San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center

Experience nature at the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center, one of San Diego's largest coastal wetlands.
San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
Discover the Reserve
History of the Reserve
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Nature at its Finest
Fun at the Reserve
Where to Fin It
Planning Ahead
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Discover the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve

Along the coast in North County San Diego, nature lovers delight in the expansive San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center. With over 900 acres of reserve, this is one of the largest wetlands in San Diego County. Enthusiasts can regularly be observed enjoying the wonders of the reserve- hiking, walking, exploring, and observing over 700 species of plants and wildlife who live at the lagoon.

The Nature Collective, the conservancy of the San Elijo Lagoon, is committed to preserving the wetlands and restoring coastal animal habitats. The Collective provides many opportunities for lovers of the lagoon to support their efforts, through volunteer activities and donations. The Creek to Bay CIean Up is an annual event where locals band together and help clean up the lagoon.

The Nature Collective also runs educational programs for schools and families, to promote environmental advocacy for San Diego’s youngest nature lovers. Teachers interested in scheduling field trips are encouraged to contact the Nature Collective.

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History of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve

The San Elijo Lagoon has a rich Native American history, dating back to over 8,500 years before settlers arrived in the area. Historians studied the coastal lives of early tribes and later the Kumeyaay Indians - the first people in San Diego, through artifacts evidencing hunter-gatherer societies.

In 1769, the area was named "San Alejo" to honor Saint Alexius by the Spanish Portola Expedition. Settlements by other Europeans, including the California Gold Rush, brought a large increase in population and farming in the area. These settlers were the first to attempt to farm the land, and also introduced highly invasive non-native plants which would later prove problematic.

As development and infrastructure grew, so did issues for the lagoon. The construction of the California railroad, Pacific Coast Highway, and Interstate 5 each further restricted ocean water circulation into the lagoon. The construction also caused an increase in sediments and silt, which not only blocked the mouth of the lagoon but also negatively impacted aquatic life.

In the 1960s, The San Elijo Alliance was formed by a group of concerned citizens, with the goal of preserving the natural beauty of the lagoon and protecting it against development. Many groups wanted to build condos, shopping complexes and theme parks in this desirable coastal area.

The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, a 501c non-profit, was officially formed in 1987, and they constructed the original Nature Center the following year. The Conservancy began periodically dredging the lagoon, and restoring it to its previous glory. The Conservancy, now known as County of San Diego Parks, California Fish & Wildlife and Nature Collective, signed a 25 year agreement in 2007 to operate and maintain the reserve.

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Enjoy Nature at its Finest at the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve

Coastal wetlands are essential as they prevent flooding, filter pollutants to improve water quality, and offer hatcheries for various species of fish and birds. San Elijo Lagoon is a main stopover for migrating birds, and over 40% of bird species in North America have been spotted as they migrate on the Pacific Flyway along the west coast.

The wildlife at the lagoon is impressive, and there are multiple species of birds, fish, mammals, insects, crustaceans and reptiles, some of which are on the endangered or threatened list. Many of these animal habitats can be viewed from the seven miles of trails that run throughout the lagoon. On one hike, an observer can view multiple wetland habitats such as marsh, scrub, mixed chaparral and coastal strand.

Keep an eye out for osprey and egrets, as well as wildflowers, regional trees and prickly pear cacti. Chances are each visit will bring a unique sampling of wildlife and vegetation. Feel free to bring along binoculars, your camera or a sketch pad to capture your favorite moments.

Tides come in twice daily, soaking the wetlands with salt water and providing a food source for birds. Tidal circulation has been one focus of the restoration project, which is dedicated to reviving wetlands and connecting all the trails in the lagoon.

Fun at the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve

Enjoy the Trails

Throughout the lagoon, there are seven well-marked trails that are moderately easy for walkers and hikers of all abilities. These trails vary in length from a half mile to just over 2 miles, and there is also a one mile double loop around the Nature Center. All trails are accessible daily from sunrise to sunset.

