Nature Center Loop Trail


  • DISTANCE (ROUND-TRIP): 1-mile double loop (choose smaller or larger loop)

  • TIME: 45 minutes (at a slow pace)

  • HOURS: Sunrise to sunset (parking lot: 9 am–5 pm daily)


  • PETS/ANIMALS: Leashed dogs welcome

  • ENTRANCE: 2710 Manchester Ave, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007   See map

  • CLOSEST PUBLIC TRANSIT: Highway 101 + Chesterfield (Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA)  See map

  • PARKING: Nature Center parking lot is open. 

  • TERRAIN: Flat, wide, and even path. Suitable for strollers and wheelchairs.

See a salt marsh habitat . . . close-up.

Here, you can encounter the space where ocean meets trees. To learn about the flora + fauna here, pause to read the informative displays along the trail.

As you hike, you see why this approachable trail is a local favorite. With plenty of benches along the outer loop, you can relax and soak up nature. People love birdwatching along the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center Loop Trail – when you visit, bring a pair of binoculars to try and spot waterfowl, or borrow a pair from the Nature Center.

We partner with the San Diego County Parks and Recreation, who owns the Nature Center, and rangers and volunteers who operate it.

Keep an eye out for…

No. 1

Fiddler crabs

scooting along the mudflats.
More info

No. 2

Snowy Egrets

which have rebounded substantially after plume hunters nearly brought them to extinction in the early 20th century. More info

No. 3

Great Egrets

A larger stature, yellow bill and black feet distinguish it from the smaller Snowy Egret, which has a black bill and yellow feet. (Can you tell the difference between the two types of egrets while on the trail?)
More info

What to Expect

  1. At the trailhead, note two signs: one welcoming you to the trail and the other providing information about the trail.
  2. Right from the start, you may see numerous birds.
  3. Soon you see a bench that offers striking views of the estuary channels, as well as Cardiff State Beach.
  1. Continuing on, you have two options: (a) turn left onto the wooden boardwalk, or (b) go straight along the lagoon’s main channel, then loop around the trail that runs parallel to the street and connects back to the parking lot (look for a Torrey pine along this portion of the trail!).
  2. If you take the boardwalk route, you see Arroyo willows, on which you might find colorful Western Tussock Moth caterpillars.
  3. This boardwalk brings you back to the start – which completes the loop.

From Our Visitors

  • @noelliebellies link

    The very beautiful visitor’s center is probably the best place to start here, then there are two close-by loop trails that are easy to walk and…
    Read more

    Visitor from New York City

    New York

  • link

    My sister introduced me to San Elijo Lagoon’s hiking trails many years ago and we have been going ever since. Coastal shrub landscape…
    Read more

    Elizabeth S
  • link

    You’ll see all kinds of wildlife and the Reserve has helpful signage to identify various types of birds and other creatures. Bring the kids…
    Read more

    Joel K

    Encinitas, CA

  • Kamala Venkatesh

    San Elijo Ecological Reserve is huge, with lots of options for exploring and photographing nature. If you’re a family with young kids, the…
    Read more

    Carl C

    Portola Valley, CA

On your hike, you might see . . .

Bright green pickleweed


Pickleweed is the preferred habitat for the endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, which feeds and nests in it. More info

Striped mullet

During high tide, you might see these torpedo-shaped fish leaping out of the water. More Info

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