Connect with nature in San Diego by going to a place where it’s fiercely protected. Nature preserves, nature reserves, refuges and sanctuaries are all designated areas that serve as a haven for wildlife, plants and lands. You’ll find a rich diversity of endangered birds, habitats from marshes to wetlands to forests, and even a rare native tree that only grows in La Jolla. By conserving rare habitats, the survival of native plant and animal species are preserved and public opportunities to view and connect with nature can be treasured for our future generations.

Here are a few tips about venturing into protected lands:

  • Stay on designated trails.
  • Take only pictures.
  • Pack out what you pack in.
  • All of these places still require face masks, social distancing and hand washing/sanitizing.
  • Breathe in the fresh air and marvel at the beauty around you.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Quite possibly the most scenic preserve in the country is this one at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Hike through our nation’s rarest pine trees and you’ll see wind-sculpted trees atop cliffs overlooking the ocean. The old pueblo visitor’s center used to be a restaurant when it first opened in 1923. Come here any season to find the beauty of wildflowers in the spring and California quail in the winter. The Guy Fleming Trail 2/3 miles loop is the easiest for kiddos and if you take the Beach Trail ¾ mile to Flat Rock you’ll find a set of stairs down to the beach (this one is best for older kids).

Caution: Due to unstable cliffs, keep kids away from the ledges whether you’re hiking up top or on the beach below. If you get to the beach, make sure you time it 2-3 hours before or after high tide when there’s more sand space to keep away from the cliffs.

Hours: daily 7:15 a.m. - Sunset
Cost: $12-$25 per car

Torrey Pines State Reserve
12600 N Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla
858-755-2063
Online: parks.ca.gov

Anstine-Audubon Nature Preserve

BYO Binoculars to this peaceful bird preserve managed by the San Diego Audubon Society. This is an 11 acre site that was left by the Anstine’s to the city of Vista. There are bridges to cross, planks to walk, a stream, a pond and benches to sit and be still while you look and listen to the birds singing all around. It’s a short loop trail that could take anywhere from 15-40 minutes depending on how fast your kids walk.

Hours: Sat. 9 a.m.-noon (closed July-Sept)
Advance registration required online
Cost: Free

Anstine-Audubon Nature Preserve
2437 Hutchison St., Vista
858-273-7800
Online: sandiegoaudubon.org

San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Over 2,000 acres along the southern end of the San Diego Bay are preserved for waterfowl and shorebirds that stop here to rest during their migrations. There are trails all around the southern Bayshore for biking, walking, jogging and birdwatching. This is also the site of a large collaboration between the Living Coast Discovery Center, Sea World and the San Diego Zoo to run a breeding program for the endangered light-footed clapper rail. It’s a historical area as well, where the Kumeyaay people first used the area for fishing, hunting and gathering. By protecting these wetlands, it provides an opportunity for the public to observe birds and wildlife in their native habitats.

Tip: While you can view this refuge from many areas along the bay, one of my favorite places (as seen above) can be easily accessed here: 536 13th St., Imperial Beach

Hours: Sunrise-Sunset
Cost: Free

San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge
1080 Gunpowder Point Dr., Chula Vista
619-476-9150
Online: fws.gov/refuges

Tijuana River Estuary

At the southernmost tip of San Diego is one of the most serene places that few people know about. Where the Tijuana River meets the sea is where you’ll find the Tijuana Slough with over 2,000 acres of wetlands. Over 370 bird species have been observed there with 5 of them being endangered species that are regularly seen. This area is not only host to shorebirds, but the small tidal creeks provide a habitat for their meals such as fish, clams, crabs and worms. You can walk along the upper and lower estuaries. The best views are just before sunset, a.k.a. feeding time.

Tip: The visitor center and native plant gardens have interactive exhibits, guided bird and nature walks and a junior ranger program.

Hours: Sunrise-Sunset
Cost: Free

Tijuana River Estuary
301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach
619-575-3613
Online: trnerr.org

San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve

One of San Diego’s largest wetlands, this reserve is mostly a shallow-water estuary where inland creeks meet the ocean. Incoming tides twice a day fill the lagoon with salt water and food for the shorebirds that stop here along their migration. More than 40 percent of all North American bird species have been spotted here, making this an important habitat to protect. You can explore 7 miles of easy trails around the lagoon and the visitor center has live animal exhibits, displays and education.

Tip: Just outside the visitor center you’ll find a ¾ mile ADA accessible loop trail with good views of birds foraging in the salt marsh and mud flats.

Hours: daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: Free

San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
2710 Manchester Ave., Cardiff
760-634-3026
Online: sdparks.org

Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary

Known for being the crown jewel of the San Diego Audubon Society, this wildlife sanctuary is usually booked up months in advance for hikes, guided walks, bird watching, research and connecting with nature. While you’re exploring 5 miles of trails, you’ll be joined by wild life all around you. Bird species like owls, eagles, hawks, woodpeckers and mockingbirds will be up in the air, but look down for mammals, amphibians and reptiles; which are more active in the spring and early summer.

Tip: 1/3 mile from the parking lot is a shaded observation area that attracts birds and small mammals. Those with physical limitations can be driven to this area.

Hours: Sundays 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (closed Aug. & Sept. due to fire danger)
Advance registration is required online
Cost: Free

Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary
13003 Wildcat Canyon Rd., Lakeside
619-443-2998
Online: sandiegoaudubon.org

Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve

Scenic mountain and ocean views can be seen from this unique watershed habitat. With the Escondido Creek flowing year-round, it provides a unique home for plants and animals. With 11 miles of trails, picnic spots and views, there are plenty of options to enjoy nature here. During open hours, visit the interpretive center to see green design elements like recycled building materials, a green living roof and permanent art installations.

Hours: daily 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Cost: Free

Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve
8833 Harmony Grove Rd., Escondido
760-632-4212
Online: elfinforest.olivenhain.com

photo: Beth Shea

Blue Sky Ecological Reserve

Take your time meandering along this wide, easy to navigate, flat trail located in Poway. The first mile of the hike begins under the shade of beautiful oak trees and is a perfect, comfortable jaunt for you and the kiddos, big and small. You can gauge whether it’s time to stop once the trail begins to climb steeply uphill in full sun. Take a picnic to enjoy at the picnic tables at the end of the shaded trail. Stay on the path to avoid poison oak. Easy parking in the lot.

Hours: Sunrise-Sunset daily
Cost: Free

16275 Espola Rd.
Poway CA 92064
Online: poway.org/Blue-Sky-Reserve

––Bonnie Taylor

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