Explorer’s Guide: Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Plan Your Trip Orange County’s Largest Wetland Sanctuary

Just south of Sunset Beach, the rows of beachfront condos along Pacific Coast Highway give way to wide open spaces and intertidal marshland flush with vegetation and floating seabirds. A popular destination for runners, cyclists, and birders alike, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve offers outdoor activity and immersion in nature, all rolled into one beautiful setting. Residents of the luxurious Brightwater neighborhoods on the edge of the wetlands enjoy direct access to nearly five miles of trails (Insider Tip?), so if you’re looking to purchase a house nearby or are simply making a first-time visit, here are some things to know about the area.


With the United States’ entry into the Second World War, the War Department purchased land in the northern section of the site to construct artillery and other military fortifications meant to protect the Port of Los Angeles from naval attack. In the 1950’s, the beach next to Bolsa Chica was known as Tin Can Beach, thanks to the enormous heaps of trash, nearly 300 tons worth, left by squatters who lived in crude cardboard and lumber shelters. The state of California purchased the beach in 1961, marking the beginning a long process of renovation and protection. In 2004, restoration began on lowlands that were once host to extensive oil drilling, ultimately leading to the creation of new aquatic habitat and nesting areas for endangered and threatened species. While still improving, the region is in a state of natural balance unheard of since the 19th century.


As the largest saltwater marsh between the Tijuana River Estuary and Monterrey Bay, the Bolsa Chica wetlands are a 1,449-acre sanctuary for vibrant wildlife. Keep an eye out for coyote, black-tailed jackrabbit, and especially diamond-backed rattlesnake in the bushes in the scrubland. If you time your visit with the low tide, you’ll likely see round stingray eerily gliding in the water beneath the footbridges, expertly camouflaged with the sediment-laden bottom. One of the largest draws to Bolsa Chica will have you looking to the sky, as the wetlands are home to 186 regularly-occurring avian species, including the California brown pelican and great egret. In fact, nearly half of the birds found in the United States have been seen in the surrounding habitat and Huntington Beach, making Bolsa Chica a birder’s paradise.


The Bolsa Chica Conservancy’s Interpretive Center is home to three saltwater exhibits, where visitors can see an array of brightly colored sea creatures such as Warty Sea Cucumbers and Giant-spined stars. There are also several interpretive displays that explain the ecology of the wetlands, human history in the region, and habitat rehabilitation. Speak with the helpful team at the front desk for information about clean-up projects, educational guided tours, and even free animal feeding demonstrations. If you don’t make it to the center, there are several informative signs dispersed around the trail system.


Aside from hiking the paths along Bolsa Bay, there is an array of outdoor recreation opportunities in and around Bolsa Chica. At the state beach, the waves break with a desirable curl in the shallow water, perfect for surfing. Though prohibited in most sections of the ecological reserve, anglers can fish from the sand for perch and corbina, among other varieties. Nearby Huntington Harbor Yacht Club and SeaCliff Country Club offer leisure activities with a private membership.

Bolsa Chica Conservancy
3842 Warner Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92649
(714) 846-1114 | www.bolsachica.org

Huntington Harbor Yacht Club
3821 Warner Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92649
(562) 592-2186 | www.hhyc.org

SeaCliff Country Club
6501 Palm Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92648
(714) 536-8866 | www.seacliffcc.net


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