If you enjoy a hike along a flat trail with lots of nature to admire, you really should go to San Elijo Lagoon. Multiple times. That is because it has many different trails, most of which can be linked together for a long hike.
San Elijo Lagoon is protected by the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, the County of San Diego Parks Dept., and California Fish and Game ( http://www.sanelijo.org/welcome-san-elijo-lagoon-ecological-reserve). It is one of the largest wetlands in San Diego County, and the estuary is a wonderland for birders. The lagoon lies between Encinitas and Solana Beach, and occupies about 1,000 acres.
The Nature Center is run by the County and staffed by two rangers. In the photo at left it is the lowest building to the right of the cliffs. It is an fine example of a ‘green’ building, using solar, reclaimed water, a green roof and much more. Inside are very cool interactive computers and displays demonstrating how tides effect the estuary, the history of the area, and much more. Outside of the Nature Center is a boardwalk trail loop with benches and interpretive displays. During the change of tide there is a great opportunity to watch any number of seabirds fishing right next to the walkway. Watching the glorious sunset with the Coaster zooming past and cormorants fanning their wings on the telephone pole makes it easy to feel very, very happy about living in San Diego.
The Nature Center has a parking lot, and it is accessed from Manchester Ave. Visit the website for exact directions. The parking lot does have hours of closure, and this loop trail is independent from the other trails.
If you continue along Manchester you’ll see a sign for the Lagoon’s Dike Trail on the right. You have to park along Manchester Ave. Walking along the dike is one of the best ways to see dozens of seabirds, some in flocks of hundreds, very close-up. If it has been raining, you may want to check the condition of the dike because, as we found out, it can overflow.
Once across you have the option of hiking West or East. If you opt for West, you eventually walk under I-5, which is an interesting experience in itself, then around through old Eucalyptus trees under the eroded cliffs overlooking the estuary. You have a choice of two trails which connect later, one takes the high road, and one takes the low road, so to speak.
The lower one skirts the water and the higher one leads you through tall native plants. There are lots of flowers, birds, lizards, and interesting plants on either hike. At the end of the lower trail there are interpretive signs. The trail leads up to a trailhead off of North Rios Avenue, where there is street parking. You can continue West from there down to another walkway out into the wetlands for good bird viewing, and even further around the water and close to the train tracks past the water treatment plant (which is a little smelly) and out to where there are interpretive signs describing huge sewage tanks that had been at the site. That is as far as you can go, and you have to turn around and hike back.
Southeast of the Dike Trail are several miles of hiking that extend almost all the way to El Camino Real. There are several more trailheads to drive to and park.
There are lots of joggers and hikers. The pathways are well maintained and I’ve rarely had to pick up any trash along the way. Along with many seabirds, songbirds and raptors you may see mule deer and find the tracks of nighttime visitors such as coyote and racoon.
Although the hiking is along a flat area, there is a lot of it and the coastal sun is deceptively hot in that cooling breeze. Take lots of water, comfortable shoes, a hat and sunscreen, and a jacket in case the famous low clouds and fog come blowing in.
This is a wonderful area for good exercise through several different plant communities with lots of good birding opportunities. You can’t do it all in one go, so plan for several trips, keeping an eye on the tide tables. Plan it around a good dinner at a coastal restaurant (such as Siamese Basil Thai restaurant in Encinitas… my favorite!) and an even beach stroll… sounds like a wonderful day to me!