Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve – Things to Do & Best Hiking

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Often overshadowed by the nearby beaches, the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a coastal estuary located in Huntington Beach, California.  While relatively small (at only 1300 acres), the land is set aside for wildlife and wildflower protection of threatened and endangered species and the enjoyment of the community.  Thousands of migratory birds pass through the area each year, which includes over 150 species.

Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve

The area is perfect for a morning walk or for a way to end the day and wind down before dark.  There is almost always wildlife present to observe, and it’s easy to get lost just watching and waiting for animals to make their next move.

Located along the Pacific Coast Highway, getting to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is easy and likely not too far from your itinerary if you are visiting the Southern California coast.

We recommend planning to spend 30 minutes to a couple hours here exploring and taking in the surrounding beauty, no matter what time of year you are visiting!


The land that exists today in the Ecological Reserve came from many years of hard work, and it’s evolved greatly over time.  This is not too dissimilar from many public lands, but the background of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is quite an interesting one.

The first to work to protect the land happened in the early 1920’s, when oil companies started to drill in and around this oil-rich land.  Oil drilling is still evident all around the area, but not inside the reserve.

Development was seen in the early 1940’s, when two gun turrets were installed on the mesa to protect against a potential attack by Japan.  The gun turrets are gone, but the platforms still exist (though they are not accessible by the public).

Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve

Gun turret platform left from the 1940’s

In the 1960’s, further development threatened the area and the state worked with developers to create the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (which was officially established in 1979). 

Since then, the protected land has continued to expand slowly.  Most recently, 11 acres was added in 2018.



Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve map, courtesy of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust

Visiting the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is all about walking or hiking, learning and taking in the surrounding scenery.  Our recommendations include:

  • Visit the Bolsa Chica Conservancy Interpretive Center. The Interpretive Center is a great place to start your visit to the area.  When you are here you can take in the exhibits, but we also recommend taking one of the free guides to the local birds.  This is an especially great place for the kids to check out and learn about the area.  Staff (volunteer-based) is on hand to help answer any questions and tell you about the area.  The Interpretive Center is located at the North Parking lot.

Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve

  • Take a guided tour. Free tours are offered by the Amigos de Bolsa Chica.  On the last Saturday of each month (starting at 8:30), you can take the Bird Walk.  This walk teaches you about the birds that are currently migrating through the area, which changes frequently.  On the first Saturday of each month (starting at 9:00), you can take a tour to learn bout the Bolsa Chica Story.  Tours begin every 15 minutes.  Tours start at the South Parking lot.
  • Hiking / Walking. There are several walking paths that have been set aside.  All are flat, packed gravel and easy, and you can turn around at any point.  They are all quite popular on the weekends, but the area is never too crowded.  A couple of recommended routes include:
    • The Inner Bolsa Bay Loop Trail is a flat, 1.6-mile (round-trip) loop walk. This includes a walk across the footbridge, which is a popular location for photographers to gather.  You also get a view of Rabbit Island, which is not accessible by people.  The Inner Bolsa Bay Loop Trail begins from the South Parking lot.  You can also walk along the bike path that travels along the East Garden Grove Wintersberg Channel if you want to extend the walk by up to a mile.
    • The Mesa Trail is a popular route to take as well. It is a 1.5-mile (round-trip) trail along the Outer Bolsa Bay.  This trail also connects to the Inner Bolsa Bay Loop Trail as well as the bike path.  The trail starts from the North Parking lot.
Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve

    • Explore the surrounding area. This is California, so there is always plenty to do whenever you think about visiting any area of the state!  However, if you are reading this blog then it’s likely you are most interested in learning about natural areas and public lands nearby that are worth exploring.  It’s hard to narrow down a list, but here are some recommendations to consider:
      • Bolsa Chica State Beach. Located literally across the street, the Bosa Chica State Beach is a very popular spot, with hundreds of thousands of visitors coming each year.  This area is great for swimming, sunbathing, playing in the sand, walking or camping.
      • Crystal Cove State Park. This park provides hiking in the hills, camping and exploring tide-pools along the coastline.  You can easily spend a day or two, or even camp the entire week here and use it as a home base for visiting the southern Orange County    Crystal Cove State Park is located about 16 miles south of Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, along Pacific Coast Highway.



    Getting to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is easy.  Essentially, just find your way to Pacific Coast Highway and you’ll pass right by it!  In all seriousness, it’s simple to get here, but you do have to be aware of what parking area you want to go to, as it may involve a U-turn if you are heading to the South Parking lot.

    The north parking lot can be accessed from either direction, but if you are going to the south parking lot, you have to access it from the northbound lane of Pacific Coast Highway only.  So, you’ll have to take a U-turn if you are coming from the north.


    There are no fees or required passes to visit Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.


    Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is open year-round.  It’s great for walking no matter the time of year, provided you dress accordingly.  It can be a bit windy in the afternoons in particular.

    If you want to see migrating birds, then visiting in the winter months or in late spring to mid-summer is the best. 


    Since birds in particular are sensitive to noises and other animals, pets are not allowed in the reserve.


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    We are Amy & Pete Brahan. Very simply, we are passionate about our National Parks and Public Lands and explore them with our three kids whenever we can.

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