Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Hike

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Hike

In This Guide
  • Turn by Turn Hike Directions & Hike Video
  • Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Trail Maps
  • Parking Tips
Distance4.5 miles (7.2 km)
Hike Time2 Hours (Total)
Difficulty (?)Easy
Total Ascent (?)20 feet (6m)
Highest Elevation30 feet (9m)
Fees & PermitsFree
Dog FriendlyNo
Park WebsiteBolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Park Phone714-846-1114
Stay In Touch - - -

With great opportunities for wildlife spotting, this easy Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve hike takes you on a scenic loop through the 1,300+ acres of protected wetlands just minutes from the Huntington Beach. The scenery includes seabird nesting islands, fresh and saltwater marsh, mudflats, active riparian river banks, and water. Over 200 species of birds have been spotted here, and it’s a popular stopover on bird migration routes. The hike is great for families with opportunities to shorten the route if 4.5 miles is too long.

Getting to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

The hike starts at the north parking area of Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which is easier to get to from all directions. There is also a south parking area, but you can only access it when going north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Make sure you have the right parking area in your GPS.

If the lot is full, there are a few parking lots across the street. I’m not telling you to park there because they’re for the folks that use the stores there, but just so you know…

Bolsa Chica Conversancy, 3842 Warner Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92649

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Here’s the entrance to the trailhead parking lot.
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The park is open from 6am to 8pm. I recommend getting there as close to 6am as you can to secure a spot and see the most wildlife.
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There’s a decent amount of parking but it fills up quickly.
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The bathroom has porta-potties. There are also porta-potties about half-way into the hike.
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Stop into the interpretive center for a visit if it’s open. The people who work here are very friendly and love sharing their love of Bolsa Chica.

Gear For the Hike

None of the trails here are rough or hardcore, it’s all very smooth and easy. You can do this hike in fitness gear or even jeans in a pinch. If you do the hike around midday it can get hot, there is no shade on the hike. Bring lots of water if that’s the case. There are no drinking fountains.

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La Sportiva Spire

The La Sportiva Spire boots feel like comfortable sneakers but offer the protection of hiking boots. They’re great on everything from short hikes to longer hikes of 10+ miles. You don’t want to skimp on your feet.
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Opsrey Stratos 24

I test a lot of gear, and for short to medium day hikes, travel, and everyday use, the Osprey Stratos (men) and Osprey Sirrus (women) are consistently the best. They’re lightweight, hold a hydration bladder to make drinking water easy, have lots of pockets to organize gear, and most importantly, are incredibly comfortable. Check out the reviews; they are impressive.
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Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Mini fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing. Read my review and see the lowest prices and reviews at REI.

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Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Trail Maps

Simple Trail Map

Click To View Map

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Hike Map Downloads

Download the Hike GPX File

View a Printable PDF Hike Map

Fenix 6 Pro

I’m a big fan of GPS watches to follow my GPX track (which I also use as a sleep, wellness, and fitness tracker) and my current watch is the Fenix 6 Pro Solar (full review here). I load my GPX tracks onto the watch to make sure I’m in the right place, and if not, the onboard topo maps allow me to navigate on the fly. It’s pricey but it has a great battery, accurate GPS, and tons of functionality. If you want something similar without the maps and big price tag, check out the Garmin Instinct which is a great buy and does a lot of the same things.

How the Park Came To Be

Babe Lou At Bolsa Chica
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hunting at the Bolsa Chica Gun Club. They came here to enjoy the wildlife and then kill it. Different times… Photo Bolsa Chica Land Trust

The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve has an interesting history that’s worth briefly understanding about before you hike the trails.

Wildlife of Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

There are over 200 species of wildlife that you can find in the park. In general, you can expect to see lots of ducks and waterfowl, shorebirds, herons and egrets, hawks, owls, lizards, and maybe a rabbit. Keep your eyes open for the endangered western snowy plover and California least tern. You’ll also probably see birdwatchers with their massive thousand dollar lenses. Pay attention to where they’re pointing their cameras, there’s probably something worth seeing there.

