Hotspots Near You

27. San Elijo Lagoon, San Diego County, California

Find more than 300 species at a restored estuary just 20 miles north of San Diego.

One of my favorite birding spots in San Diego County, the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve is a stopover for masses of migrating shorebirds in fall, a wintering refuge for all kinds of waterfowl, and a nesting area for several endangered species.

Birding here is like stepping back to an earlier time when freshwater creeks still met the ocean in peaceful estuaries, and Snowy Plovers and Least Terns gathered and laid their eggs undisturbed.

Eventually, urbanization took a toll. By 1887, dikes and levees had been built to make roads, duck-hunting ponds, and sewage settling ponds. The mouth of the lagoon backed up, and water quality suffered; the daily tidal cleansing of ocean waters could not breach the sand bar that formed at the inlet to the estuary.

Recent periodic dredging of the lagoon mouth by county, state, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials has restored the estuary to its naturally healthy condition and made it a prime example of how habitat restoration can bring an estuary back to life. The extraordinary number and variety of birds that can be observed now, compared to 20 years ago, makes the place extra special. — Joan Easton Lentz

Joan Easton Lentz is the author of Introduction to Birds of the Southern California Coast. She also wrote about Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve, Santa Barbara, California, Hotspot Near You No. 2, and Lake Los Carneros Ecological Preserve, Goleta, California, No. 70.



27. San Elijo Lagoon, San Diego County, California


The San Elijo Lagoon reaches inland from the Pacific coast just south of Encinitas and about 20 miles north of San Diego. From I-5 (San Diego Fwy.), exit at Manchester Ave. and go west about half a mile. The parking lot and nature center are on the left. To reach the south side of the lagoon, exit I-5 at Lomas Santa Fe Dr. and drive west about 0.8 miles. Turn right on Rios Ave. and follow it until it ends. Park on street.

Downloadable Files

At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location:
33°0’48.10N 117°16’24.35W

San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy
P.O. Box 230634
Encinitas, California 92023-0634
Phone: (760) 436-3944

San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve


Southern California coastal wetland: sandy beach, mudflat, shallow lagoon, salt marsh, freshwater marsh, and coastal sage scrub.


Trails adjacent to nature center are flat and wheelchair-accessible. Other trails are flat to moderately steep.


More than 300 species, including California Brown Pelican, Light-footed Clapper Rail, Western Snowy Plover, California Least Tern, California Gnatcatcher, Least Bell’s Vireo, and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow. Also, cormorants, coots, gulls, Ospreys, White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, ducks, swallows, warblers, and sparrows. In coastal sage scrub: California Quail, Anna’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Cassin’s Kingbird, Wrentit, and California Towhee.

When to go

Year-round. Elegant Tern in summer.


Nature center, restrooms, and boardwalk with nature trail. Bird surveys on second Monday, 7:30-noon, Rios Ave. Bird walks on second Saturday, 9-11, Rios Ave.


Nonprofit ecological reserve. Admission free. No permissions required. Nature center open 9:30-4:30.


A scope is helpful but not necessary. Rios Ave. trail leads through coastal sage scrub.

For more info

San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy
San Diego Audubon Society
San Diego Rare Bird Alert, (619) 688-2473

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