Terns dart overhead, white-tailed kites hover over water, and ospreys make their rounds.
  • Terns dart overhead, white-tailed kites hover over water, and ospreys make their rounds.
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The San Elijo County Ecological Reserve hosts more than 250 species of shore and water birds because they are attracted to the multiple plant communities found here, which include coastal sage scrub, salt marsh, and chaparral. A visit here is a good way to learn about the differences found in each of these communities and to see how one community transitions into another.

From the trailhead overlooking the large flat expanse of the lagoon, head down the slope to the right into a shady area of tall willows and Fremont cottonwoods. Encountered there are typical coastal sage scrub plants, including lemonade berry, California buckwheat, toyon, coastal sagebrush (Artemisia), black sage, laurel sumac, and arroyo willow. Behind a bench on the right, a large brown lump on the hillside is the exposed root of wild cucumber. Poisonous jimsonweed, with its pale violet trumpet-shaped flowers, is found on the trail. If you rub the leaves, your fingers will smell like peanut butter. In recent years, Lagoon Conservancy volunteers have removed non-native acacia and castor beans, and consequently, Mexican elderberry is now more abundant. Palmer sagewort, virgin’s bower, bee plant, and bush mallow appear after earlier spring wildflowers.

After about a quarter of a mile, the trail turns left, and sage scrub gives way to an open flat area closer to small channels. Notice how the plant communities change dramatically with minimal changes in elevation. Toward the water, salt marsh plants such as spiny rush, pickleweed, salt grass, and alkali heath dominate. Endangered bird species such as Belding’s savannah sparrow and the light-footed clapper rail inhabit the marsh. Watch for mullet jumping out of the water. During the fall and winter migration, shorebirds and ducks explore the mud or shallow water for tiny crustaceans (binoculars are a good idea). Terns dart overhead, white-tailed kites hover over the water, and ospreys make their rounds.

The trail loops back inland to higher, drier ground. Deerweed, monkey flower, bedstraw, bush sunflower, coreopsis, and wild snapdragon mix in with buckwheat and elderberry. Turn right at the main trail to return to your car, or for a longer hike, go left toward I-5. Near the freeway, in dense vegetation, you might hear the California gnatcatcher or the least Bell’s vireo. As you return, enjoy the view of the steep, north-facing slope of the lagoon, covered in spots with dense chaparral as well as tenacious orange nasturtium.

Finally, look for the San Elijo Nature Center across the lagoon on Manchester Avenue (open daily, 9–5). Another trail beyond a metal gate leads down past saltbush plants to an observation area level with the lagoon, a favorite spot for birders. For information on additional trails and the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, visit their website: sanelijo.org.


Distance from downtown San Diego: 22 miles, allow 30 minutes’ drive time. From I-5, exit west on Lomas Santa Fe Dr. (exit 37). Turn right (north) onto North Rios Ave. Go to the end of the road and park. No facilities.

Hiking length: 1.5 miles or longer.

Difficulty: Easy with minimal elevation change. Dogs must be leashed. No bicycles, watercraft, wading, or swimming. Good for families, groups and children; not suitable for wheelchairs.

Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes:


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