Step back in time on the Kelly Trail in Carlsbad

Follow the Agua Hedionda Creek wetlands bordering Agua Hedionda Lagoon

The lush arroyo willow forest contains the non-native Tree-of-Heaven
  • The lush arroyo willow forest contains the non-native Tree-of-Heaven

The land that is now Carlsbad was once home to Kumeyaay people, perhaps for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Spanish priests and their accompanying soldiers displaced the Kumeyaay by the late 18th century, and established self-sufficient ranches on Kumeyaay lands, using the Kumeyaay as ranch laborers. With the successful Mexican revolution in 1820, the mission lands were secularized and given to Mexican colonists as land grants.

The Agua Hedionda Lagoon was part of a 13,314-acre Rancho Agua Hedionda land grant given to Juan Maria Marron in 1840. An American sea captain, Francis Hinton, acquired Rancho Agua Hedionda from Marron in the 1850s, perhaps through marriage. Hinton hired Robert Kelly — an immigrant from the British Isle of Man who worked as a carpenter and farmer in the San Diego area — to manage the Rancho, which he did successfully for about 40 years. When Hinton died in 1870, he willed Rancho Agua Hedionda to Kelly. Robert Kelly never married and fathered no children, but upon his death in 1890, he left the Rancho to his brother Matthew’s nine children. They managed the Rancho as a common enterprise until 1896, when it was subdivided into equitable shares, with each Kelly receiving title to a parcel. With this, the Rancho Agua Hedionda era ended, and eventually, a portion of the land grant became part of the City of Carlsbad. The Kelly Trail is a way to step back in time to a much earlier day.

This short trail not only takes you near a well-preserved coastal sage scrub habitat in northern San Diego County, it also gives you a chance to experience some of the diversity of riparian habitats as it follows the Agua Hedionda Creek wetlands bordering Agua Hedionda Lagoon. The trail is a wide dirt path, bordered on both sides by a chain link fence. Signs ask visitors to stay on the trail and not enter the lands beyond the fence.

For the first 0.16 mile, the trail goes in a southerly direction on the eastern side of the intermittent stream draining the hills above Kelly Drive. The stream carries urban runoff into the lagoon most of the year, as well as rain runoff after storms. This stream brings a more or less continuous source of “fresh” water to a dense stand of trees on the west side of the trail, just beyond the broom baccharis-lined fence. The forest consists of shrubby arroyo willows, stately black and red willow trees, California sycamores, and a few western cottonwood and white alder trees. The crowded forest also contains scattered non-natives such as Canary Island date palm, the New Zealand Ngaio tree (Myoporum laetum) and the Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).

The fence marking the east side of the trail is also lined with broom baccharis, as well as mule-fat and coyote brush — two other baccharis species common in coastal sage scrub, especially where water is more abundant. As the slope rises behind this baccharis row, more drought-tolerant species are dominant, including California buckwheat, chamise, black sage, California sagebrush, coast prickly pear, and snake and coast cholla.

After 0.16 mile, the trail makes a sweeping turn east, then parallels Agua Hedionda Creek, now on your right. Looking across the fence toward the creek, you will see a small saltgrass marsh, with an open area beyond displaying extensive California bulrush. Farther up the trail are more areas dense with bulrush, but also mixed with southern cattail. You will also find a number of salt-tolerant plants in these wetlands, suggesting that the Agua Hedionda Creek water is at least brackish at this point and not fresh. These salt-tolerant species include alkali heath, pickleweed, salt heliotrope, and spiny rush.

At a little over half a mile from the Kelly Trailhead, the trail makes a nearly 90-degree turn and begins a gradual ascent of a hill to the Via Hinton Trailhead. This is the half waypoint for an out-and-back hike from the Kelly Trailhead. Note that the Via Hinton Traihead is an alternate starting point. Before turning back, take time to enjoy the view over the Agua Hedionda wetlands.

KELLY TRAIL (City of Carlsbad)

Follow the Agua Hedionda Creek wetlands bordering Agua Hedionda Lagoon.

Kelly Trail (city of Carlsbad) map

Kelly Trail (city of Carlsbad) map

Driving directions: (Calrlsbad) From I-5, exit at Tamarack Avenue and drive east 1.5 miles to El Camino Real. Make a right turn on El Camino Real and continue 0.2 mile to Kelly Drive, on your right. Drive south 0.4 mile on Kelly Drive to its intersection with Park Drive. Turn right on Park Drive, then park on the street near Laguna Riviera Park. The trailhead is at the southeast corner of the Park/Kelly Drive intersection. Facilities and drinking water are available at Laguna Riviera Park, a short walk from the trailhead. Hiking length: 1.5 miles out-and-back Difficulty: Easy, with little elevation gain/loss over a nearly flat dirt path. The trail is open during daylight hours to hikers, bikers (without motor assists), and leashed dogs.

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