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Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

When I first moved to Southern California I was not really an outdoorsy person. I enjoyed strolls around farmers markets and visits to theme parks but the idea of walking in nature sounded, well if I am completely honest, boring. As I adjusted more and more into the life of a SoCal, stay at home mom with a young and full of energy preschooler in tow, I quickly realized in order to stay sane I needed to stay outside as much as possible. 

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

“Do you want to meet at Bolsa Chica?” 

Bolsa what? I had never heard of a Bolsa Chica before and stared bewildered at my new mom group friend. She laughed patiently and explained it was a nice area to get out. “We should go. It will be fun.” She peppered the conversation with optimism to lure me to join her and her daughter. I agreed, although inside I doubted that I would actually enjoy this hike play date. It was just not something I did.

The next day I turned the foreign words over in my mouth on the smooth drive down Pacific Coast Highway towards the destination. I had no idea what to expect but wearily open to new adventures in our new home; I was ready to embrace what may come. 

History 

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is nestled right off of Highway 1 between the quaint town of Sunset Beach and the surfing Mecca of Huntington Beach. The reserve is just shy of 1,300 acres and was designated in 1992 by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust in agreement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to protect the coastal wetlands and uplands. But before this important move to protect the habitat of local egrets, herons and raptors, the Bolsa Chica area had quite the history. 

Archaeologists have found ancient cog stones used by Native Peoples which date back over 8,000 years. The exact purpose of these circle shaped stones with indentations similar to a cog wheel is unknown to modern scientists. Speculation of how they were used ranges from religious purposes to astronomical uses.

Much like many indigenous lands in California, once Spain colonized the area the land soon lost much of its native peoples and culture. In this shift of power the Bolsa Chica portion became property of Manuel Nieto who built Rancho Los Nietos. When Nieto died in 1834 his Rancho was broken up into multiple smaller Ranchos until the late 1800s when wealthy businessmen entered the area.

In 1899, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club was created with famous clientele such as baseball stars Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Here the rich and famous could hunt ducks and partake of the sandy beaches. Unfortunately this Gun Club dramatically altered the natural habitat by damming off Bolsa Chica from direct tidal flow with the ocean and leasing land to the Standard Oil Company. Even today as you hike around the wetlands you will cross active oil drills piercing the land. 

In the 1940s, the USA was full of fear of impending attacks from Japan and began developing bunkers and missile sites up and down the California coast. The U.S. military constructed two bunkers at Bolsa Chica to defend the coastline equipped with turrets mounted on the mesa. Japan ended up never attacking California and these turrets were fired for testing purposes only. In 1995 the larger of the two bunkers was demolished leaving just the smaller support bunker as a relic to that time in history. 

In the 1960s, most of Bolsa Chica was acquired by Signal Landmark who started building a massive housing development and marina overlooking the ocean. Thankfully members of the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women created a new group called the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, also known as the Friends of Bolsa Chica. Their objections and diligent work to protect the wetlands forced the developer to set aside 300 acres alongside Pacific Coast Highway to create the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. Since its formation in 1976, this area has been an ongoing battle to find the balance between urban development and habitat conservation. 

Trails 

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve has some of the most unique and beautiful trail systems. In the reserve you can wander along vibrant flowers towering over your head in the spring and avid bird watchers enjoy spotting native feathered friends all year round. The Bolsa Chica Wetlands trails are all interconnected so you can make your hike or walk as long or short as you like. Here are some of my must do hikes: 

  • Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve: This wheelchair and stroller friendly trail starts at the Bolsa Chica Conservancy Interpretive Center. From there it follows Highway 1 on an easy 1.5-mile lollipop loop. 
  • Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve North Loop: This trail starts up in the gorgeous neighborhoods surrounding the reserve. The almost 4 mile loop beginning on the Brightwater Trail takes you down and then back up the short 104 foot elevation gain. This trail is very popular for trail running.
  • Inner Bay Loop Trail: Park in the small lot along PCH opposite the entrance to Bolsa Chica State Beach. The Inner Bay Loop Trail is around two miles round trip and takes walkers across the bridge, past Rabbit Island, and around the Bolsa Chica Inner Bay. Take a look as you cross over the bridge and you can sometimes catch a glimpse of skates and rays skimming along the shallows here.  

Beach

Although the meat of this article has been about the wetlands and upland area that line the hills, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is also a part of Bolsa Chica State Park. The sandy shores are very popular, complete with classic surfing, a dozen volleyball courts, a concession stand, and basketball courts. This area is a must stop on a sunny day. Here are some tips on visiting the beach: 

  • Bolsa Chica Bike Path: (Across the street; Park in the lot behind Jack in the Box on Warner) This is a paved bike path that runs alongside the ocean from Bolsa Chica State Beach south to Huntington Beach. This path is a wonderful way to walk along the ocean or rollerblade, bike ride, and even skateboard. It truly is a classic Southern California experience.
  • You can camp easily at Bolsa Chica State Park. The campground is RV friendly complete with hookups and a dump station. Tent camping however is not allowed. Make sure you get your reservations early since it is on average a 6 months out availability.
  • Dogs are welcomed if leashed on the bike paths and campground area. However our furry friends are not allowed on the beach or trails. 
  • Want to just have a fun beach campfire? Fire rings are available every day of the year from 6 am to 10 pm and managed by Park Rangers to keep everyone safe. 
  • Surf fishing is highly popular here at Bolsa Chica. Local fish include perch, corbina, California corbina, croaker, cabezon, shovelnose guitarfish and sand shark. When there are new and full moons during the cool summer nights, visitors can enjoy bare-handed fishing for California grunion. These little guys only spawn on Southern California beaches!  Just make sure before you go that you obtain a fishing permit. 
  • The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is free but parking at the Bolsa Chica State Park is not. Daily fees are $15 for cars and $30 for RVs. 

After enjoying the trails, beaches, and all the wildlife Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve has to offer, make a quick stop by the small Bolsa Chica Conservancy Interpretive Center. Open from 9am to 4pm, seven days a week, this center is jammed full of live animal exhibits, aquaria, maps and information about Bolsa Chica and education programs on wetland science. My kids favorite is the stuffed life sized Cinnamon Bear which is a native to the coastal area. Bears and beaches; learn something new everyday! 

I am so glad I agreed that day a very long time ago to a new friend with a new adventure to be had. That play date turned into many more play dates and now has turned our family into avid outdoor lovers. For us it truly is the best way to spend time together. I hope you say yes to some outdoor exploration at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. 

Happy adventures!


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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus