Wandering the Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Trail is a 4.4 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Huntington Beach, California, that features beautiful wild flowers and many different species of birds! You can also find several species of marine life, reptiles, and mammals while exploring the reserve. Bolsa Chica is also home to Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes and Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes, both of which are venomous. Click here for more information and the Do’s and Don’ts when walking in rattlesnake territory.

SAM_4353On any given day, the Bolsa Chica wetlands are a haven to birds of many feathers, both avian and human. The human kind includes runners, hikers and birdwatchers, that travel to the wetlands from across the globe to view the avian show. Over 300 bird species have been spotted in the habitat, including those passing through on their migrations or nesting.

The reserve is approximately 1,400 acres, representing one of the largest remaining salt-water marshes in California. The Wetlands are remnants of a once extensive wetland system. A tributary of the Santa Ana River called Freeman Creek once flowed into the wetlands, creating a mixture of fresh and saltwater marsh, tidal sloughs, and swampland that supported dense vegetation; tulles, arroyo willows and thickets.



This amazing productive estuary was home to Native Americans, as far back as 8,000 years ago. Between 6000 and 3500 B.C. a group of Native Americans lived in the area that are believed to be Hokan speaking and ancestors of the Chumash. There is little known about this group, however, they left an archaeological treasure at Bolsa Chica: Cogged Stones.


More than 150 of these mysterious stones have been unearthed at various Wetland sites. The stones are round disks that have grooves, or notches, carved around the edges. Some have holes in the center and some do not. The use for these stones is unknown. They do not have any patterns of wear on the outside, which indicates they were most likely used ceremonially or for decoration. One theory is that they may have represented astrological bodies such as the sun, moon and stars and were used as a calendar system.

SAM_4390Between 200 and 500 A.D. Native American groups that moved in from the Mojave Desert region of eastern California, Nevada and Arizona displaced the early Hokan speaking group at Bolsa Chica. These tribes are Shoshonean people of Ute-Aztecan lineage. Two of the Native American groups that lived at Bolsa Chica are the Tongva and the Acjachemen.

Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed the Southern California coast in 1542 in search of trade opportunities and a route to China. He met and befriended the Tongva living on Santa Catalina Island (Cabrillo had named the island San Salvador). Sixty years after Cabrillo explored the coast, Sebastian Vizcaino explored the California coast and also encountered Tongva. His reports said that the Natives he met were friendly and peaceful. Later accounts of the Native tribes were similar.

When Mexico overthrew the Spanish government in 1834, the Nieto property was divided into 6 larger parcels. Nieto’s widowed daughter-in-law, Catarina Ruiz, acquired one parcel that included the Santa Ana river mouth. She named the parcel of land Rancho Las Bolsas (“The Purses”), perhaps because the rolling hills on the Southern portion of the property looked like purses stacked next to one another. Out of her inheritance, Catarina granted her brother, Joaquin Ruiz, around 8000 acres. The land included one small hill, so in honor of his sister, he named his property Rancho La Bolsa Chica or “The Little Purse”.

After California became part of the union in 1848, American settlers started migrating to California, and quickly began dominating the economic and social fabric of the region.

Oil was discovered in Huntington Beach in 1920 and the Bolsa Chica gun club signed an oil and gas lease with Standard Oil Company of California. The lowlands were not drilled until 1940 when Signal Oil Company took over the lease. Raised service roads were developed to allow access to the wells that scatter the lowlands.

SAM_4405To provide defense of the harbor during the Second World War, the U.S. Army established artillery battery on the Bolsa Chica Mesa. On 15 May 1942, the War Department acquired land through fee; leaseholds and permits from 14 separate parties. This included leases from the Pacific Electric Railway Company.

The Army for Harbor Defenses of Los Angeles by Fort MacArthur used the site during World War II, specifically as a shore artillery battery. Structures were built on the northern half of the site consisting of fortification structures and buildings, two gun emplacements, a water tank and tower, transformer vault, two underground tanks, and electrical and water utility systems. Long-range gun emplacements were also constructed on the bluff overlooking Outer Bolsa Bay. Massive concrete bunkers were also built to house personnel and store munitions.

The ecological reserve has been open and free to visitors, but that might change very soon, as a fee was supposed to go into effect Thursday, Feb. 1 2018 when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife required visitors either have a hunting or fishing license, or purchase a daily or annual State Lands Pass. This fee, however, has been put on hold, but the cost will be $4.32 for a daily pass, and $25.10 for the annual pass. The kicker is the passes won’t be able to be purchased on-site unless a visitor has a smartphone that can scan a square, or QR, barcode. Otherwise, passes will have to be purchased in advance at participating sporting goods stores, online or by phone.

Passes won’t be available at the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, which maintains an office on the property. Although visitors aren’t required to display the pass to enter the wetlands, they must be produced if requested by a department officer. Citations can range from $50 to $250.

This trail is good for all skill levels and offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round. You’ll find trail access from a parking lot on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway, a mile south of Warner Avenue across from the entrance to Bolsa Chica State Beach or you can park at the Conservancy building lot. Both locations offer free limited parking for nature enthusiasts.

They offer a free public tour on the second Saturday of each month from 10am-12pm and meet at the Interpretive Center (3842 Warner Ave, HB). They also offer private tours for groups. Call 714-846-1114 to sign up

The trails are open from 6am-8pm every day; the Interpretive Center is open from 9am-4pm every day.



















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Wander Woman

I'm a Writer/Screenwriter fueled by proponent travel. When I decided to leave the only home I knew the journey grew into a fierce dream to travel and write about the places I explore. My adventures are a constant struggle between fear and courage, but we humans are explorers and pioneers, and we find our inner strength when the end state is the absolute unknown.