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San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve

San Elijo Lagoon, between the towns of Solana Beach and Encinitas, is an ecological preserve, home to many types of birds, which can be viewed from a small network of trails. Although bisected by two freeways and a railroad, the lagoon was saved from development in the 1960s. Within its1,000 acres are six distinct plant communities. Nearby residences and some traffic remind you that you're not far from the city, but it is a convenient place to find some solitude among the wetlands. Birds are plentiful on a quarter-mile, self-guided nature trail. You will no doubt see an osprey or a great egret or two, and on my visit in September, mullet fish were leaping all along the trail as it wound through the marsh. 

Visitor center: The preserve’s new two-story visitor center was designed to be a model of “green” building. Mostly recycled materials were used in its construction, and the building is highly energy- and water-efficient, with solar panels, a recycled water system, and a “cool” roof that includes a garden with native plants. A few short, mostly level trails meander through the native plant gardens north of the visitor center, overlooking the northernmost end of the lagoon.

Interactive exhibits explain the building’s green features and why water conservation and storm water pollution control are important to coastal watersheds. Be sure to take the elevator to the second-floor observation deck, which wraps around three sides of the building and provides extensive views out over the lagoon and marsh.

Trail/Pathway Details

San Elijo Lagoon Nature Trail

Trailhead: Visitor center

Length: Less than .5 mile

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Level

Terrain: Hard

Terrain varies from hard to firm


Along the way are several broad pullouts on both sides of the trail, with interpretive signs and views over the marsh; to the west you can see the ocean. A short distance from the first pullout, you cross a bridge over one of the channels, where you can look down into the water and catch a glimpse of the mullets in the shallows. Soon the trail curves inland, shaded by overarching arroyo willows. A boardwalk branches off to the left, traveling approximately 200 feet along a stream, through willows, sycamore, mulefat, and other riparian plants before returning to your starting point at the visitor center. I lingered here for a while to watch an osprey perched just above me in an old dead tree, taking a break from its busy fishing schedule.

If you go straight instead of taking the boardwalk, you travel another few hundred feet through willows and other trees, including a few Torrey pines, the rarest native pine in the United States. From a bench with a view of the estuary, I watched butterflies flit and hummingbirds zoom about; you might also see red-winged blackbirds, common yellowthroats, or a western fence lizard sunning itself. The trail weaves through the forest as it approaches Manchester Avenue, then ends near the park entrance on Manchester. Return the way you came or via the boardwalk.

Accessibility Details

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

Visitor Center: Accessible

Accessible Parking: Yes

At visitor center

Accessible Restroom: Yes

Inside visitor center. Doors into restroom may be heavy for some. 

Other Things of Interest

You may fish with a license. No commercial fishing, nets, or sieves allowed. 
View of Lagoon Nature Trail from visitor center
View of Lagoon Nature Trail from visitor center (Eileen Ecklund)

Features icon key

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

Additional Information

View Map  
Managing Agency: California Department of Fish and Game
Address: 2710 Manchester Ave., Cardiff-by-the-Sea
Nearest City: Cardiff-by-the-Sea
Phone: (760) 634-3026
Hours: Trails: Daylight hours
Visitor center: Daily, 9 am-5 pm
Fees: None
Dogs: On leash
Public Transportation: North County Transit District 
Reviewed by Eileen Ecklund, September 19, 2009
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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