The beginning of fall is a good time to discover Upper Newport Bay
Ashley Danielsen and Sheila Lamb-Cohen trot along the dirt trail edging the Upper Newport Bay, stopping their horses to wait as joggers and bicyclists pass a wooden bridge.
“It’s just beautiful,” said Danielsen, looking out to the glistening waters on a recent day. “We were just saying how it’s great to get out here and get grounded again, and stay close to nature in such a peaceful environment.”
Upper Newport Bay is home to nearly 200 species of birds, including several endangered species. It is one of the top birding sites in the country, attracting birders from around the country and beyond.
The Bay is also an important rest stop and for some, a winter home for birds migrating from Canada and Alaska. Up to 30,000 birds can be seen here on any given winter day. Nesting birds include the endangered light-footed clapper rail and California least tern.
The largest mammals found here at Upper Newport Bay are the bobcat, the coyote and the raccoon. The most numerous are the various common species of small rodents.
One female bobcat called Babe has become a celebrity, seen with her offspring on the patio of the Interpretive Center. Bobcats play an important role in our ecosystems, particularly in terms of keepingpest populations under control. They aren’t thought to be dangerous to humans, but can be dangerous if cornered.
On any given day, the Upper Newport Bay serves as a getaway from the hustle and bustle of Orange County, a pristine oasis that allows people to step away from the stresses in their lives. The “Back Bay,” as some call it, is home to one of the region’s largest estuaries, a place where freshwater flows downstream to meet up with salt water, creating a peaceful place for birds and wildlife that seek solace in this unique sanctuary.
It’s hard to believe that in the 1800s, much of the Orange County coastline looked like what you’ll find in the Back Bay, but as developers started building on the coastline these natural areas were lost as homes were built. By 1975, less than 10 percent of the original coastal wetlands remained between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border, according to the Newport Bay Conservancy.
At one point in the 60s, the Upper Newport Bay was set to succumb to commercial developments that would have turned it into a large marina with private docks and waterfront homes. But a group of environmentalists fought back, and by 1975 the Upper Bay became an Ecological Reserve managed by the California Department of Fish and Game.
What to do
Guided kayak tours: See birds and wildlife up close with a guided kayak tour every Saturday and Sunday morning year-round in partnership with the Newport Aquatic Center at Northstar Beach. The Newport Aquatic Center also rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards throughout the week.
Walking and Jogging
– Back Bay Drive is a multi-use road that stretches three miles along the east side of the Bay from the Back Bay Science Center at Shellmaker Road to Vista Point on the corner of Eastbluff Drive. Back Bay Drive is one-way for motor vehicles from south to north. This is the best route if you would like to be close to the water and see shorebirds and waterfowl. Parking: south of Shellmaker Road, at the bottom of San Joaquin Hills Road and on Eastbluff Drive, and a parking lot at Big Canyon.
– There are several bluff-top pedestrian-only trails on the northwest side of the Bay, a great place for viewing. The best place to park is at the Interpretive Center on the corner of University Drive and Irvine Avenue. From there you can head south to 23rd Street or east to Bayview Drive and Jamboree Road.
– A 10-mile bike loop around the Bay starts at Jamboree at San Diego Creek. Heading clockwise, the first stop is Vista Point on the corner of Eastbluff Drive and Back Bay Drive. Take Back Bay Drive to the Newport Dunes Resort and follow the signs through the resort, which brings you out onto Pacific Coast Highway at the bridge. Take the highway over the bridge and turn right on Dover Drive. You can take a quick detour to Castaways Park, Northstar Beach or Galaxy Park or follow the direct route along Dover to Irvine Avenue where you will turn right. On Irvine just beyond Santiago Drive a set of paved trails begin. These take you to the Interpretive Center, and from there to to Bayview Drive and back to Jamboree Road.
– The 22-mile Mountains to Sea Trail, which runs from Weir Canyon north of Irvine Regional Park joins the Back Bay Loop at Jamboree Road and continues through to Shellmaker Road.