Posted by: GeekHiker | March 30, 2009

HIKE: Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

(Many, many pictures from this one.  Be sure to click on the Flickr link at the end!)

Located just south of the county line between Los Angeles and Orange Counties, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is an example of the kinds of wetlands that used to be all up and down the West Coast.  Largely destroyed by development (only about 9% of natural wetlands remain in California), Bolsa Chica is an example of what was and a key to keeping what remains.

About five miles of trails loop through the Reserve, all relatively flat.  The path I’ve described below covers most of the distance, but you can shorten it and change the route to suit your needs.  A map of the trail system can be picked up at the interpretive center (see directions below).

Be sure to bring a camera, as the whole area teems with life.

Starting from the south parking lot, walk along the trail that parallels Pacific Coast Highway.

Bolsa Chica 02
Welcoming signs at the PCH lot (trail in this post starts about 50 feet to the left, past the bus parking)

To your right you’ll see the inner bay and Rabbit Island.

Bolsa Chica 03
Along the Inner Bay

After .6 miles, turn right and cross over the Tide Gates and Flap Gates, which control the water flow between the bay, the flood control channel, and the ocean.  Many birds hang out here, looking for something tasty in the flowing waters.

Bolsa Chica 07
Small bird in the brush

Bolsa Chica 08
Snowy Egret

Climb the small hill to an overlook, and look in the brush for a circular concrete ring.  This was a gun emplacement that was part of the Coastal Defense system in World War II.  Those days are gone, with only rabbits remaining, feasting on the spring growth.

Bolsa Chica 11
Small rabbit, sometimes looking cute…

Bolsa Chica 12
…but mostly too busy eating

Continue along the Mesa trail, which will take you 1.6 miles round trip out to the Interpretive Center along the Outer Bay.  Along the way, be sure to look for birds in the mudflats below and, on behind fencing on private property, raptors soaring over the lower mesa.

Bolsa Chica Pano 01
Looking back over the Outer Bay

Bolsa Chica 13
Great Egret

Arriving back at the Overlook, turn left, passing a series of Eucalyptus trees in which Herons are making their nests, then descend along an old road around and back for a loop that parallels the Bolsa Pocket, a favorite spot of ducks.

Bolsa Chica 16
Heron and nest

When you arrive back at the Flood Control Channel, turn left.  This mile out and back along the Channel (crossing a bridge at the halfway point) gives good views of the Bolsa Pocket and the Full Tidal Basin, which is open to the ocean.  At the turnaround point for the loop, you’ll get a good view of the sea wall and tide gates, as well as still-operating oil pumps in the distance.

Bolsa Chica Pano 02
Looking out over the mudflats

At the end of the Channel Loop ascend the Rabbit Island Overlook, a good spot from which to see many birds in the mud flats below, as well as the ocean to the west.  Descending from there, the trail continues around Rabbit Island.

Bolsa Chica 22
Dowitcher feasting

Bolsa Chica 20
Great Egret and snow capped Mt. Baldy in the distance

Finally, after passing the Footbridge Overlook (from which I could see the seagulls had clearly taken over an island to the south), the trail turns right, crossing a long footbridge and returning to the parking lot.

Bolsa Chica 23
The bridge returning to the parking lot

More pictures here.

Total Distance: ~5 Miles

Elevation Gain/Loss: ~20’/~20′


Directions: From Interstate 405 South (22 East), take exit 5a to Bolsa Chica Rd. Drive south on Bolsa Chica Rd. approx 4 miles, then turn right on Warner Ave. The entrance to the parking lot and interpretive center will be on your left at 3842 Warner Ave. To access the second lot (starting point for the hike above), stay on Warner and turn left at Highway 1 (PCH), and drive south approx 1.4 miles; the parking lot will be on your left across from Bolsa Chica State Beach. From I-405 north (22 west), take exit 5 (Bolsa Chica Rd./Valley View st). Turn left on Valley View, which will turn into Bolsa Chica Rd., and follow the directions above.



  1. Easter bunny! 🙂 Your use of “teems” really turned me on.

  2. Awesome pictures!

  3. but i wanted to see pictures of the trail runners!

    kidding. 🙂

  4. wow, so beautiful. the birds are just lovely. why am i still on the east coast?

  5. These are great! Seriously, you gotta start working for a hiking magazine. Have you ever submitted your stuff (images and articles) to anyone? I think you should. You have a gift.

    I had not idea about the ecological reserve – it’s gorgeous. I’ve always loved Bolsa Chica beach, perhaps I’ll have a different reason to go visit now.

  6. Do you know why the place has that name? It means “little bag” in spanish… little bag?

    Curious me.

  7. Very, very, very nice pictures. Man that “Great Egret and snow capped Mt. Baldy” is amazing. I love the reflection of the bird!

  8. Love the animal shots! How did you get so close without scaring them away (maybe you just have a super nice camera)?

  9. Fabulous shots as ever 🙂

    Bunny, bunny, bunny…

  10. Mrs. Chuck Bartowski – One of my favorite words too.

    Homer-Dog – Thanks!

    KristinBlakely – LOL

    BlakSpring – Well, the birds are more colorful back there…

    Mel Heth – If you want to be my agent, that’d be cool. Best check out the reserve if you can!

    Narami – I saw that on the Wikipedia page, but I couldn’t find out why anywhere on the web.

    TGAW – Thanks. That picture is one of my favorites from the day, actually.

    K – Combination of both. Certainly the least-afraid rabbits I’ve ever seen in Southern California

    Just A Girl – Thanks. Heh.

  11. Mel Heth is right, those types of magazines are always looking for free lancers, especially with a keen eye like yours! This is great. 🙂 I’m very impressed.

  12. LOL … I wonder about myself sometimes … I posted “Great Pictures!!!” and then hit the logout button. Imagine my suprise when I was instantly transported to the login box.

    GH, Great Pics … I especially liked the Great Egret with its mirror reflection in the water.

  13. I believe Bolsa Chica can also be translated to mean “little pocket,” which seems more relevant. It’s a little pocket of nature? Maybe?

  14. […] the wife and I opted for something “flat” (not to mention cool) and headed out to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Malibu. This place is literally located right next to the PCH and doesn’t look like much […]

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