Trackin' critters on Fiesta Island

Two miles of sandy trail loops around the southern end of Mission Bay’s Fiesta Island.
  • Two miles of sandy trail loops around the southern end of Mission Bay’s Fiesta Island.

This loop around the southern half of Fiesta Island is a good way to see the variety of invasive plants that have colonized this disturbed area and to note the native wildlife that still manages to call it home. This hike is a demonstration of the effects of man on the natural environment of San Diego. Mission Bay itself is almost entirely man-made; it is a much-expanded version of what the natural San Diego River estuary would look like. Situated on the east side of the bay, Fiesta Island is the biggest island in the bay and was created from the dredged sand that came from the widening and deepening of the estuary.

Fiesta Island supports many uses, many of which continue to disturb this ecosystem that itself was created from disturbance. Dogs (along with any seeds, burs, insects, etc. they carry with them) are free to run without being leashed on the entire island. Additionally, many of the plants used in landscaping in the surrounding neighborhoods are nonnative and have escaped from yards and businesses onto the island.

Despite the abundance of invasive plants, there are native species thriving on Fiesta Island, as well. Many of these plants, such as beach evening primrose (Camissonia cheiranthifolia), are specifically adapted to growing on the bare sand of natural dune areas. Others are generalists that can grow basically anywhere and tolerate a high degree of disturbance. The most common of these is coast goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii). There are even five plant species that the state considers to be sensitive, including Nuttall’s lotus (Acmispon prostratus). Most of these are sand and dune specialists that are hard to find on the increasingly developed San Diego coast.

In part because of the grassy habitat created by the many invasive plants, Fiesta Island is home to many interesting bird species. Grassland birds such as western meadowlarks and horned larks are commonly found all year, and American pipits can be found in the winter. The shoreline provides the mudflats and sandy beaches preferred by a variety of shorebirds. The northern tip of the island is fenced off as a least tern nesting area, and snowy plovers nest on the sandy beach on the west of the island. Raptors such as red-tailed hawks and barn owls take advantage of the many California ground squirrels and rabbits.

This is a great hike for any would-be trackers. Because it is an island made of sand, every bird, lizard, insect, and mammal makes tracks for all to see. See if you can identify the different animals by their footprints. Because it is a flat and relatively short trail, even the youngest hikers will be able to join in the fun.

Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes, refer to the San Diego Natural History Museum website.

Distance from downtown San Diego: Approximately 8 miles. Allow 15 minutes. From I-5, take the Sea World Dr./Tecolote Rd. exit (exit 21), turning west onto Sea World Dr. Take the first right onto E. Mission Bay Dr., then the first left onto Fiesta Island Rd. Use the parking lot at the corner of Mission Bay and Fiesta Island before crossing the water onto the island itself. If the lot is full, there is additional parking to the right once you drive onto the island. Porta-potties are available, but there are no water fountains.

Hiking length: A 2-mile loop.

Difficulty: Easy and no change in elevation. Walk on loose sand most of the way. Good for children.

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