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Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve

Upper Newport Bay––referred to by locals as the Back Bay––has one of the largest remaining natural estuaries in Southern California. Between the Upper Newport Ecological Reserve (752 acres of wetlands) and the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve (135 acres of bluffs surrounding the bay), there is plenty of open space to enjoy and explore. The reserve, saved from development in the mid-1970s, is an important flyway for migrating birds—up to 30,000 can visit on a given day during winter months. It is home to nearly 200 species of birds, including several rare or endangered species: the light-footed clapper rail, Belding's Savannah sparrow, peregrine falcon, and California least tern. It’s also a spawning ground for halibut and bass.

The unpaved trails are inaccessible to wheelchair riders because of steep inclines and water bars, but several miles of paved perimeter trails afford the opportunity to experience this thriving estuary. Back Bay Road (3.5 miles one way) in particular is worthwhile because you are level with the estuary for the entire way. The trail from the interpretive center to Jamboree Road (1.2 miles) offers a view from above the estuary. The trail from the interpretive center to Santiago Drive (1 mile) on the western side travels alongside a busy road for much of the way, and I did not find it enjoyable.

Visitor center: Before you begin your exploration of the reserve, pick up trail maps and talk to knowledgeable docents at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center, at the bay's north end. It can be reached either from the staff parking lot (open only to staff and those with a disability parking placard) or via a trail from the lower (main) lot. If you approach from the lower lot you can take a spur trail to the center's roof, which provides great views of the reserve (the viewing telescope is not lowered, however), then return to the main trail, following it downhill past a butterfly garden to the center's entrance. The 10,000-square-foot educational facility provides information about the history of and life in and around the bay through exhibits, interactive displays, and movies in the small theater. Guided hikes and educational programs are offered for all ages. Local art is on display and available for sale.

The trail from the lower lot to the visitor center has a decomposed granite surface that has loosened and is deep in places, which may be problematic for wheelchairs with small castors.

Trail/Pathway Details

Back Bay Dr. to Vista Overlook

Trailhead: Back Bay Dr. at Big Canyon parking lot

Length: Over 4 total miles

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentle

Terrain: Hard

The interpretive trail is firm and easy to roll on.


This road, used by pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists, hugs the eastern side of the estuary for 3 miles from the Back Bay Science Center at Shellmaker Road to Vista Point on the corner of Eastbluff Drive. Though it is open to cars in one direction, there are very few and the speed limit is 15 mph, so I was comfortable sharing the road. On the one-mile stretch that I rolled (I drove out the rest of the way), you are level with the wetlands and the views are great—they're especially vibrant in the evening, when the low sunlight strikes the water, fish jump, and birds gather to feed and roost.

I highly recommend taking the self-guided interpretive trail from an accessible entrance a few hundred yards beyond the Big Canyon parking lot. If you use the entrance across from the lot, the trail quickly becomes impassable due to a step up to a bridge. Hiking this trail is a completely different experience from traveling along the road; here you pass through six distinct habitats and among trees and bushes. Many people don’t even realize the trail is there.

The drive from the parking lot to Eastbluff Drive was enjoyable, with great views of the estuary, but if you roll the entire way you will encounter a very steep hill just as you approach the vista overlook on Eastbluff. You won’t miss much if you turn around before the hill and head back to the parking lot.

Interpretive Center to Jamboree Rd.

Trailhead: Visitor center

Length: 2-4 total miles

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

A 5’ section at the top of the butterfly garden is only 29” wide.

Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentle

There is one very steep section if you continue on to Back Bay Dr.

Terrain: Hard


Travel through the staff parking lot to reach this trail at the slough’s northern end. It starts with a long, gradual descent to a bridge over Delhi Channel. I stopped here with other trail users to peer between the bridge railings, looking for wildlife floating by in the clear waters below. Although the setting is serene, quite often the delightful soundscape of birdsong is interrupted by the sound of planes taking off from nearby John Wayne Airport. You’ll likely pass cyclists cruising at good speeds as the trail dips and climbs east toward Jamboree Road. Tall wood fencing obscures the view of the estuary until you cross a second trestle bridge.

Except for a smattering of prickly pear cactus, the bluffs to the north were very dry on my early October visit, though an interpretive sign indicated that you might see bush sunflower, deerweed, California sagebrush, and California buckwheat. Dragonflies hovered above while their shadows appeared to dance on the asphalt. There is no shade, so a hat and sunscreen are advisable. You continue to dip and climb. As you get closer to Jamboree Road, traffic noise picks up. Several spur trails lead into residential areas; I exited at the one to Bayview Drive, where a friend was waiting. The trail runs below Jamboree Road, then turns on Eastbluff Drive, where you follow a wide sidewalk to the vista overlook and then link to Back Bay Drive. After a very steep descent onto Back Bay Drive, the trail continues another 3.5 miles along the estuary.

Accessibility Details

The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.

Visitor Center: Accessible

Accessible Parking: Yes

The main (lower) lot off University Dr. has accessible spaces but the surface is decomposed granite, which might be muddy after a rain. Signage at the entrance to this lot indicates accessible parking is farther along University Dr. at the staff lot, which is paved; however, this lot closes around 4 pm, while the lower lot closes at sunset. The Big Canyon parking lot has several faded accessible spaces close to the slough; if you have a lift-equipped vehicle I suggest parking here to hike Back Bay Rd. instead of using the street parking on San Joaquin Hills Rd., where there is no room to deploy a lift.

Accessible Restroom: Yes

At the interpretive center. A sign on the accessible Porta Potty in the Big Canyon parking lot said it was open to the public on school days, but it was locked when I visited on a school day.

Accessible Picnic Tables: Yes

Off the lower parking lot, by the trailhead to the interpretive center
Path through butterfly garden
Path through butterfly garden (Hannah Karpilow)

Features icon key

  • bicycling
  • hiking
  • particularly good for families
  • wildlife viewing

Additional Information

View Map  
Managing Agency: Orange County Parks, Dept. of Fish & Game
Address: 2301 University Dr.
Phone: (949) 923-2290
Hours: Interpretive center: Tues.-Sun., 10 am-4 pm.; closed Mondays and major holidays. Park: Daily, 7 am-sunset.
Fees: None
Dogs: On leash
Public Transportation: Orange County Transit Authority
Reviewed by Bonnie Lewkowicz, October 2, 2013
Access Norhtern California This web guide is a project of Access Northern California.  
California Coastal Conservancy Thanks to our partner the California Coastal Conservancy

DISCLAIMER: Although the information contained in this web-guide was believed to be correct at the time of publication, neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy shall be held responsible or liable for any inaccuracies, errors, or omissions, nor for information that changes or becomes outdated. Neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy assume any liability for any injury or damage arising out of, or in connection with, any use of this guide or the sites described in it.

Accessible Restrooms Icon looks like a women and men restroom signBeach Accessible
Wheelchairs Available
  Hiking icon is silhouette of a hikerHiking & Trails
Biking icon looks like person riding a bikeBicycling   Good for Familis icon is a child on a swing'Particularly Good for Families
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