San Elijo Lagoon

San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve in San Diego
San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve is a 1000 acre reserve situated between Solana Beach and Encinitas. The Reserve has seven miles of interconnecting trails passing through diverse ecological habitats including a riparian creekside, dry coastal sage scrub, boggy marshes, open grasslands, and coastal wetlands. San Elijo is home to numerous species of plants and animals, and provides an important stopover point for migrating birds.

There are several trail heads you can use to access various points of the Reserve (check out the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy for trail maps). We were looking for as long of a hike as we could get, so we chose to start at the La Orilla trailhead and hike through the entire Reserve – about 8 miles round trip.The La Orilla trail head for San Elijo Lagoon
We set off from the parking lot and were immediately enveloped by a lush grove of eucalyptus trees. While they are an invasive species whose presence obstructs the growth of native plants, I couldn’t help but appreciate their beauty and the cool shade they provided. Long strands of wild grape vines grew up into the trees and hung down from the branches, creating a jungle like feeling.Eucalyptus trees abound near the San Elijo Lagoon

The eucalyptus jungle continued for about the first quarter mile of the trail. We emerged to see a marshy expanse which surrounds the La Orilla Creek to our right, and chaparral covered hillside to our left.Emerging from the trees at San Elijo Lagoon

We continued along the trail, heading through a more typical coastal sage scrub area, with the marshy reed and cattail lined creek in the distance. At .5 mile into the hike, we crossed a wide dirt path with power lines towering above us. This is the Santa Helena/Stonebridge trail, which leads north to the Stonebridge Mesa, only accessible in the dry season. We, however, continued along the La Orilla trail heading west towards the ocean.Intersection of La Orilla trail and Santa Helena trail at San Elijo Lagoon

Just pass the trail junction, we came upon a large pine tree overhanging a bench, providing a nice spot to sit and enjoy the quiet if you’re so inclined. We would find a lot of these benches along the trail as the day progressed, there is no shortage of places to kick back and enjoy the view on this trail.A scenic resting spot at the San Elijo Lagoon

But, as we had a long way to go, we continued trekking along our path. To the east and north we began to could see signs of civilization emerge in the distance, namely Interstate 5. At .8 miles we encountered another trail junction – the Santa Carina loop. We took the right fork and headed through an open grassy plain towards Tern Point – a scenic overlook providing some great views of the water below and more of those strategically placed benches.View from Tern Point at San Elijo Lagoon

After enjoying the view, we continued along the loop and met up again with the La Orilla Trail. We continued west, traveling down one of the few steep grades in the Reserve, and found ourselves traversing through a stretch of deep sand.Points of the La Orilla trail at San Elijo Lagoon consist of deep sand

Survey marker at San Elijo LagoonAt 1.3 miles, we passed a seemingly random survey marker on the side of the trail, followed soon after by several trail branches to the right. The first two lead over to the Dike/Levee trail which will take you across the marshy lagoon to Manchester Ave. The next apparent branch is a false trail which will lead you into the muddy and mucky reeds where you’re probably traumatizing local wildlife with your presence, not to mention kicking up mud all over your legs. Not that I know from personal experience or anything. Don’t take this branch.

Getting lost at San Elijo Lagoon

Don’t go here

We stayed to the left and followed the proper trail up some steps until we found ourselves at the branch for the Santa Inez trail head.

Go this way instead

Go this way instead

We turned away from the neighborhood trail head and headed north, paralleling the lovely I-5, which was jam packed with cars on a Friday afternoon. Trying not to envision our eventual drive home, we focused our attention on the open vista to the east.Looking east across San Elijo Lagoon

At just under 2 miles into our hike, the trail crossed under the freeway, and we gazed down into the deep flowing water beside us while pretending not to notice the cars zipping along Manchester Ave.Going under the freeway to get to the other half of San Elijo Lagoon

When we emerged from the underpass, we noticed two magnificent osprey circling above us. Finally some birds!An osprey circles at San Elijo Lagoon

The trail turned south back alongside the freeway, and then bent westward once again. We passed through another eucalyptus jungle zone. There’s something of a maze of trail branches in this area, allowing you to either hike through the trees along the base of the hill side, or through the more exposed grass and sage scrub closer along the edge of the lagoon. Both routes eventually converge, so we chose the right hand path closer to the water, and figured we could take the other path on our return trip. Several paths intersect the two routes at various points in case you change your mind along the way.The Gemma Parks Interpretive Loop at San Elijo Lagoon

