Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve
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.
Visitor center: 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.
Back Bay Dr. to Vista Overlook
Trailhead: Back Bay Dr. at Big Canyon parking lot
Length: Over 4 total miles
Typical Width: 4 ft. & above
Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentle
Terrain: HardThe interpretive trail is firm and easy to roll on.
DescriptionThis road, used by pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists, hugs the eastern side of the estuary for 3 miles from the Back Bay Science Center at Shellmaker Road to Vista Point on the corner of Eastbluff Drive. Though it is open to cars in one direction, there are very few and the speed limit is 15 mph, so I was comfortable sharing the road. On the one-mile stretch that I rolled (I drove out the rest of the way), you are level with the wetlands and the views are great—they're especially vibrant in the evening, when the low sunlight strikes the water, fish jump, and birds gather to feed and roost.
I highly recommend taking the self-guided interpretive trail from an accessible entrance a few hundred yards beyond the Big Canyon parking lot. If you use the entrance across from the lot, the trail quickly becomes impassable due to a step up to a bridge. Hiking this trail is a completely different experience from traveling along the road; here you pass through six distinct habitats and among trees and bushes. Many people don’t even realize the trail is there.
The drive from the parking lot to Eastbluff Drive was enjoyable, with great views of the estuary, but if you roll the entire way you will encounter a very steep hill just as you approach the vista overlook on Eastbluff. You won’t miss much if you turn around before the hill and head back to the parking lot.
Interpretive Center to Jamboree Rd.
Trailhead: Visitor center
Length: 2-4 total miles
Typical Width: 4 ft. & aboveA 5’ section at the top of the butterfly garden is only 29” wide.
Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentleThere is one very steep section if you continue on to Back Bay Dr.
DescriptionTravel through the staff parking lot to reach this trail at the slough’s northern end. It starts with a long, gradual descent to a bridge over Delhi Channel. I stopped here with other trail users to peer between the bridge railings, looking for wildlife floating by in the clear waters below. Although the setting is serene, quite often the delightful soundscape of birdsong is interrupted by the sound of planes taking off from nearby John Wayne Airport. You’ll likely pass cyclists cruising at good speeds as the trail dips and climbs east toward Jamboree Road. Tall wood fencing obscures the view of the estuary until you cross a second trestle bridge.
Except for a smattering of prickly pear cactus, the bluffs to the north were very dry on my early October visit, though an interpretive sign indicated that you might see bush sunflower, deerweed, California sagebrush, and California buckwheat. Dragonflies hovered above while their shadows appeared to dance on the asphalt. There is no shade, so a hat and sunscreen are advisable. You continue to dip and climb. As you get closer to Jamboree Road, traffic noise picks up. Several spur trails lead into residential areas; I exited at the one to Bayview Drive, where a friend was waiting. The trail runs below Jamboree Road, then turns on Eastbluff Drive, where you follow a wide sidewalk to the vista overlook and then link to Back Bay Drive. After a very steep descent onto Back Bay Drive, the trail continues another 3.5 miles along the estuary.
The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.
Visitor Center: Accessible
Accessible Parking: YesThe 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.
Accessible Restroom: YesAt 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.
Features icon key
- particularly good for families
- wildlife viewing
|Managing Agency:||Orange County Parks, Dept. of Fish & Game|
|Address:||2301 University Dr.|
|Hours:||Interpretive center: Tues.-Sun., 10 am-4 pm.; closed Mondays and major holidays. Park: Daily, 7 am-sunset.|
|Public Transportation:||Orange County Transit Authority|
Reviewed by Bonnie Lewkowicz, October 2, 2013
| This web guide is a project of Access Northern California.
Thanks to our partner the California Coastal Conservancy
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