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Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge (Alviso)

The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the first and largest urban national wildlife refuge in the United States, is just one piece of the larger San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Encompassing 30,000 acres, the Don Edwards refuge consists primarily of tidal marsh, salt ponds, mud flats, and seasonal wetlands. Public entry points for visiting Don Edwards are at its headquarters (at the refuge's north end in Fremont) and at this site, which is around the southern tip of San Francisco Bay. The refuge encompasses thousands of acres of restored wetlands, and it is a very fine place to see waterfowl. It's also scenic, with interesting shrubbery along the marshes and wide expanses of blue water, as well as ponds in various shades of yellow and red because of the salt-tolerant microorganisms that flourish where the tide is excluded.

The trails in the Alviso section of the refuge are almost entirely wheelchair accessible, since most run atop level levees that double as maintenance roads. Not many people come here, with the exception of school groups and birdwatchers; at midday on a clear Sunday in August we met only three or four other hikers in as many hours. Thankfully, a cool breeze off the Bay kept the hiking comfortable—there is no shade on these trails.

Visitor center: The Environmental Education Center has displays on the South Bay’s ecology and history, a small bookstore, and replicas of the reed boats and shelters used by the native people. It is used for school programs and other events on weekdays and is open to the public on weekends. The entry door is rather heavy.

Trail/Pathway Details

Mallard Slough Loop Trail

Trailhead: At the east side of the Environmental Education Center, or from the boardwalk of the New Chicago Marsh Trail

Length: Over 4 total miles

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

The connector trail from the education center is less than 4 feet wide.

Typical Grade: Level

The connector trail from the education center to the Mallard Slough Trail is a bit steep, slightly exceeding 1:12 in places.

Terrain: Firm

Firm (hardened soil) for most of the loop. Some spots are uncomfortably soft.
It can be bumpy; a manual chair user will need to be strong and may need assistance, especially on the spur, which has more gravel.


From the education center you can take a boardwalk to the 5.5-mile Mallard Slough Loop Trail, a gravel and dirt levee path. Following the loop clockwise from the boardwalk, the going gets tougher about two miles out; here the dirt surface becomes more uneven, with large gravel and some soft spots. At high tide, open water is on your right, with islands that are crowded and noisy with birds. On our visit, a fresh northwest wind skipped off the Bay. You are likely to see pintail ducks, whistling swans, American avocets, white pelicans, black-necked stilts, red-tailed hawks, and more.

A half-mile spur trail extends from the northernmost point of this loop to Coyote Creek; the surface is soft, making travel difficult compared to the main trail, but it may be worth the trouble since the spur takes you to the site of Drawbridge, a small town that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There's little left to see of it now, but stop in at the Education Center to look at photos and learn about its history.

As you round the halfway point and head back, traveling should become a little easier, since the wind is typically at your back. The salt ponds that shimmer on both sides provide habitat for a variety of bird species. In the last mile, Mallard Slough and Artesian Slough are on the east side of the trail, with fresh water from Coyote Creek creating a different habitat.

The Mallard Slough Loop is closed during hunting season, late October to late January. If you want to do the loop in its entirety, be prepared for a day-long outing and a variety of weather conditions along this exposed part of the Bay shoreline.

New Chicago Marsh Trail

Trailhead: Loop starts west of the Environmental Education Center and ends near the trailhead of the Mallard Slough Trail

Length: Under one mile total

Typical Width: 30 in. to 4 ft.

Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentle

The ramps down to and back from the boardwalk may slightly exceed 1:12.

Terrain: Hard

Paths to reach this trail are moderately firm.


This trail, said to be universal access, is entirely boardwalk and will take you closer to the water than the levee trails. It's quite an ambitious project—a half-mile long, including a grand bridge, the trail is ramped up to the education center at one end and to the levee at the other. Benches are frequent. You can extend your hike by taking the Mallard Slough Trail, which provided better birdwatching on our visit.

Marsh View Trail

Trailhead: Across the parking lot from the Environmental Education Center, at the pavilion

Length: Under one mile total

Typical Width: 30 in. to 4 ft.

At its narrowest point the trail is passable by wheelchair, but foliage may brush the passerby, so picking up ticks could be a problem in winter and spring.

Typical Grade: Steep

This is for the adventurous—tough but not dangerous.

Terrain: Moderately Firm

At present this is a rough ride, but doable. However, it is not designated as wheelchair accessible, and erosion could cause access problems in the future.


This trail is on what they call the uplands, the natural land bordering the marshes. It's interesting terrain, and we saw juncos, hummingbirds, rabbits, and lizards, and got a glimpse of what the bayshore was like a few hundred years ago. The trail also connects the education center to the parking area outside the gate, but it's not entirely wheelchair accessible without assistance because of some steep stretches and soft going.

Accessibility Details

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

Visitor Center: Accessible

Accessible Parking: Yes

At the Environmental Education Center. When the lot is closed, nose-in parking is permitted outside the gate on a wide, hard gravel strip along the road, but it has no designated accessible spaces.

Accessible Restroom: Yes

Inside the Environmental Education Center; restroom doors are heavy. A porta-potty is in the parking lot, near the accessible space.

Accessible Picnic Tables: Yes

Partially accessible picnic tables are across the parking lot from the Environmental Education Center in a covered open-air pavilion; a sign warns that the pavilion is intended for use by scheduled groups and only available for the public when not in use. There isn't enough space at the end of the tables for most wheelchairs to pull under them. Another table is just off the New Chicago Marsh Trail, but is down a steep path on a soft surface and is not accessible without a lot of help.
Looking east; pink pond water is caused by salinity
Looking east; pink pond water is caused by salinity (Dan Hill)

Features icon key

  • bicycling
  • hiking
  • picnic
  • wildlife viewing

Additional Information

View Map  
Managing Agency: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Address: 1751 Grand Blvd.
Phone: (408) 262-5513
Hours: Environmental Education Center: Sat.-Sun., 10 am-4 pm. Trails: Dawn to dusk
Fees: None
Dogs: Not allowed
Public Transportation: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority
Useful Links: Alviso Trail map
Reviewed by Ann Sieck, September 24, 2014
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.

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Wheelchairs Available
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