Tijuana Estuary FAQs
General Visitor Center Info
The Reserve has been gradually pieced together over the last 30 years; first with the acquisition of Border Field State Park (1971) and then Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge (1980). It was designated as a National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1982. The Visitor Center was built in 1990.
The Reserve’s management involves a number of agencies (fourteen altogether); the two primary managing agencies are the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California State Parks. USFWS is responsible primarily for the management of the Reserve’s natural resources; in particular, the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge component of the Reserve. CA State Parks operates the Visitor Center and maintains Border Field State Park; the Reserve’s educational and interpretive programs are also handled by CA State Parks. USFWS and CA State Parks share in many community outreach, volunteer, and general education programs.
The southern boundary of the Reserve is the international border between Mexico and the United States. However the Visitor Center is located in Imperial Beach and is approximately 3 miles from the border.
Whether you have just a few hours to give or if you want to volunteer on a regular basis, the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve has many opportunities for people of all ages. For more information, please contact our volunteer coordinator at (619) 575-3613 x330 or .
There are numerous opportunities for recreation at the Tijuana Estuary. From hiking and biking the trails to horseback riding and exploring the natural beauty of the space, there are activities for all ages to enjoy. Whether you are a bird enthusiast, serious mountain biker, or casual hiker, you'll find that the Estuary offers a peaceful escape from the hustle of daily life.
A digital version of the trail map is available below, as well as on the Visitor Center page.
Hard copies of the map can be found inside the Visitor Center or posted in the outdoor showcase opposite the Visitor Center.
The best trail for wheelchairs and strollers is the North McCoy Trail which starts at the Visitor Center. The trail is 1/3 mile long.
No, camping is not allowed in the Reserve, including Border Field State Park. The nearest camping is at Silver Strand State Beach. The camping is for any self-contained motor home or vehicle. There is no tent camping. Please contact Reserve America for reservations, 800-444-7275.
The nearest tent camping (RV also) is the San Diego KOA Campground, located in Chula Vista (reservations 1-800-562-9877). Another option for tent & RV camping is through San Diego County Parks at Sweetwater Regional Park (reservations 1-877-565-3600).
No, we do not rent horses, however there are places in the Tijuana River Valley that do rent horses. These operations change frequently; please call our Visitor Center for the latest information, 619-575-3613.
Read more about horseback riding at Border Field State Park, one of the few remaining places where equestrians can ride horses on the beach.
Yes, but only certain species and by using specific methods (see below). The MPA west of the Reserve and south of Seacoast Drive is called the Tijuana River Mouth State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA).
Tijuana River Mouth SMCA
Effective: January 1, 2012
The SMCA is approximately 1.5 miles wide (west-east, starting at the mean high tide line) and 3miles long (north-south, starting at the south end of Seacoast Drive). View Map.
What am I allowed to fish?
Northern anchovy (Engraulis mordax)
Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax)
Pacific mackerel (Scomber japonicus)
Jack mackerel (Trachurus symmetricus)
How am I allowed to fish?
Recreational Fishing: by hand-held dip net only.
Commercial Fishing: by round haul net only.
About the Estuary
An estuary is a coastal wetland where freshwater that flows from rivers and streams mixes with the saltwater from the ocean.
Or more simply put, an estuary is where the river meets the sea.
Here, the Tijuana Estuary is made up of freshwater from the Tijuana River that connects with the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean creating a large wetland habitat dominated by low lying vegetation known as a salt marsh. This connection of waters happens at the rivermouth, and because of it, the water level in the estuary rises and falls with the ocean tides. Water, as well as fish, or anything else in the water can come in and out through the rivermouth making this area highly attractive for many species of birds. The Tijuana Rivermouth is the only one in San Diego County that naturally moves with storms and wave action because it is not bisected by a railway or highway like the other rivermouths of the estuaries in the county.
Other examples of estuaries are bays, swamps, mangroves, and bogs. Learn more about why estuaries are important and find out more about our nation’s extraordinary estuaries at the NERRS Estuary Education website.