Visit the Nature Center

Many visitors start their journey at the Nature Center, which is open daily from 9am-5pm. Here you’ll find high quality, interactive exhibits featuring live animals and plant life from the lagoon, as well as information on the ecology and preservation efforts. You can also grab a map and use the restroom and water fountains before setting off to enjoy the trails.

The loops around the Nature Center are really the heart of the lagoon. From this trail, you’ll observe a great variety of the various species of plants, birds and wildlife that claim the lagoon for their home. The trails are wide enough to walk side by side, and smooth enough to accommodate strollers and wheelchairs.

Local Tips
Start with the Nature Center
The nature center provides a unique glimpse for the public to see "green" building concepts in use. Inside are nature and history exhibits that detail the lagoon's plant and animal communities, Native American history, and the various natural and human influences that affect this sensitive ecosystem

While at the Nature Center, you can also inquire about planning private events or meetings. The Nature Center also hosts birthday parties, with a wildlife, ecology or bird watching theme. There is an upstairs room, accessible by elevator, with an outdoor deck area and complete with private restrooms.

Journey to Annie’s Slot Canyon Trail

The most popular attraction at the lagoon is Annie’s Canyon Trail, which is named after a local donor who launched the restoration effort of the sandstone slot canyon. Prior to the restoration, this area was prone to crime and vandalism, which was a shameful act that degraded the natural beauty of the area. Now restored to its original greatness, Annie's Canyon is a top San Diego Point of Interest and welcomes thousands of visitors per year, from young children to serious hikers.

Your canine friends may join you on the trail, but are not permitted in the slot canyon, where it is very steep and strenuous at points. The trail itself is flat, and offers several benches to rest before you enter the canyon, which is about half mile into the trail.

The trail splits, with one path leading to the viewpoint, and the other leading to the canyon. While the canyon starts out wide, it quickly winds and narrows and could be challenging for those with a touch of claustrophobia! You'll also have to climb a metal staircase to exit the canyon and reach the viewpoint.

The viewpoint of Annie's Canyon trail offers an amazing view of the entire lagoon with the Pacific Ocean in the backdrop. Many visitors take their time to savor this reward for conquering the canyon.

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Where to Find San Elijo Lagoon

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The San Elijo Lagoon is located in North County San Diego, between Solana Beach and Encinitas. There are several trailheads to access the seven trails that span the lagoon area.

There is ongoing construction that is part of a restoration project that is slated to wrap up in 2022. At that time, all the trails will be connected and it won't be necessary to drive to access the various trails throughout the lagoon. Until that time, on-street parking near the trailhead is recommended.

There is access to multiple trails from the Solana Beach area, off Rios Drive. If you are driving on I-5 north, exit on Manchester Avenue to the reserve. Make sure to park legally, as many visitors have reported receiving tickets for failing to follow the local parking ordinances. There are also a limited amount of parking spots at the Nature Center.

To access Annie’s Canyon Trail, use the address 840 N Rios Avenue, Solana Beach and walk east towards I-5 and Annie’s Canyon will be on your right. There is a highly visible green sign to map the route.

The lagoon is also accessible via public transportation, using the Breezy Bus 101 or the Solana Beach train station. These are great options, especially on weekends when parking is challenging!

Planning Ahead

Beat the crowds!

Word is out on the grandeur of Annie’s Canyon Trail, and the weekends get very busy! If you’re not interested in wait times to get through the slot canyons, then your best bet is to go on a weekday.

Parking is also very challenging on the weekends. If you must go on the weekends, then try to arrive as early as possible, otherwise, be prepared to patiently watch many hikers take selfies at the top of the canyon!

Prohibited activities

Dogs are welcome on most trails, provided they are leashed and cleaned up after! There are plenty of dog waste bags and trash cans available. However, dogs are not permitted in the steep slot canyons of Annie’s Canyon.

Horseback riding is allowed only on trails east of I-5. Swimming, wading, boating, flying drones or any type of fishing or hunting are also strictly prohibited.

What to wear

It is recommended to wear sturdy shoes with a strong grip, as the sandstone in the canyon can be very slippery. Don't forget hats or sunblock, as much of the lagoon is exposed to full sun!

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