Trail of the Month: January 2008
California's Bayshore Bikeway
Is there an icy gale lashing your cheeks (South Dakotans, raise your hands)? Or are you scaling six-foot snowdrifts just to reach your front door (that's you, New Englanders)? If so, then the slightest thought of baring any skin this winter sounds preposterous, if not downright painful. But don't mothball all your hiking, cycling and birding gear just yet. The southern California coast has an answer to the bundle-up blues: San Diego's 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway loop around San Diego Bay.
The bikeway sets out from Coronado Ferry Landing through the palm trees and playgrounds of Tidelands Park, and then quickly on to the red-roofed Hotel del Coronado. Marilyn Monroe fans may recognize the hotel, built in 1888, as the location for the Miami Beach scenes filmed there for Some Like it Hot.
Cutting south from the hotel, the pathway straddles the bay and the Pacific Ocean along the former Coronado branch of the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad—a narrow, blustery corridor with shorelines and sand dunes on both sides of the track. This slender band of beach passes the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base (where Navy SEALs train), a half-mile nature path with observation decks and interpretive signs, and Silver Strand State Beach. Pedestrian tunnels here beneath Highway 75 offer access to the bigger surf on the ocean side, or to the calmer, warmer waters on the bay side.
At the roughly half-way point of the loop, just beyond Imperial Beach where visitors can visit functioning saltwater evaporation ponds (keep your eyes open for giant white mounds), the rail-trail links with well-marked on-street bike lanes to complete the trip through Chula Vista, National City and downtown San Diego.
This past December, however, the City of San Diego was awarded a contract to extend another one-mile section of rail-trail from Imperial Beach to Chula Vista. In two years when the project is expected to be completed, this addition will spare users from sharing a busy six-lane highway, says Stephan Vance, senior regional planner for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).
"We've been working on this a long time," he says. "It's a major milestone for us."
Somewhat hidden within this short extension is an equally rewarding privilege for bikeway users: a firsthand tour of the bay's remarkable wildlife turnaround during the last 50 years.
Construction will lead the trail directly through the South Bay Unit of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge (SDBNWR), a sanctuary for wetlands, saltwater marshes and the largest contiguous mudflat in southern California. Thousands of birds, says Brian Collins, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, frequent these fragile ecosystems for resting, foraging or nesting. Indeed San Diego Bay is an important stopping point on the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south artery for migratory birds along the North and South American coastlines.
But sewage discharge from industrial growth in the 1950s, as well as new marinas and urban development, heavily disrupted this habitat and left the bay anoxic (not enough oxygen in the water to support fish). More than 90 percent of the bay's wetlands and mudflats eventually disappeared by the 1970s, as did many of the species dependent on them.
"People don't think much of mudflats," Collins says, "but they're tremendously productive for shorebirds. So what we have left are really precious remnants, habitat islands in a sea of urban development."
The SDBNWR has since reclaimed some of the lost saltwater marshlands and helped restore them as "hotspots" for bio-diversity, says Collins. A great host of endangered and threatened terns, black-necked stilts and black skimmers (both pictured at right), several species of plovers, and other birds as rare as their names are curious—like the light-footed clapper rail—now make at least a temporary, and often boisterous, home here.
"It's kind of an oceanic island in the summertime with all of the nesting sea birds," he says, "but you'd never know it driving by on the freeway."
The quietest part of the refuge, in fact, will probably be the rail-trail, yet trail users are still encouraged to stick to the path and be respectful of the wildlife in all of the bay's nature preserves. A peaceful partnership between bikeway and bird sanctuary will ensure the long-term recovery of this special ecosystem.
So with natural entertainments on all sides, easily accessible water sports, ferry rides and exercise-friendly weather all year, the Bayshore Bikeway certainly has much to divert any outdoors enthusiast from winter's doldrums, and hundreds of cyclists use the trail every day. Yet the gem of the journey may be the resurrected wildlife haven the rail-trail encircles. Tens of thousands of birds can't be wrong, right?
For more information, user reviews, pictures and descriptions of the trail, please visit TrailLink.com.