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Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge

The 1,051-acre Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, in Imperial Beach, is southern California’s only coastal estuary that is not interrupted by roads and rail lines. The slough is an essential breeding, feeding, and nesting ground, and a key stopover on the Pacific Flyway for over 370 species of migratory and native birds, including the endangered California least tern, least Bell's vireo, California brown pelican, and light-footed clapper rail. Changes in water flow through the slough can be extreme, from a mere trickle during periods of drought to flooding during storms and high tides. The visitor center and a few miles of trail leading from it are accessible. This wildlife refuge is part of the 2,500-acre Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Visitor center: Surrounded by a native plant garden, the visitor center has permanent exhibits that highlight estuary flora and fauna, estuarine ecology, and natural processes. Free interpretive programs and guided hikes for children and adults are offered. Call for schedules. 
State Parks Advisory: Many of California's state parks are reducing hours of operation and limiting access to facilities because of budget cuts. We recommend that you consult State Parks' website and contact the park directly before planning a visit.

Trail/Pathway Details

North McCoy Trail

Trailhead: Between visitor center and parking lot

Length: Less than .5 mile

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Gentle

One section at the beginning of North McCoy Trail has a cross-slope greater than 1:12.

Terrain: Firm

Obstacles: Transitions at all wooden bridges may be affected by erosion. The bridge behind the visitor center on the way out to Caspian Street has a large step.


Traveling behind a housing tract for a short distance, the trail leads mostly south for approximately a half-mile through a marsh setting. Several accessible wood bridges provide opportunities to glimpse tiny crabs scrambling about in the water below. From a bench at the end of the trail you can see the South McCoy Trail across the marsh, and in the distance, Tijuana’s seaside bullring. During my visit in early August, I was delighted to learn that the tiny flicker of movement I kept seeing was that of the western pygmy blue butterfly (Brephidium exilis), thought to be the smallest butterfly in North America. 

South McCoy Trail

Trailhead: Iris Avenue and Fifth Street

Length: 1-2 total miles

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Level

Terrain: Firm


Much of this trail skirts the western edge of the U.S. Navy Landing Field, where helicopters hovering overhead intrude into this otherwise prime bird-watching area. At a fork in the trail you can go north toward the North McCoy trail or south to the end of the trail, where the Tijuana River empties into the ocean. You can see the ocean in the distance and hear the surf.  

Accessibility Details

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

Visitor Center: Accessible

Beach Wheelchair: No

Accessible Parking: Yes

At visitor center and, for South McCoy trailhead, at foot of Iris Avenue

Accessible Restroom: Yes

At visitor center 

Accessible Picnic Tables: Limited Accessibility

By visitor center; knee clearance at table is only 25 inches
North McCoy Trail
North McCoy Trail (Bonnie Lewkowicz )

Features icon key

  • hiking
  • particularly good for families
  • wildlife viewing

Additional Information

View Map  
Managing Agency: California State Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Address: 301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach
Nearest City: Imperial Beach
Phone: (619) 575-3613
Hours: Trails: Daily, half-hour before sunrise to half-hour after sunset
Visitor center: Wed.-Sun., 10 am-5 pm
Fees: None
Dogs: In restricted areas
Allowed on north beach and South McCoy Trail
Public Transportation:  San Diego Metro Transit System
Useful Links: Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center
Reviewed by Bonnie Lewkowicz, August 2, 2007
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
Boating Icon is a boatBoating   Picnic Area Icon is a picnic tablePicnic
Camping icon is a tentCamping   Swimming Icon is a person swimmingSwimming
Fishing Icon is a fish biting a hookFishing   Wildlife Viewing Icon is a pair of binocularsWildlife Viewing