This short stroll within the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge can be done at different times of the day to see the difference that both a high tide and low tide can have on marshlands. The Living Coast Discovery Center, formerly known as the Chula Vista Nature Center, sits in the middle of this 326-acre refuge, which is also the headquarters for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. Interpretive information in the center explains the relationship between the bay, the marsh, and uplands habitat. The marsh is the transition between bay and upland areas that are not affected by tidal changes.
The center was opened in 1987, and two years later the National Fish and Wildlife Service established a refuge here to conserve and restore habitats and species in the salt marsh at Gunpowder Point. The name of the point derives from the fact that during World War I, the Hercules Powder Company processed giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) that grows offshore to produce components for black and smokeless gunpowder. In 1916 it was the largest kelp-processing plant in southern California. Abandoned after World War I, the concrete foundation of the plant is still visible.
The trail begins across from the visitor center and heads west toward the bay. The trail spur to the right leads to a viewpoint where the remnants of the old gunpowder works may be seen. The spur trails to the left lead to other bay overviews, a pond, and mudflats.
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike easy, with minimal elevation gain. Check to ensure the trail is open, as it generally follows hours of operation for the Living Coast Discovery Center. More detailed information about the area can be found at Living Coast Discovery Center.
The refuge is a great place for birders and for an introduction to both shore birds and birds of prey for novices. The center has interpretive information about birds that explains the function of the various types of bills, toes, and leg length that determine how a bird feeds and rests.
Birds in the sandpiper family (western sandpiper, long-billed curlew, and marbled godwit) have thin bills, straight or curved, that are often longer than their heads. Their long legs allow them to wade in water and walk along mudflats looking for food. Plovers have bills shorter than their heads and can be identified by their characteristic sprints and abrupt stops. Diving birds that may look clumsy on land include the lesser scaup, surf scoter, bufflehead, brown pelican, cormorants, ruddy duck, and the western grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis), a black and white bird with a neck like a swan and red eyes.
The idea of “niche space” is well illustrated by our shorebirds. For instance, there are many birds that dig into the sand for their food items. Yet, having slightly different beak shapes and lengths along with preferences to forage at certain water depths, they are able to specialize on a certain size or species of prey. Using the shore habitat differently means many of these birds coexist without directly competing with each other. There are many other resources other than food at play in determining niche space. Time is one example—certain birds use the marsh’s resources year-round, while others are only seasonal visitors.
Plants seen on this walk include mule-fat, coast bladderpod, non-native tree tobacco, coast California buckwheat, lemonadeberry, black sage, white sage, coastal sagebrush, alkali heath, coast monkey flower, pickleweed, California cordgrass, eucalyptus, coast cholla, and toyon.
From I-5 go west on E Street for 0.1 mile. Turn right on Gunpowder Point Drive and park. The free shuttle to the Discovery Center leaves from this location every 15 minutes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. GPS: N32.63993, W117.11098.
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book, Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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