Tijuana River Valley Regional Park – Southwest


The Tijuana River has a reputation for being a rather unclean watercourse, and deservedly so. A multitude of political and socioeconomic factors contribute to the pollution of the river, which flows north from Mexico into the U.S. before reaching the Pacific Ocean. While both countries have been working together to clean up the river and address the sources of pollution, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

When one hears about the trash and sewage contamination that plagues the Tijuana River, its natural to assume this is not a desirable area to visit and hike. But despite these issues, the Tijuana River Valley is home to miles of fantastic trails that wander through a variety of landscapes. There are paths with dense vegetation close to the river, large ponds and coastal wetlands full of migratory birds, open grasslands, and beaches. Here, nature demonstrates its incredible resiliency with a showcase of birds, mammals, butterflies, flowers, shrubs, and trees.

There’s a number of potential starting points for hikes around the Tijuana River Valley, but we wanted to check out the Bird and Butterfly Garden today, so chose that as our starting point. We found a small building with some parking in front and parked there. The Bird and Butterfly Garden was just behind the building.20160331_DSC9896-Tijuana_River_Valley

Before setting off on our actual hike, we took some time to explore the Garden and the surrounding area. There was another staging area further up the road, and some additional trails that started from here. The sunflowers were blooming like crazy.20160331_DSC9899-Tijuana_River_Valley

We found a short trail leading down to the river. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of trash along the trail, much of which was half-buried in the sand. We thought it was a little weird that so much garbage could accumulate along a trail that didn’t appear to be heavily used.20160331_DSC9907-Tijuana_River-Valley

Upon reaching the water’s edge however, we realized what the source of the garbage was.20160331_DSC9913-Tijuana_River_Valley

We found huge amounts of trash floating in the river. During heavy rains the river overflows its banks, and deposits much of its debris along the floodplain. It was really quite heartbreaking to see this otherwise beautiful area so horribly defiled.20160331_DSC9914-Tijuana_River_Valley

We spotted a small rowboat tied to the shore. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a way to cross to the far shore, but there was no way I was getting anywhere near that water, so we turned around and headed back to the Bird and Butterfly Garden.

The Garden area is home to some meandering walking paths which loop weave through a vast array of native plant exhibits.20160331_DSC9966-Tijuana_River_Valley

We didn’t seem to be there at the right time for finding birds or butterflies, but we still enjoyed some lovely flowers.20160331_DSC9980-Tijuana_River_Valley20160331_DSC9997-Tijuana_River_Valley20160331_DSC0007-Tijuana_River_Valley20160331_DSC0035-Tijuana_River_Valley

After wandering around and exploring for a while, it was time to start a proper hike. From the parking area, we headed back out to the street and turned right. We walked south along Hollister Street over a bridge that spanned the river. There wasn’t much of a shoulder for us to walk on, but the few cars that passed were slow and courteous (one guy even stopped to chat for a moment about bird watching). I suspect there’s a fair amount of horse traffic in the area, and drivers are accustomed to sharing the road.20160331_DSC0037-Tijuana_River_Valley

From the bridge we could see down into the river bed below. We had a clear view of the sad state of the river – all manner of trash was accumulated along the shores, and the water looked disturbingly murky.20160331_DSC0042-Tijuana_River_Valley

Despite the dubious condition of the water, the wildlife in the area seemed to be doing just fine. We spotted a Great Egret perched in a tree above the river.20160331_DSC0051-Tijuana_River_Valley

On the far side of the bridge the trail turned right, following the course of the river towards the ocean.20160331_DSC0065-Tijuana_River_Valley

The river was somewhere on our right, but it was completely obscured by thick growth. While we hadn’t seen any butterflies in the Bird and Butterfly garden, there were several on the trail with us.20160331_DSC0105-Tijuana_River_Valley

We spotted some other critters out enjoying the beautiful day too.20160331_DSC0088-Tijuana_River_Valley


Looking south, we could see the border fence and buildings in Mexico beyond.20160331DSC_7260-Tijuana_River_Valley

Just shy of .5 mile, the trail turned left as we encountered a deep, dry creek.20160331_DSC0123-Tijuana_River_Valley

We headed south for a short ways before reaching a 4-way intersection. We turned right to cross over the creek.20160331_DSC0124-Tijuana_River_Valley

It looked like this creek filled when the Tijuana River flooded. We could see lots of trash and old tires buried deep in the sand. Once again, nature seemed to be adapting, as we saw numerous squirrels running along the creek bed and darting into burrows on the banks.20160331_DSC0128-Tijuana_River_Valley

