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The Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center

TRNERRThe Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center is the starting point for seeing the estuary, the Pacific Flyway, spotting several endangered species, walking along hiking trails and trying to find an unexcavated Native American village.

Southern California has lost 90 percent of its coastal wetland due to development. The reserve, therefore, is the largest coastal wetland in Southern California not crossed by a freeway.

And imagine — it was almost destroyed.

The History

This environmental oasis that juts up against Tijuana’s urban sprawl was almost eradicated several times in the past, including in the 1950’s. By  the 1970’s developers vowed to build an upscale marina and residents were enthusiastic.

Absolutely not, said environmental activists Mike and Patricia McCoy who still live in Imperial Beach. In 1979 they created SWIA (the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association) and began to work with activists to preserve and restore the wetlands.

Imperial Beach Park


In 1980, Imperial Beach residents voted for the marina project, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the northern 500 acres of the estuary. Two years later, despite continued opposition, the estuary became part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Estuarine Sanctuary Program. It was designated a National Estuarine Research Reserve.

During the 1980’s SWIA & TRNERR worked side-by-side to tackle issues from salt marsh preservation to sewage coming upstream from Mexico.

By 1990, their efforts also led to the completion of the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center. (Read about the history of this area from prehistoric times to the present.)

Now, the area is federal and state land in perpetuity. No marina will ever encroach upon the habitats of the many plants and animals that live here.

The Ecology

The visitor’s center contains interpretive plaques that explain why this estuary is significant. For example, the estuary has eight habitats, including the salt marsh, ponds, dunes, salt pannes, river valleys, mudflats, uplands, and the riparian. Other interpretive plaques talk about the different species found here and also why estuaries are so important: they act as natural filters of pollutants before the waters flow into the ocean.

The Tijuana Estuary is also part of the Pacific Flyway. Of the 370 bird species that can be seen here, 320 are migratory. TRNERR protects five endangered and two threatened species of birds, including the California Least Tern, the Snowy Plover and their most famous:

The Light-Footed Clapper Rail

The light-footed clapper rail was once common in salt marches between Point Conception and San Quintin, Baja, but now only about 200 pairs remain in all of southern California. TRNERR has worked to save these birds.

Light Footed Clapper Rail


The Native American Village

Also, two Kumeyaay villages existed in this area: the Chiaps and the Melijo. The Kumeyaay lived in this area for hundreds of years before the Spaniards came. They generally created their villages on mesas and walked down to the oceans in order to fish or collect shellfish. Today, the Melijo village is buried somewhere within the reserve.


The TRNERR and SWIA staff work together and alongside other organizations on many environmental projects. In 2012 they completed restoration of the Salt Marshes in an area further north of the Visitor’s Center, which included dredging channels, creating tidal channels and creating five different habitats. They currently have an Oyster Restoration Project and a Invasive Plant Control Program underway.

They also work to combat sedimentation that comes down from Mexico and threaten to destroy the estuary. Because of unregulated growth in Mexico, SWIA has partnered with organizations to address how to stabilize the sedimentation. They have developed permeable pavers and have encouraged alternative uses for tires, showing Tijuana residents how to use them in sustainable building.

There is so much more to explore at SWIA & TRNERR websites as well as at the actual Visitor Center. Sign up for their newsletter to find out about their bird walks and many other program offerings. You can also check out their Things To Do.

Also, take a virtual tour by watching SWIA’s movies created by Jim Karnik:

Trails of San Diego’s South Bay

The People and History of the Tijuana River Valley

The View from the Imperial Beach Bike Trail

Hike from Pier to River along Imperial Beach

Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve

Address: 301 Caspian Way, Imperial Beach, CA 91932

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