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Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Bolsa Chica is the largest saltwater marsh between Monterey Bay and the Tijuana River Estuary. Within the 1,400-acre reserve are five plant communities: salt marsh, coastal strand, coastal sage scrub, freshwater wetlands, and riparian woodland. With 300 species of birds—including endangered clapper rails, peregrine falcons, and California least terns—it's a bird watcher's paradise. The best times for viewing are morning and early evening. Five miles of hard-packed dirt trails wind through the preserve; most are rough riding for manual wheelchair riders, except for the Mesa Trail, which leaves from the visitor center, and a 400-foot boardwalk over Bolsa Chica Inner Bay at the southern entrance, where I saw a great blue heron wait patiently for a mid-morning snack, then snatch it with lightning speed.

Free public tours are offered the second Saturday of each month, 10 am-noon; meet at the reserve’s interpretive center.

Visitor center: The small but informative interpretive center, located at the north parking lot, has educational displays about the Bolsa Chica wetlands, nearby watersheds, and marine ecology. You will find several saltwater aquaria that change throughout the year, tanks with small reptiles, and many taxidermied small animals, birds, and waterfowl.

Trail/Pathway Details

Mesa Trail

Trailhead: At the east (far) end of the interpretive center parking lot

Length: 1-2 total miles

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Level

The slope from the Mesa Trail to the levee trail is very steep and has a cross-slope greater than 2 percent.

Terrain: Moderately Firm

It's a bumpy ride, but one of the smoothest in the reserve for wheelchair riders.


At the start of the trail is a wooden footbridge that briefly runs parallel to Warner Avenue, then turns south and follows the edge of the outer bay, which is often teeming with waterfowl. To the east is the lower mesa, a grassy field where raptors like to hover in search of their next meal. Looking around at the flat, open expanse of wetlands, the Pacific Coast Highway (traffic noise was loud), and the dried grasses, I briefly thought that this trail might not be that interesting. Then I heard a rustle, and about 10 feet from me a majestic great blue heron took flight. I continued along the trail in anticipation of my next sighting. I wasn't disappointed; soon a small bunny hopped across the trail, a lizard scampered away, and pelicans skimmed the water.

A few interpretive panels along the way tell the history of the preserve, and benches invite you to pause to observe the wildlife. In a little more than .5 miles you reach an overlook, after which the trail descends steeply to a levee trail that continues another mile to the south end of the reserve. I turned around at the overlook.

Accessibility Details

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

Visitor Center: Accessible

Accessible Parking: Yes

Two lots serve the reserve: 3842 Warner Ave. (north lot) and 18000 Pacific Coast Hwy. (south lot), across Pacific Coast Highway from the Bolsa Chica State Beach entrance.

Accessible Restroom: Yes

Porta-potties are at both parking lots

Other Things of Interest

Bolsa Chica State Beach is across the Pacific Coast Hwy. from the reserve.
A great blue heron hunts for food
A great blue heron hunts for food (Bonnie Lewkowicz)

Features icon key

  • hiking
  • wildlife viewing

Additional Information

View Map  
Managing Agency: Bolsa Chica Conservancy
Address: 3842 Warner Ave.
Phone: (714) 846-1114
Hours: 6 am-8 pm. Visitor center: 9 am-4 pm.
Fees: None
Dogs: Not allowed
Public Transportation: Orange County Transportation Authority

Did You Know?

Bolsa Chica is a valuable archaelogical site because of the presence of “cogged stones,” round disks that have grooves or notches carved around the edges and were used by pre-Columbian Indians, presumably for ceremonies or decoration.

Reviewed by Dave Efferson, November 3, 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
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