Fiesta Island Off-Leash Dog Park puts the ‘dog’ in ‘the dog days of summer’
One of the best ways to enjoy the “dog days of summer” is to actually spend it with your dog.
Even the most spoiled couch potato canines can learn to love adventure when it comes in the form of doing what they want to do in a space big enough to let them do it.
Recognized as the “Best Dog Park in America” by USA Today in 2016, Fiesta Island Off-Leash Dog Park features 90 fenced acres of canine heaven-on-earth. The island is located in Mission Bay Park.
Want to visit?
Fiesta Island Off-Leash Dog Park
Hours: Open 24 hours, seven days a week. But it is closed to vehicles after 10 p.m. If entering after that time, guests need to park off the island and walk in.
Directions: From I-5, take Sea World Drive exit and head southwest. Turn right on East Mission Bay Drive, then left to Fiesta Island.
Good to know: Parking is free throughout the island.
Once in the park, dogs are able to swim and splash in the ocean, romp across the sand dunes, run to their hearts’ content or just mosey down the trail immersed in the sights and smells of nature.
Described as “primitive,” “peaceful” and “surprisingly private,” the island has been enjoyed by dog owners for decades — even before it became a popular dog park.
Linda Briggs has been taking her dogs to the island for the past 25 years.
“I’ve lived in San Diego for 40 years, but someone must have shown the island to me, as back in the day it wasn’t really a thing to take your dogs there,” she said.
Briggs has had several Labrador retrievers through the years, and they’ve all loved their trips to the island.
“It’s definitely their happy place,” she said.
At 14 1/2 years, Maya the yellow lab is now a bit too old to take to the island. However, Briggs said Kiva, her 10-year-old chocolate lab, still loves to swim and chase her tennis ball on her outings.
Briggs and Kiva are joined by basset hound Sadie, also about 10 years old. Briggs said Sadie was originally her mother’s dog, but now lives with her.
“Sadie is just hilarious when she’s out at the island,” Briggs said. “She just slowly meanders along, sniffing everything and saying ‘Hi’ to everyone. She never goes in the water. But when she gets really excited she’ll break into a trot.”
Debbie Madden and Dr. Jean Spangle have also been taking advantage of the solitude of the dog park for more than 25 years.
Now retired, for more than 35 years Spengel was a veterinarian in La Jolla.
“I’ve had multiple dogs through the years and they’ve all gone to Fiesta Island,” Spengel said. She added that back in the mid-1990s, “there would only be three or four other dogs there.”
Now she takes Devyn, a 4 1/2-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback she shares with Madden out to the island nearly every day.
“It’s great exercise for the people as well as the dogs,” Spengel said. “And at 90 acres, it’s big enough for everyone to keep their distance if they want. It’s a great place to socialize, as many people go at the same time every day.”
Madden, a retired electrical engineer, said she loves that she can forget she lives in the eight largest city in the U.S. when on the island with her dog.
“I’ve always gone there because I had large dogs and it was a place they could run,” Madden said. Not only does Devyn like to run and be chased by the other dogs, but Madden said she often walks one to two miles on every outing, so “it’s a win-win for us.”
But it wasn’t easy to make sure the park was actually going to the dogs.
For more than 20 years, threat of development loomed over the park, which threatened to put fences and a road right through the middle of the carefree canine area.
Fiesta Island was formed as a result of the creation of Mission Bay Park. In 1944, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce decided to develop the former estuary into a recreational and tourism area.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, more than 25 million cubic yards of sand were moved to create Mission Bay Park. The park is now known as the site of the Over-the-Line Tournaments since 1953; SeaWorld, which was built in 1964; and the home of the first triathlon, or swim/bike/run, which took place in 1974.
But as Mission Bay thrived and grew, the leftover dredged sand became the mostly undeveloped Fiesta Island. It became known as a spot for everything from paddleboarding, rowing and fishing to birdwatching.
In 2008, Fiesta Island Dog Owners, or FIDO, was formed. A community-based organization, FIDO’s mission is protecting, improving and sustaining Fiesta Island’s off-leash area, including the 90 acres in the southwest corner.
Now on the FIDO board as secretary, Spengel said she helped found the organization back in 2006. Madden and Briggs are also board members.
“It’s the only beach in San Diego where you can legally and safely run miles with your dogs off leash. The perimeter is close to two miles, so you can walk and do something besides just stand around while your dog plays, like in some of the smaller dog parks,” Briggs said.
FIDO members’ efforts paid off when in 2019 and 2021 when the California Coastal Commission cancelled proposed changes and officially added the dog park to the Mission Bay Master Plan.
“It took 16 years to save the Fiesta Island Dog Park,” Spengel said, “and we’re always keeping watch in case things change.”
“Fiesta Island has sun, water and beach; it’s a wonderful place and we’re so fortunate to have it,” Madden said.
For more about FIDO, visit FIDOSD.org or its FaceBook page.
More dog-friendly parks in and near Pacific Beach
While Fiesta Island Off-Leash Dog Park is the biggest dog park around, sometimes it pays to start your canine pal off at a smaller park, either to build up their confidence or practice their off-leash skills.
Here are some parks in or near Pacific Beach where dogs are welcome.
Capehart Off-Leash Dog Park
This 1-acre park offers two fenced areas on turf; one area for small dogs, while the other is for large or all dogs. There are water areas for dogs, a drinking fountain, shaded picnic tables and benches.
It is open 24 hours daily at the corner of Felspar Street and Soledad Mountain Road in Pacific Beach.
Kate Sessions Park
Sweeping hillside views and a dog-friendly recreation area are some of the highlights of the 79-acre Kate Sessions Park. Barbecue grills, bathrooms, trees, greenery and views of Mission Bay and the ocean off Pacific Beach make this a local favorite. Dogs must be on a leash.
It is open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 5115 Soledad Road in Pacific Beach.
Not specifically a dog park, Palisades Park allows leashed dogs before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. in the summer, and after 4 p.m. in the winter.
For humans, it is open 24 hours daily at 4960 Ocean Blvd. (between Law Street and Crystal Drive) in Pacific Beach.
OB Dog Beach
Located at the foot of Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach, this area offers access to the beach and ocean. Open 24 hours.
Dusty Rhodes Neighborhood Park
This 1-acre park features a single area for all dogs. It is open dawn to dusk on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, between Nimitz and West Point Loma in Ocean Beach. There has been discussion about expanding the site to five acres. Open dawn to dusk.