learn more about available programs or volunteer opportunities, call the administrative office at (760) 941-7639.

There is a variety of special events held throughout the year. One of the most popular is the Holiday Home Tour, during which the adobe is decorated in period holiday décor and is part of a tour of historical homes in Vista.

If you prefer something a bit more edgy, you can join the San Diego Paranormal Research Society for a bit of ghost hunting fun during one of their Spirits of the Adobe: The Paranormal Experience events.

The rancho is also available for private events and is a popular choice for those in search of North County wedding venues. In fact, it was the North County Times Reader’s Choice Award Winner for Best Wedding Venues in 2010. If you think you might want to have your big day happen at a historic rancho, visit the adobe’s wedding information page.

14. Historic Grape Day Park

grape day park

The historic Grape Day Park in Escondido is truly a community gathering place where residents and out-of-town visitors have come together to play, learn about Escondido history and celebrate annual events for more than 125 years.

While Grape Day has the usual playground, horseshoe pits, community swimming pool and picnic tables for the community to enjoy, this North County attraction is not your typical city park. Home to the Escondido History Center, historic Heritage Walk, the Grape Day Military Tribute, a children’s tile art wall, rose garden, public art, and the interactive, ADA-compliant Vinehenge play sculpture, this park is a central location for community members to play, learn, experience history, enjoy arts and culture, and take part in an array of outdoor activities.

The park hosts multiple community events, classes and history walks throughout the year, but every day is a good day to head over to Grape Day Park to enjoy a picnic on the grass, take your kids to Vinehenge or check out games from the History Center, such as giant dominoes, giant pick-up sticks, giant checkers, giant chess or bocce ball.

Whether you are looking for a well-lit place for an evening stroll, an educational activity for your family, a great place to picnic with your partner or a new playground to frequent with your kids, you will definitely want to check out this centrally located Escondido attraction that offers much more than a typical park.

Escondido History Center at Grape Day Park

The park, which is under the stewardship of the Escondido History Center, is a registered historic landmark and an excellent place to learn about the area’s history. The History Center’s museum, previously known as Heritage Walk, is home to a number of buildings that played a significant role in Escondido’s history and have been relocated to the park for the public to enjoy. This includes an 1888 Santa Fe railroad depot and railcar, a Victorian house with period décor and furnishings, the Bandy Blacksmith Shop, the 1901 Penner Barn, the city’s first library building, an outhouse, a tankhouse, two windmills and a Native American grinding stone.

The museum is open for tours from Tuesday to Saturday each week, and the History Center offers free walking tours of historic Escondido throughout the year. There are five different walking tours available, so this is the type of family activity you can do multiple times to see even more of Escondido’s history. The walks take between 60 and 90 minutes to complete, and one includes a steep incline, so you may want to take that into consideration if you will have small children with you.

The museum also includes a gift shop with books, gifts and souvenirs.

While visiting the park and History Center, you may also want to check out the California Center for the Arts, City Hall and the City Hall fountain, James A. Stone Municipal Swimming Pool and the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, which is located across the street.

Annual Grape Day Celebration

The Grape Day Harvest was first celebrated in 1908 and continued as an annual community event until 1950, celebrating each year’s grape harvest and promoting tourism to the city. This festival, after which Grape Day Park is named, was then revived in 1996 by the Escondido History Center and now, once again, takes place each year in September.

The family-friendly festivities include a 5k fun run, a parade and a festival with food trucks, entertainment, grape stomping and activities for kids. There is also a wine and craft beer tasting pavilion where festival goers can try out wines from local wineries and craft beers from local breweries.

Other Events and Classes at the Park

Escondido’s annual Independence Day Celebration takes place at the park each year  in July and includes entertainment, food booths, museum tours, activities for kids and a fireworks display.

Each summer, the park also hosts a free, family-friendly Movies in the Park series where locals bring lawn chairs and blankets to spread on the grass and watch movies on an inflatable screen under the stars. Each event starts with children’s activities before the movie, and low-cost snacks are available for purchase.

The Escondido History Center at the park offers beginning and intermediate wheelwright and blacksmithing classes at the Bandy Blacksmith Shop, as well as other community classes throughout the year.

For upcoming events and classes, check out the Grape Day Park calendar of events.

15. Old Escondido Historic District

Residents and elected officials in Escondido are dedicated to preserving the city’s rich history and heritage, including the designation of historic homes that date back to before the city was incorporated. As part of Escondido’s efforts to preserve this heritage, the Old Escondido Historic District was established in 1989.