We have over 370 species of birds, brush rabbits, jack rabbits, lizards, squirrels, grey foxes, and coyotes. In the Border Field area you may still find the bobcat but it is unusual. We do have rattlesnakes but they are rarely seen north of the river and are more common at Border Field. Stay on the trail when hiking. The California kingsnake, a natural predator of the rattlesnake, is commonly seen when the temperature is warm enough. The California kingsnake is not dangerous to humans. Learn more about plants and animals of the reserve.
Generally during low tide, on the North McCoy trail, you will usually see a good variety of shorebirds feeding on the tidal mudflats, especially during fall/winter migrations. High tides will often flush the Ridgway's Rail into higher areas of the marsh. The brackish ponds reached from the 5th and Iris Street trail offer a good look at migratory waterfowl and many other bird species found at the Reserve. The river mouth is an excellent place to see a variety of birds especially California Brown Pelicans. View the Tijuana Slough Bird List.
The Ridgway's rail is usually seen on the North McCoy Trail near the wooden bridge not far from the Visitor Center. It can be observed during low tide foraging along the banks of the channel, or taking a quick bath. It can also be seen during a high tide when it is flushed out of hiding.
The Ridgway's rail is dark brown with a cinnamon colored breast and white under the tip of its short tail. It looks like a marsh hen. Ridgway's rail chicks are all black.
Border Field State Park
Hours of operation for Border Field State Park:
Day After Labor Day - October 31
9:30a.m. to 6:00p.m.
November 1 - March 14
9:30a.m. to 5:00p.m.
March 15 - Day before Memorial Day Weekend
9:30a.m. to 6:00p.m.
It is approximately 1.6 miles. We recommend that you walk directly to west to the beach (1 mile) and then south to Monument Mesa (0.6 miles) so that you avoid seasonal flooding in the road.
Yes. Reserve Law Enforcement patrols the park; in addition, Border Patrol is also present in the area.
A Special Event Permit is required for any company, society, organization, or group of persons greater than 25 individuals that wishes to hold, conduct, or participate in any celebration, service, picnic, exercise, or other special event in any park or beach in accordance with State Park rules and regulations (California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Section 4301(j). Any group that has alcohol or catering is required to have a permit for any size group.
A Special Event Permit is also required for the use of state park lands for commercial photography (advertising, documentary, etc.).
Anyone inquiring about a special event, group hike, film permit, beach cleanup, or any other activity that may require a permit can contact the San Diego Coast State Parks Special Event Office by the following methods:
Website: https://www.parks.ca.gov/sdspecialevents (this website provides general information about special event permits and also has an inquiry form to fill out and submit directly to their office)
In Person: The District Office is located at 4477 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92110. Staff is typically onsite Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m..
*Due to a large number of inquiries, it may take up to five business days to receive a response from a special events representative.
Sewage contamination continues to be an issue in the Tijuana River Valley, but much has improved in recent decades. International partnerships and the development of the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant have largely limited sewage contaminated flows to the rainy season. During drier summer months, there is very little flow and the estuary remains one of the healthiest coastal wetlands in the region.
In addition to sewage pollution there is growing concerns of excessive sediment, trash, and invasive species. These are being actively addressed through programs such as the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team and SWIA’s invasive plant program.
Sewage pollution undoubtedly impacts the estuary and river. However, despite this pollution, the salt marsh remains one of the best examples of a healthy, functioning marsh in southern California. The Tijuana Estuary is an intact system with extensive marsh vegetation and is open to tidal flushing (which increases nutrient and oxygen flow). This helps alleviate the pollution problem.
The salt marsh is a very resilient ecosystem and remains fairly stable. In fact, excessive fresh water released on both sides of the border can be more problematic, as it throws the estuary’s ecosystem out of balance. Sediment and trash represent a serious threat as they can smother and damage wetland habitat.
The Reserve works closely with the Tijuana River Valley Recovery Team, as well as local non-profits and agencies that raise awareness about pollution in the Tijuana River Valley. For information on clean-up events, visit our volunteer section of the website.