Border Field State Park: the Beach Border

By Tee1

The Beach Border between Mexico and the US

Along the Mexican border, 15 miles south of San Diego, is the Border Field State Park beach. It is a surprisingly beautiful and open place. This mile and a half long beach spot is the southernmost beach in the state of California. The Border Field State Park contains both coastal and beach habitat on the US-Mexican border. This California state beach begins at the border and stretches north to the mouth of the Tijuana River. It is managed by the state and as well as the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. The state park is located within the boundaries of Imperial Beach, California.

There are highly scenic views down the beach to the north and the estuary from the Border Field State Park. In the park, you’ll also find barbecues, picnic areas and corrals in case you roll in on your horse. This beach does not have lifeguards. Swimming is not encouraged because of dangerous rip tides, big waves and the water is highly polluted.

Where is Border Field State Park Beach? 32°53′N 117°12′W

Friendship Park’s Water is not Friendly

On the 2nd of February, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war between Mexico and the United States of America. In addition to ceding California and the Southwestern states to the United States, the treaty “provided that the new international border between the two countries be established by a joint United States and Mexican Boundary Survey. The commission began its survey at Border Field.”

[pullquote]I had a couple interactions with the men who patrol the border here. They were all pretty friendly guys and seemed both helpful and knowledgeable.[/pullquote]

Along the border itself, an extension of the border wall extends out into the water about 100 yards. It is not as scary looking as I imagined, but it is certainly not a very inviting place or one of my favorite beach vacation spots. On the beach, you can walk up to about 25 yards from the wall dividing the United States from her southern neighbor. Like I mentioned, its not ominous but it’s still a little creepy.

Wasted Stretch of Prime Beach Front Real Estate

The beach stretches for miles, all the way up through Imperial Beach along the Silver Strand and then into Coronado and up to the other best beaches of San Diego. When I was there this past weekend, the beach was empty for as far as I could see except for a couple of older women taking pictures. The weather was absolutely perfect. After the women approached the fence and got a little too close, they were barked at by a border guard on an ATV.  There is literally a line in the sand you are not supposed to cross with a stop sign. It was hard to find fault with the man for doing his job.

[pullquote]Border Field Park’s “Friendship Park” area is a dedication to friendly relations across the border between the United States and Mexico, which is the world’s most crossed country border.[/pullquote]

I had a couple interactions with the men who patrol the border here. They were all pretty friendly guys and seemed both helpful and knowledgeable. I had asked one man, “How dirty is the water really?” He pleasantly told me not to go near it because of untreated sewage from Tijuana. To be clear, there are signs everywhere alerting visitors to avoid contact with the water or risk serious bacterial infection.

The unsafe water is a shame because, from a scenery perspective at least, the Border Field State Park beach is spectacular. The water looked amazing. It was one of those perfect days where the Pacific Ocean looked at least as inviting as the Caribbean. However, raw sewage from TJ frequently seeps into the water and spreads to the coastal wetlands, which deters people from visiting this beach.

Oddly, just south of the border, I saw a man playing with his daughter in the surf. They were having a great time. Were they throwing caution to the wind and playing in filth? I don’t know. On the Mexican side, its called the Playas de Tijuana, the westernmost borough of the municipality of TijuanaBaja California. In general it looked like a lot more fun. There was music playing from a bar and a decent crowd of people hanging out on the beach.

The Mexican side is developed vs a protected state park. That is where comparisons begin and end. Of course, south of the border in these circumstances is going to be more fun. In a way, there are certain similarities between this beach border and La Frontera between Spain and Gibraltar. A beach vacation to Spain is just as tempting to the senses as Mexico. 

Slightly more than 60,000 people visited the Border Field State Park in 2015. Just 60 meters (200 feet) from the border, is the Bullring by the Sea or “Plaza Monumental de Playas de Tijuana” which holds 21,000 and appears to be immensely more popular. The bullring opened in 1960 and has also been utilized for concerts, boxing and other sporting events over the years.

The Orwellian named Friendship Park lies within the Border Field State Park and includes the fence between the nations. Originally dedicated by Pat Nixon in 1971. To build additional border fencing, the park was closed temporarily in 2009. Access to the park, which is now located within the secondary fence is severely restricted. Public access to the United States side of the park is permitted Saturdays and Sundays between 10am and 2pm by the US Border Patrol.

In the 1990’s, border security was tightened and then again later after 9/11. There was no border fence for many years in simpler times. A monument and chain-link fence sufficed after that. Friendship Park was closed to build a new fence in 2009.  This new fence is a thick, dense steel mesh which is difficult to see through. People are no longer allowed to hold hands through the fence.

The border between the US and Mexico was first monitored in 1850, when delegations began to survey the land (2 years after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo). The area’s first border patrol was formed to monitor the influx of Chinese laborers.  Later during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), an estimated 890,000 people fled north.

This California State Park beach was purchased by the US Navy in 1929 for use as a machine gun and airborne gunnery range and named Border Field.  The land was finally deactivated by the Navy in 1961. Border Field State Park was established a decade later after President Nixon announced that 372 acres of land was earmarked for his “Legacy of Parks” program.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Estuarine Sanctuary Program absorbed the estuary in 1982. The United Nation’s Ramsar Convention of Wetlands in 2005 designated the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (TRNERR) a “Wetland of International Importance”.

The estuary, TRNERR, is a critically important wildlife habitat. Its sand dunes and marshes (both salt and fresh), provide refuge for threatened migratory waterfowl and also some endangered resident wading birds. Some of the endangered birds that can be seen in the park are the California Least Tern, the Western Snowy Plover, and the Light-footed Ridgway’s Rail.

Major environmental problems haunt this beautiful beach front park. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for neither the storm water runoff nor the sewage contamination issues. The topography of the park was altered in 2005, by a succession of coastal storms that hit the San Diego/ Tijuana area. Consequently, for 5 months in the winter the park is inaccessible to public vehicles. Sooner or later, the issues confronting the park will be settled. Like everything else, its just a question of funding. It is estimated that costs may run over $4 million. It may not sound like much in sunny southern California, but there are certainly other priorities.

I was expecting my visit to the border to be a bit more sad. It wasn’t, because the people appeared to be resigned to their fate and seemed stoic. There were no lovers wailing. All the same, seeing families separated by a fence sucks. The few minutes I stood there in the cage between the countries wasn’t fun. At best, you can describe this place as surreal. It’s emotionally ugly. It’s shameful more people don’t visit. Is it better to not have tourist masses gawking at the situation or to allow blissful ignorance to continue?