The old golf course I was looking for was right there next to the road the whole time, but I’d been driving past it for a few minutes without seeing it. It wasn’t until I got out of the car to check the map on my phone and looked off into the distance that I realized I was staring at old abandoned fairways and cart paths now covered in native grasses, snaking through a desert scrubland.

I was in Bonsall, California, looking for San Luis Rey Downs, a course that was abandoned after suffering financial difficulties. Like many golf courses across the country, a declining interest in the game had drained it of greens fees and memberships, and the owners locked the clubhouse doors and walked away. Once they did, the local wilderness came creeping back.

Though there was a vaguely apocalyptic look to the grounds, with maintenance shacks covered in weeds and empty water hazards turned to cracked-bottomed dust bowls, it was also beautiful. Wilderness was returning to that vast stretch of northern San Diego canyon country. Native plants had returned. Jackrabbits bounded across old greens. No doubt plenty of snakes and lizards scurried across the rocks and hard-packed dirt. After rains come, wildflowers explode as do the insect and bird populations that help pollinate them.

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I walked around the course for a bit, which wandered next to a dry river that drains the nearby hills in fierce, brief storms, and had an enjoyable, though definitely unauthorized hike. There was talk the land would be turned into a “land bank” and left to return to a wild, though inaccessible state to mitigate damage done to other sensitive habitats in the area by development projects. Homeowners nearby protested that property values would plummet if that went through, and the project is still in limbo. Nobody yet seems to know what will happen to the place.

Making it a hiking area would be a good start.

Across the country, that’s actually happening.

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More than a dozen states have seen abandoned golf courses turned into public green spaces and hiking areas. Land trusts from Florida to Michigan have snapped up former golf course parcel at bargain prices and converted them from over-fertilized leisure spaces to native-plant dominated nature preserves accessible to the public.

In Wisconsin, what was once the Squires Country Club, a 70-year-old golf course, is now the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. Hikers, bikers, and nordic skiers can travel among more than two dozen wetlands, home to hundreds of migratory bird species.

The shuttered Wildflower Golf Club, near Sarasota, Florida, was bought by the Lemon Bay Conservancy in 2008 and is now home to a massive mangrove saltwater creek restoration plan. This provides a home for young tarpon to grow and will send clean, fertilizer-free water into the Gulf of Mexico, drastically improving water quality in downstream Lemon Bay. Hiking trails loop through what were once fairways and greens, wildflowers bloom in former roughs, birds singing everywhere.

Connecticut has four former courses converted into rural hiking and biking areas. In Palm Springs, California, where the MOjave Desert is littered with golf courses, a new open space recreation area and sustainable neighborhood development called Miralon is planned. Western Michigan is turning old courses into thriving riparian areas.

A golf course boom in the 1990s meant thousands were built around the U.S., many of which were surrounded with planned housing communities as part of a real estate package deal. But for lots of reasons, including ever-lengthening pace of play, high greens fees, the economic recession of 2008, interest in the game has, if not plummeted, begun a corrective to the exponential growth fueled by popular players like Tiger Woods. Municipal courses, too, have seemed like ripe targets for city councils looking to trim expenditures. Watering courses and pumping fertilizers into fairways can cost cities millions of dollars. It’s far cheaper to convert cart paths to hiking trails and to let native plants return.

That’s what I saw happening at San Luis Rey Downs, as the course has been effectively left to go fallow. Birds, bugs, grasses, and flowers all thriving, even without the attention of any greenskeepers.

“Moosa Creek runs though the property and it naturally wants to be a riparian habitat,” said Mark Laska of Tellurium, a group that wants to turn the old San Luis Rey Downs course back into wetlands. “That habitat was dramatically altered by creation of the golf course and our vision is to recreate the natural riparian flood plain habitat that should normally be occurring there.”

Top photo: Forsaken Fotos

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