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Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a nature reserve in the city of Huntington Beach, Californiamarker. It is designated by the California Department of Fish and Game to protect a coastal wetland, with its resident threatened and endangered species. "Bolsa Chica" means "little bag" in Spanish, as the area was part of a historic Mexican land grant named Rancho La Bolsa Chicamarker.

About the Reserve

The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve boundaries are Warner Avenue to the north, Seapoint Avenue to the south, Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to the west, and residential development to the east.

There are two small parking lots: the north lot southeast of the intersection of Warner and PCH, and the south lot on PCH across from the entrance to Bolsa Chica State Beachmarker. The north lot contains the Bolsa Chica Interpretive Center. It is the starting point for the Mesa Trail, which leads to the overlook and rest stop at Mesa Point. The south lot is the starting point for the Loop Trail, which crosses a wooden bridge, passes two overlooks, and returns to the parking lot via a sand-dune trail paralleling PCH.

a southerly view toward the footbridge

One of the Reserve's seasonal occupants

Hiking, photography and birdwatching are popular activities at the Reserve. In spring and fall, the Reserve is home to many migratory birds. As many as 321 out of Orange County's 420 bird species have been sighted at the Reserve in the past decade.

There are special regulations in force for the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve:

  • Fishing shall be permitted at designated areas around outer Bolsa Bay only.

  • Pets are prohibited from entering the reserve except when they remain inside a motor vehicle.

Among the wildlife in the Reserve are the shovelnose guitarfish and grey smooth-hound sharks.

The East Garden Grove Wintersburg Channel runs through the Reserve. Beginning in December 2007, flood control improvements were made by the County of Orange to reinforce the levees damaged in the rains of 2005 and protect the wetlands. In addition, the Newport-Inglewood Fault goes through the reserve.


Free public tours are offered at Bolsa Chica and leave from the south parking lot. The first Saturday of each month at 9:00 am, the tour is conducted by the Amigos de Bolsa Chica. The third Sunday of each month at 10am the tour is conducted by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.


The history of Bolsa Chica is a long and varied one. The earliest peoples were the native Indians of California. Archaeologists have found cog stones which date back 8,000 years and are the only surviving relic of the Indian lifestyle. Their exact purpose is unknown, but speculation has centered on religious or astronomical use. Cog stones can be seen at the Bowers Museummarker in Santa Anamarker.

Once Spain colonized California, Spanish officials created vast land grants called ranchos. One such grant, Rancho Los Nietosmarker, was given to Manuel Nieto. After Nieto died, the grant was partitioned in 1834 into five Mexican ranchos including Rancho Las Bolsasmarker. Rancho La Bolsa Chica was separated from Rancho Las Bolsas in 1841. The grant was later owned by Abel Stearns.

Prior to 1899, there had been a natural ocean entrance to the wetlands where the East Garden Grove Wintersburg Channel, then a small stream, is now located. In 1899, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club was formed by a group of wealthy businessmen from Los Angeles and Pasadena. They built a two-story structure on a mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. More significantly, the Gun Club is responsible for damming off of Bolsa Chica from direct tidal flow with the ocean.

It was in July 1920, that the Standard Oil Company entered a lease agreement with the Gun Club Board of Directors that would allow for them to begin oil extraction in between and around the Bolsa Wetlands. This contract specified that the initial bonus of $100,000 and subsequent revenues would be split 50/50 between the Bolsa Chica Gun Club and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. Upon receipt of this money, it was then to be invested into “good, interest-bearing securities” (Board of Directors Meeting Jun 11, 1920).

In January 1921, in order to protect their newly acquired capital, The Gun Club assembled an investigative committee to complete a legal report that assessed the land title’s specifics in respect to protection from outside parties encroaching upon their tide and marshlands for oil drilling. The organization also wished to inquire as to whether they should pursue a specific title that would clearly define their rights in regard to oil drilling.

In the 1940s, it was feared that Japan would attack California. So the U.S. Military constructed two bunkers at Bolsa Chica to defend the coastline. Gun turrets were also mounted on the mesa, but were only ever fired for testing purposes. The larger of the two bunkers was demolished in 1995. The smaller support bunker still exists but is closed off from public access. All that is left of the turrets are their circular frame.[[Image:Panama Mount.jpg|thumb|250px|right|Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is the site of two large concrete Panama style mounts for Fort MacArthur's southernmost batteries.]]

In the 1960s, most of Bolsa Chica was acquired by Signal Landmark and plans for a massive housing development and marina were released. State officials objected, and so in 1970 the developer set aside alongside Pacific Coast Highway to create the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. This action satisfied state officials but not members of the League of Women Voters, who decided to create a new group, Amigos de Bolsa Chica ("Friends of Bolsa Chica"), to save and preserve more of the wetlands. Amigos were founded in 1976, and the 20-year battle to save the wetlands began.

In 1990, the Amigos and the developer, now called Koll Real Estate, entered a joint agreement to create the Bolsa Chica Conservancy. The Conservancy's mission is to educate the public about the importance of wetlands.

The size of Koll's development decreased over the years. In 1992, the Bolsa Chica Land Trust was formed by individuals who thought more of Bolsa Chica should be saved from development than just the wetlands. The upland habitat provided nesting, shelter, and food for egrets, herons, and raptors that also used the wetlands.

In 1997, the Amigos' long-awaited goal of preserving the wetlands was reached when the state of California purchased of Koll's holdings. Restoration would come seven years later at a cost of $147 million.

In November 2000 the California Coastal Commission, which regulates development along the state's coastline, ruled that development had to be limited to the upper half ("upper bench") of the Bolsa Chica mesa because the lower half ("lower bench") was too valuable as habitat. Koll—now called Hearthside Homes—sued. The case was eventually dismissed. The developer contributed to the campaign of bond measure Proposition 50, which included specific language to purchase land at Bolsa Chica. Proposition 50 passed, and the state ended up purchasing of the lower bench, closing escrow in December 2005. Hearthside was free to develop the upper bench, and their 379-unit project (whittled down from the 5,000+ plan of the 1960s) broke ground in 2006.

An additional of uplands still remains in private ownership and is being considered for development. Ongoing hearings are being held with the California Coastal Commission.


  1. This book was published as part of the California State University, Fullerton Oral History Program.

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