The right hand branch brought us down along the water’s edge, and we could see some large birds enjoying the lagoon in the distance, too far away to try and identify. The scrub brush around us was full of wildlife as well. The ever present lizards scurried away as we approached, and we spotted a beautiful blue dragonfly resting in the brush.Dragonfly at San Elijo Lagoon

There were also a variety of smaller birds flitting through the bushes, including the endangered California Gnatcatcher.A coastal California gnatcatcher

This particular section of trail was the Gemma Parks Interpretive Loop, and we found a number of signs describing the plants that dominated the trailside, including Black sage, California buckwheat, and California sagebrush.

Before long, we met up with the main trail again, and turned right to continue our westward journey. The trail bent away from the water and the taller riparian plants along this stretch grew much higher, obstructing our view of the marsh.Hiking at San Elijo Lagoon

The trail soon climbed upwards and we found ourselves standing on the side of the street at the N. Rios Avenue trailhead, almost exactly 3 miles from our starting point. After pausing a moment to admire the view from our high vantage point, we continued along the trail, which sloped downward again toward the marsh.From the N Rios Ave trail head at San Elijo Lagoon

We soon encountered another trail junction. We took the right branch which went out a short way along an isthmus to another viewing area. Once again, we were able to see large birds along the water’s edge in the distance, but none close enough that we could identify them. I suspect we would have had better luck viewing wildlife had we come earlier in the morning or later in the day. Our early afternoon exploration apparently did not coincide with the birds schedules.View from the peninsula at San Elijo Lagoon

Undeterred, we retraced our path to the main trail and continued on. We found yet another scenic overlook complete with the requisite bench and breathtaking view of the salt marsh below.One of many scenic view points at San Elijo Lagoon

The path turned abruptly southward for a bit before wrapping around a full 180 degrees and going north, paralleling Highway 101 and the adjacent train tracks. This stretch is appropriately named the Pole Road. We passed by the renowned Solana Beach Pumping Station (yay sewage) and followed the raised roadway that ran through the marsh.The aptly named Pole Road at San Elijo Lagoon

The trail turned from sand and dirt to gravel, and as I looked at the power lines running over head and the freeway to our left, I began to wonder if going down to the end of the road was really a worthwhile endeavor. But it was only another quarter of a mile or so, so we decided we might was well complete the journey.

Soon enough, we saw a Snowy Egret poking along the edge of the water to our left, with his fluffy white feathers, long black legs, and bold yellow feet.A Snowy egret shows off his yellow feet at San Elijo Lagoon

Cheered by this encounter, we continued on. Shortly thereafter, on the right, we spotted another uniquely colored bird, which we later decided was a Caspian Tern, among some ducks and smaller birds we couldn’t identify.Shorebirds at San Elijo Lagoon

Finally, at 4.3 miles, we came to the end of the Pole Road, which dead ended in the midst of the lagoon. And here, at last, we found where all the big birds liked to hide out. We found a Great Blue Heron, who seemed irritated by our invasion and moved about 20 feet further from us as we approached.A Great Blue Heron at San Elijo Lagoon

A flock of cormorants hanging out along the water’s edge.Cormorants at San Elijo Lagoon

A brown pelican and a Great Heron rested on the rocks on the bank opposite from us.A brown pelican and great heron at San Elijo Lagoon

And more cormorants took advantage of the conveniently placed power lines.Cormorants at San Elijo lagoon

After admiring the birds, and pausing to eat some granola bars, we turned around and retraced our long path back, much to the relief of the Great Blue Heron.

View the full photo gallery

Take I-5 to Lomas Sana Fe exit. Head east on Lomas Santa Fe. Turn left onto Highland Rd (4-way stop sign). Turn left on El Camino Real. The trailhead is on the left side of the road about ½ a mile up, shortly before the road makes a 90-degree bend. map

Total Distance: 8.1 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Change: 530 feet
Best Time of Year: Year round
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: No bikes
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information visit:
San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy
County of San Diego – San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
View route on Google Maps

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