Once across the creek we turned right again.20160331_DSC0129-Tijuana_River_Valley

We continued north alongside the creek back towards the river. The wildflowers were going crazy here, adding fantastic splashes of bright color to the many shades of green and brown.20160331_DSC0138-Tijuana_River_Valley

At .85 mile we came to a 3-way junction. Both ways looked good, but we took the left fork for no particular reason.20160331_DSC0139-Tijuana_River_Valley

The trail wound around the edge of an open field. We found the remnants of some kind of structure, but there wasn’t enough left to really know what it was from.20160331_DSC0142-Tijuana_River_Valley

Towards the south, we spotted a Border Patrol vehicle perched on top of a hill, taking advantage of the vantage point to keep an eye on the area below. This close to the border one can expect a lot of surveillance activity, and I’m sure someone was keeping an eye on us, but we didn’t have any direct contact with law enforcement during our hike.20160331DSC_7265-Tijuana_River_Valley

A wide path stretched out before us. We spotted an egret hunting on a small ridge to our right, but the bushes were too thick to get a good picture.20160331_DSC0144-Tijuana_River_Valley

At 1.15 miles we came to another junction. Trail signs guided us to the right near some old ramshackle buildings.20160331_DSC0147-Tijuana_River_Valley

Once again we had a choice of trails – an open, exposed path on the left, and a shadier route through the brush closer to the river bed. This time we took the fork that traveled closer to the river.20160331_DSC0154-Tijuana_River_Valley

The trail here was shadier, narrower, and sandier. We were surrounded by a tangled array of vegetation.20160331_DSC0157-Tijuana_River_Valley

The trail grew darker and more jungle like as we continued.20160331_DSC0161-Tijuana_River_Valley

The trail was pretty rough in some spots. It appeared to have been trodden on by horses while muddy, leaving deep gouges in the soft earth. You’d definitely want to take the other path immediately after a rain storm.20160331_DSC0162-Tijuana_River_Valley

We found some huge patches of flowering Nasturtium along the sides of the trail. It climbed its way up the trunks of trees and in some places very nearly formed a tunnel of bright orange-red flowers and broad, flat leaves.20160331_DSC0181-Tijuana_River_Valley

A little over 1.5 miles we found a branch leading left, back to the parallel trail. We were having way too much fun in this pseudo-jungle though, and continued straight.20160331_DSC0183-Tijuana_River_Valley

This was probably the most lush vegetation I had ever seen in San Diego. I felt more like I was hiking in a tropical rain forest on some remote island then a heavily polluted riverbed in the arid southwest United States.20160331_DSC0187-Tijuana_River_Valley

The tree cover slowly began to thin and we started to see daylight once again. There were still plenty of flowers to enjoy.20160331_DSC0190-Tijuana_River_Valley

Right around two miles we spotted a couple of enormous Century plants as the trail met up again with the wider, alternate path.20160331_DSC0201-Tijuana_River_Valley

Here, we found a brown sign that marked the beginning of Border Field State Park. The trail continues on from here, and it’s possible to go all the way to the beach. In case you hike this with your dog, note that they’re not allowed past this point. We explored a bit further, but ran out of time since we had an afternoon commitment we had to get back for and had to turn around. For the purposes of this write-up, we’re calling this the turnaround point since it’s a logical stopping point.20160331_DSC0288Bird_Butterfly

On our way back though, we stayed along the river portion of the trail rather than taking the path along the open fields again. We found more jungle-like vegetation and wildflowers in the cool shade.20160331_DSC0156-Tijuana_River_Valley

Around 3.1 miles we came to a “T” junction. The left path appeared to head towards the river, while the right fork led back to our original path. We headed right.20160331_DSC0303-Tijuana_River_Valley

A short stroll through more flowers and lush vegetation brought us back to our original route along the creek.20160331_DSC0304-Tijuana_River_Valley

From here we retraced our path back to the Bird and Butterfly Garden.20160331_DSC0307-Tijuana_River_Valley

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From I-5 south, take the Tocayo Ave exit. Follow Tocayo Ave for approximately .4 mile, then turn left onto Hollister Street. Continue on Hollister Street for approximately .7 mile. The entrance to the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park Bird and Butterfly Garden will be on the right. map

Total Distance: 4 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Total Ascent: Negligible
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
San Diego County Parks and Recreation – Tijuana River Valley Regional Park
Trail Map
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

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