Upper Newport Bay––referred to by locals as the Back Bay––has one of the largest remaining natural estuaries in Southern California. Between the Upper Newport Ecological Reserve (752 acres of wetlands) and the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve (135 acres of bluffs surrounding the bay), there is plenty of open space to enjoy and explore. The reserve, saved from...
Upper Newport Bay––referred to by locals as the Back Bay––has one of the largest remaining natural estuaries in Southern California. Between the Upper Newport Ecological Reserve (752 acres of wetlands) and the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve (135 acres of bluffs surrounding the bay), there is plenty of open space to enjoy and explore. The reserve, saved from development in the mid-1970s, is an important flyway for migrating birds—up to 30,000 can visit on a given day during winter months. It is home to nearly 200 species of birds, including several rare or endangered species: the light-footed clapper rail, Belding's Savannah sparrow, peregrine falcon, and California least tern. It’s also a spawning ground for halibut and bass.
The unpaved trails are inaccessible to wheelchair riders because of steep inclines and water bars, but several miles of paved perimeter trails afford the opportunity to experience this thriving estuary. Back Bay Road (3.5 miles one way) in particular is worthwhile because you are level with the estuary for the entire way. The trail from the interpretive center to Jamboree Road (1.2 miles) offers a view from above the estuary. The trail from the interpretive center to Santiago Drive (1 mile) on the western side travels alongside a busy road for much of the way, and I did not find it enjoyable.
: Before you begin your exploration of the reserve, pick up trail maps and talk to knowledgeable docents at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center, at the bay's north end. It can be reached either from the staff parking lot (open only to staff and those with a disability parking placard) or via a trail from the lower (main) lot. If you approach from the lower lot you can take a spur trail to the center's roof, which provides great views of the reserve (the viewing telescope is not lowered, however), then return to the main trail, following it downhill past a butterfly garden to the center's entrance. The 10,000-square-foot educational facility provides information about the history of and life in and around the bay through exhibits, interactive displays, and movies in the small theater. Guided hikes and educational programs are offered for all ages. Local art is on display and available for sale.
The trail from the lower lot to the visitor center has a decomposed granite surface that has loosened and is deep in places, which may be problematic for wheelchairs with small castors.
The main (lower) lot off University Dr. has accessible spaces but the surface is decomposed granite, which might be muddy after a rain. Signage at the entrance to this lot indicates accessible parking is farther along University Dr. at the staff lot, which is paved; however, this lot closes around 4 pm, while the lower lot closes at sunset. The Big Canyon parking lot has several faded accessible spaces close to the slough; if you have a lift-equipped vehicle I suggest parking here to hike Back Bay Rd. instead of using the street parking on San Joaquin Hills Rd., where there is no room to deploy a lift.
At the interpretive center. A sign on the accessible Porta Potty in the Big Canyon parking lot said it was open to the public on school days, but it was locked when I visited on a school day.
Off the lower parking lot, by the trailhead to the interpretive center