The City of Escondido was established in 1886, incorporated in 1888 and had just 541 residents as of 1890. In the years prior to and after Escondido officially becoming a city, hundreds of homes were built to accommodate its growing population. The area that is now known as the Old Escondido Historic District was the first neighborhood in the city, and many of the original homes are still standing today.

Today, this neighborhood makes for an excellent weekend outing where locals and visitors can take a walking or driving tour of the community to see the 900 homes that date back to the mid 1880s. From elegant Victorians to stately Craftsman bungalows, this North County attraction offers a peek into the area’s history and draws history buffs, architecture enthusiasts and folks who simply like to see old homes that have been lovingly preserved or restored.

If you plan on driving or walking through the neighborhood to view the homes, it helps to know that the Old Escondido Historic District is bordered by 5th Avenue to the north, Chestnut to the East, 13th Avenue to the south and Escondido Boulevard to the west. Its close proximity to historic downtown Escondido makes this a great, family-friendly way to spend a weekend outdoors exploring these two important areas in Escondido history.

Before you head over for a walking or driving tour of the area, you may want to check out this handy map that shows the locations of some of the homes with historical significance, including:

1. The Howell House, which is the only second empire home left in Escondido.

2. The Mayor’s House, which has been home to many Escondido mayors.

3. The Thomas-Turrentine House, which was built in 1887 by the co-founder of the Escondido Land and Town Company.

4. The Wood House, which was built in 1913 by John Lloyd Wright.

5. The Bradbury House, which is a Dutch Colonial Revival home built in 1905.

6. The Beach House, which is a Queen Anne Victorian constructed in 1896.

If you would like to sneak a peek inside the homes in this neighborhood, you will definitely want to take part in the Annual Mother’s Day Home Tour and Tea in the Garden event that happens each year in the district. During this annual event, select homes are open for visitors to explore. Other events also take place throughout the year, such as the Old Escondido Talent Show and the Trash to Treasures Rummage Sale.

Homes in this neighborhood are privately owned, so be sure to respect the owners’ privacy and property when touring the community. Some very cool homes in this neighborhood do come up for sale from time to time, so if you would like to become a part of this close-knit community and live in one of Escondido’s historic homes, keep an eye on the real estate market.

Keep in mind that part of the reason the homes in this community are so well preserved is a dedicated adherence to design guidelines and a few regulations, so even painting the exterior of your home would require obtaining a Certificate of Appropriateness. The folks who call this neighborhood home are happy to abide by these guidelines to help preserve the unique heritage of the community and make sure it is both a great place to live and a great place to tour!

To learn more about the Old Escondido Historic District and coming events, you can visit the website of the non-profit Old Escondido Historic District organization or their Facebook page.

16. Old Poway Park Train

Old Poway Park

If you have a future engineer on your hands or someone who just loves trains who is just itching to get out of the house, we have a great place to take that kid: Old Poway Park.

The narrow-gauge railroad is run entirely by volunteers dressed in authentic railroad attire, adding to the fun. The train runs only on weekends (Saturdays, 10:00AM – 4:00PM and Sundays, 11:00AM – 2:00PM.) with an occasional interruption in schedule called “Quiet Sunday.” In order to avoid any disappointment, be sure to check the train schedule prior to arriving.

While parents wait in-line for tickets, kids can play inside the Depot Store with the wooden Thomas trains and check out historical railroad memorabilia on display. The actual train ride is a short 5 minute ride that will take riders on a 2-lap route around the park.  And if it’s someone’s birthday, the train engineer will make an additional third lap in their honor!

Inside the park is a great place for good, hearty eats, too. At the Hamburger Factory Restaurant, the family can enjoy a home-style country breakfast, as well as hamburgers, as the name implies.  Don’t let the name fool you!  This place is much more than your average burger joint. The walls are filled with old-timey decor that will keep the kids entertained until your food arrives.

Train Tickets can be purchased inside the Depot Store. Ticket prices range from $1.50 to $2.50 per adult (depending on which train is running) but it’s always $.50 cents per child.  The ticket fares and donations help fund the train operations. If you plan to come back often, check out the annual $35 family membership, which offers unlimited train rides for 2 adults and up to five kids. And annual pass holders receive a discount on all Depot Store merchandise, including Thomas The Tank Engine and Dinosaur Train toy brands, conductor hats, and train whistles.

Your Turn…

Have you been to any of these historical sites? Which one is your favorite?

AJ Davis-Varela AJ is a freelance writer and blogger at Articles by AJ specializing in travel, real estate, natural wellness and green living. She is a magazine columnist, a former San Diego newspaper columnist, has been published in a variety of print and online publications, and regularly contributes to several websites and blogs. You can connect with AJ on LinkedIn, Twitter or Google+