A snowy egret wading through the shallows, a snowy plover foraging on the muddy flats, a red-winged blackbird flitting among the cattails, soft sunlight wrapping the lagoon in a tranquil embrace.
No wonder local painters find inspiration at Batiquitos Lagoon near Leucadia. Such quiet beauty is a short hike from the trail head, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to find a half-dozen artists stationed by their easels along the shore of the lagoon.
By no means are all parts of the lagoon as pretty as a picture. A housing development, a golf course and a freeway crowd its boundaries. Still, there's enough nature left to attract a sizable bird population, as well as flocks of birders, painters, photographers and hikers who enjoy observing them.
Bird-watchers often see wintering ducks, coots and grebes. The endangered California least tern nests on artificial islands. Snowy plovers and sandpipers are among the numerous shorebirds. Rare and endangered visitors include the yellow warbler, elegant tern and Belding's Savannah sparrow.
Not long ago, Batiquitos Lagoon attracted few fish, fowl or hikers. A century of local development, plus three bridges--for Interstate 5, U.S. 101 and a set of railroad tracks--interrupted tidal flow to the lagoon, leaving Batiquitos a sorry mess of an ecosystem by 1990.
Help arrived for beleaguered Batiquitos from an odd agency. The Port of Los Angeles, which had busily expanded in the 1980s by dredging San Pedro Harbor and building lots of facilities, was required to do ecological penance to compensate for its destruction of coastal habitat. Thus the Port of Los Angeles funded the Batiquitos Lagoon Enhancement Project to restore the lagoon and open a tidal inlet to the ocean.
The lagoon, under the stewardship of the California Department of Fish and Game with assistance from the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation, is a better place to hike these days. A trail traces the lagoon's north shore past an eclectic collection of flora that includes deer weed, lemonade berry, California buckwheat, bush sunflower and mission cactus. The first part of the path is an 18-stop interpretive trail keyed to a pamphlet available at the lagoon's tiny nature center.
Directions to trail head: From Interstate 5 in Leucadia, about 20 miles north of downtown San Diego, exit on Poinsettia Lane. Drive 0.3 mile east, turn right on Batiquitos Drive and proceed 0.4 mile to Gabbiano Lane. Turn right and drive 0.3 mile to lane's end and a small parking lot for Batiquitos Lagoon Ecological Reserve. More parking is available along Gabbiano Lane.
Two more ways to access Batiquitos Lagoon are by way of two trail heads on Batiquitos Drive, one a mile up the road and a second two miles east.
The hike: Begin at the lagoon's nature center, staffed on some weekends. Pick up an interpretive pamphlet and wander from signpost to signpost. Soon the roar of the freeway fades away, and the hiker's attention turns to the sounds and sights of the many marsh birds and land birds flying and diving about the lagoon. Interpretive panels add to the hiker's salt marsh ecology education.
The first mile of trail is more interesting than the second. Once you pass a couple of small eucalyptus groves and a golf course, the trail seems more like an exercise path than a hiking trail--pleasant, but not all that captivating.
San Elijo Lagoon: While San Elijo Lagoon near Cardiff by the Sea may look like a uniform environment from afar, botanists count several plant communities: salt marsh, freshwater marsh, coastal strand, coastal sage scrub and chaparral. With variations in plant cover and water salinity, each of the lagoon's "neighborhoods" attracts particular bird species; about 300 kinds have been tallied.
San Elijo Lagoon has been the scene of the usual struggle between mushrooming suburban development and local conservationists for decades. As the years go by there is increasingly less to fight about: Only 10% of San Diego County's wetlands remain in some kind of natural state. San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve is under the joint stewardship of the State of California Department of Fish and Game and the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation. A small visitor center, restrooms and a short self-guided nature trail are on the north side of the lagoon off Manchester Avenue. The better hiking is along the south side of the lagoon.
Directions to trail head: From the San Diego Freeway (I-5) 16 miles north of San Diego, exit on Lomas Santa Fe Drive. Head west a mile (nearly to Coast Highway) and turn right (north) on North Rios Avenue. Follow the avenue to its end and the signed trail head.
The hike: The path descends from the bluffs down a coastal sage-cloaked hillside to the lagoon. Look back toward the ocean and note lots of salt-tolerant plants, such as salt grass, pickle weed and alkali heath, lining the lagoon. The path forks. One trail (my favorite) sticks close to the lagoon shore, while the other meanders inland.
The shoreline path heads toward the freeway, accompanied by trail-side interpretive panels that tell the lagoon's ecological story. Follow the trail right under the freeway. When I walked the trail, a graceful great blue heron waded under the freeway, oblivious to the noisy traffic.
From the freeway, you can continue inland for another mile or two, but here you'll find less water, fewer birds and more freeway noise.
For more of John McKinney's hiking tips and trails, visit http://www.thetrailmaster.com.
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Batiquitos, San Elijo Lagoon Trails
WHERE: Batiquitos Lagoon, San Elijo Lagoon.
DISTANCE: Along Batiquitos Lagoon is 2 to 4 miles round trip; along San Elijo Lagoon is 2 to 6 miles round trip.
TERRAIN: Mudflats, salt flats, marsh shoreline.
HIGHLIGHTS: Birds, lots of them.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: State of California Department of Fish and Game; tel. (858) 467-4201.