Tijuana Estuary

The Tijuana Estuary is an internationally known bird-watching destination in our own backyard, home to threatened and endangered species such as the California Least Tern, Snowy Plover, and Ridgway’s Clapper Rail. While over 90% of California’s coastal wetlands have disappeared, the Tijuana River National Estuarine Reasearch Reserve is protected by several government agencies (including California State Parks, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and provides a wonderful opportunity to explore a wetland environment.

We had previously explored several parts of the estuary before, including the North Coast Trail along the beach, Border Field State Park, and the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park. Today we set off to explore what is probably the most popular section of the estuary near the Visitor Center. There’s a web of intersecting trails through the Reserve, and almost all of them lead to good views, but we did our best make a coherent route which most efficiently hit the highlights.

From the Visitor Center parking lot, we found the trailhead on the left side of the paved path leading towards the Visitor Center.

The trail led south through the brush.

We passed a couple of turn-offs on our right which led westward, and continued south past a gray building.

Around .7 mile we came to a large “Y” junction, a small plaque mounted on a rock in the ground marked the McCoy Trail. We took the right fork here, turning on to the North McCoy Trail.

The ground was soft and somewhat sandy. Some smaller birds flitted through the brush around us but none we could get pictures of yet.

Then, as we approached a wooden footbridge, a Cooper’s Hawk landed on the railing and posed for us.

He flew off after a minute, and we stopped on the bridge to see what we could in the marshy bog below.

After admiring the egrets, we continued down the trail.

We found a small viewpoint with a bench facing southeast.

Birds weren’t the only wildlife sharing the trail with us. We spotted numerous rabbits hopping through the tall brush along the trail.

We followed the trail to its end around .37 miles, where another bench overlooked the slough.

We could see another bench on the opposite opposite side of the water, where we would be making our way next. There’s no way across the slough here though, so the only way to get there is to hike all the way around. So we retraced our route back to the last “Y” junction and turned right.

The trail led south behind a row of houses.

Around the 1 mile mark we passed a trailhead near the intersection of Iris Avenue and 5th Street. This marked the end of the residential area on our left, and the start of the Naval Air Station. We had deliberately chosen a Sunday for this hike, as from what we’ve been told it is the only day where they aren’t constantly practicing helicopter take-offs and landings, which can be unpleasantly loud.

On a peaceful Sunday morning however, the base appeared empty and the only sounds were bird songs and the sound of the brush rustling in the coastal breeze.

The presence of the airfield didn’t seem to bother the local wildlife any, and we spotted squirrels, rabbits, and another Cooper’s Hawk near the fence.

Around 1.5 miles we came to a “T” junction where a trail branched off to the right. This was the start of the loop section of the trail, and we’d be returning along the path on the right. For now, we continued straight.

We were well past peak wildflower season, but there were still enough to keep some butterflies happy.

At 1.65 miles the trail turned right. We began to see some cacti along the trail, and even found some blooms right along the trail.

Around 1.75 miles we came upon another “T” junction. The right fork cut across the larger loop we were taking, but we stayed straight to head towards more water.

We quickly came upon a “T” junction. We turned left here, taking a short spur trail to another viewing area.

In a short distance we came upon another bench overlooking the water not too far from the point where the Tijuana River spills into the ocean.

From there, we turned around and headed back up the trail. Returning to the previous junction, we stayed to the left.

We made our way through the flat open expanse.

Around 2.3 miles came to another junction and turned left.

Before long we spotted a bench just off the trail on our left, and went over to explore the view.

We continued along the trail, heading north.

Finally, around 2.75 miles, we reached the end of the trail. A bench overlooked the slough, opposite the viewpoint we had visited earlier on the northern section of trail.

We sat down on the bench and relaxed for a little bit before retracing our route to the last junction. We turned left, taking a shorter route back to the main trail.

Almost immediately, we came to another “Y” junction and stayed left.

Around 3.3 miles, we returned to the main trail next to the Air Station, and turned left to retrace our route back to the Visitor Center.

View the full photo gallery

From I-5, take the Coronado Avenue exit. Head west on Coronado Avenue, continuing as it turns into Imperial Beach Blvd. Turn left onto 3rd Ave, continuing as the road turns left and turns into Caspian Way. In a few hundred feet, the parking lot will be on the right. map

Total Distance: 4.2 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Total Ascent: Negligible
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed on southern portion (see trail map)
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed on southern portion (see trail map)
Facilities: Restrooms and water at Visitor Center
Fees/Permits: None
Date of Hike: July 9, 2017

For more information, visit:
Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve
Trail Map
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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