The "kindergarten trail" on the Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension is not the same this school year for Del Mar Heights parents and students.
In past years, many parents hiked with their children to school on the trail, walking up steps made of wooden railroad ties and entering the campus through a gate.
Classes would sometimes gather in the trail-top amphitheater, which held a collection of wooden benches made by local Boy Scouts. It had a perfect view of the Beth Gross memorial tree, planted in the 1970s as a tribute to a Heights music teacher who died of cancer.
But the gate is locked now, the wooden steps torn out and the benches too.
"We feel sad and disappointed because the amphitheatre and the trail and all the history is just wiped clean - it's just gone," parent Melinda Johnson said. "It's as if it never happened."
Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Sharon McClain said that while she loved the area, the trail and amphitheater were potential safety hazards and not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act ADA). Wheelchairs could not access the trail or amphitheater and it was a liability for the district if anyone got hurt there, she said.
The wooden steps also had creosote on them, which is on the hazardous waste list, so they had to dispose of them, the principal added.
"We were between a rock and a hard place and had to take action to make sure we were compliant with ADA and safety regulations," McClain said. "But our teachers and kids got a brand new teaching area and native plant teaching garden in the bargain."
The new teaching station near the ballfields has flat stones for children to sit on that are all ADA accessible. A native plant garden will be planted this winter by the Torrey Pines Preserve staff, McClain said, and they also will place a dedication marker there in memory of Gross.
McClain said it was too expensive to bring the trail and amphitheater to code, but Johnson said she thinks the parents who were fighting to save both resources would have tried to help the district raise the necessary funds.
"The will wasn't there to go ahead and fix it," Johnson said. "It feels like they just threw up their hands and said this will be the safest, easiest way. We were willing to do the work, but we never had the chance to."
Parents and children can still walk to school on another path through the preserve and access campus through a new gate near the baseball fields. The gate is locked during school hours, so "people can't wander onto the school grounds," McClain said.
Hiking to school with her children is a treasured time, Johnson said. They start at about 7:15 a.m. and it's a totally different experience than a car ride.
"The kids love it," said Johnson, noting they can spot bunnies, rabbits and lizards along the way.
As a parent, she loves it too as it gives them an opportunity to talk, she said, noting that on a recent walk to school her son caught her up about all the things he did at summer camp.
It takes a little longer than the old trail to school, but at least they can still walk together, Johnson said.