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A great blue heron in the Bolsa Chica Inner Bay.
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You might find that rabbits are not scared of humans. When you’re around them, they are generally safe from hawks and raptors, who are scared of you.
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A black-crowned night heron perched on a fence. Some of the hike has fences along it, but don’t let that detract from your experience, there’s still plenty to see.
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It’s important to stay on the marked trails, even if you see another trail not listed on the official map. The Bolsa Chica Conservancy is actively restoring habits within the park. You wouldn’t want to step on a burrowing owl, which is fairly common in the park and found on the ground.
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It’s not uncommon to see more animal footprints that human.

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Hike Directions

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Video Directions

FYI I have a version of this video in 360/VR format. Not familiar with the benefits of 360 video? Then watch this.

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Turn By Turn Directions

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Start the hike on the well-marked trail at the end of the parking lot.
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Cross over the bridge to the other side of Bolsa Chica Outer Bay. Don’t forget to look down in the water for stingrays, sharks, shovelnose guitarfish, crabs, and all kinds of other fish.
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You’ll get some nice sweeping views of the Outer Bay from the middle of the bridge.
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Once across the bridge, follow the Mesa Trail along the Bolsa Chica Outer Bay.
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The Mesa Trail is easy to follow, just keep going straight.
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There are a couple of small cutoffs from the Mesa Trail with scenic overlooks. If the tide is low, you’ll see mud flats with lots of foraging shorebirds. If it’s high, the incoming tide brings fish and wildlife in that in turn attracts predators like raptors and sometimes even a sea lion or two. Check them out and return back to the Mesa Trail.
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On the left side as you head down the Mesa Trail are native plant and bird nesting areas. This is an active habitat restoration area where volunteers are planting native species and removing invasive ones. Many of the native species survive from the water found in the morning fog.
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At the split, bear to the right.
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Keep your eyes open for the remains of a few WW2 gun emplacements. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Army constructed 155mm gun emplacements here to protect the Port of Los Angeles. The guns were massive and could shoot up to 26 miles. You can read all about them here. From 1941-1945 this area was known as the Bolsa Chica Military Reservation.
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Keep hiking to the second overlook area by the gun emplacement. There are good interpretive displays here.
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From the last overlook, head down the stairs to the big trail junction.
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At the bottom of the stairs head across the paved bridge over the tide gate.
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The water bottlenecks through the tide gates, and the abundance of marine life here means that you’ll usually see some birds hunting.
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Keep going straight across the bridge until you reach the PCH highway.
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Bear left onto the trail the goes between the PCH and Bolsa Chica Inner Bay. This is the Inner Bay Loop Trail.
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The Inner Bay Loop Trail is easy to follow, just go straight.
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When you reach the South Parking Lot, bear left along the edge of the lot. If you need to use the bathroom, there are porta-potties here.
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Head over the footbridge at the end of the parking lot.
Bolsa Chica Rabbit Island
Make a left at the end of the bridge.
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Continue back on the other side of the Bolsa Chica Inner Bay. This is still the Inner Bay Loop Trail.
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When the trail splits, bear to the right.
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You can stop for a rest on the Rabbit Island Overlook to your left. There are benches to sit down. Otherwise go straight.
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Merge onto the trail along the East Garden Grove-Wintersburg (EGGW) Flood Control Channel on the left hand side of the trail. Build in the 1960s, the EGGW Channel drains the floodwaters from inland environs such as Santa Ana, Orange, and Anaheim.
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The path heads between the EGGW Channel and the full tidal basin to the right. The tidal basin connects with the ocean at the Bolsa Chica Inlet, which was re-opened in 2006 after being closed by silting and development. Since then the basin has become the home to over 50 species of fish and 22 endangered and sensitive species of plants and animals.
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When you reach the bridge over the EGGW Channel, make the left and go over it.
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Once over the bridge, make the left turn and head back along the other side of the EGGW Channel. There were once trails open straight ahead that connected with the Pocket Loop Trail, but they are now closed to protect bird nesting areas (such as the burrowing owl). Please respect the rules and stay on the official trails.
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Head back down the other side of the channel.
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At the end of the path you’ll reach the big intersection that you came through earlier. Make the right and head back to the Mesa Trail.
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Follow the Mesa Trail back the way you came at the beginning of the hike.
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Soon you’ll reach the footbridge and your car. That’s the hike! Hope you had fun!

If you’d like to get more involved with the Bolsa Chica wetlands, check out the Bolsa Chica Conservancy. They offer group tours and opportunities to volunteer.

Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.

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