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Sweetwater River Area

Please note: While the areas described in this narrative were unaffected, some central portions of this preserve were destroyed by the 2007 Harris Fire.  Click here for photos.

Facilities:  There's a porta potty at the Steele Bridge and restrooms at Sweetwater Regional Park.

Directions: To start at the east end of the area, take I-8 east to I-805 south, and take the highway 94 eastbound exit.  Follow 94 to Spring Valley where 94 splits off from highway 125, and continue on 94 to the end of the freeway.  Follow 94 as it makes a right turn at the first light past Jamacha Blvd., and shortly after the next light turn right on Singer Lane.  Make an immediate left into the parking area for the trailhead. 

The Sweetwater River area covers a variety of habitats over several miles, from highway 94 in Rancho San Diego westward to I-805 in Bonita, and includes portions of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, Sweetwater Regional Park, and the Sweetwater Open Space Preserve.  Several endangered species can be found along this route, including Least Bell's Vireos and California Gnatcatcher.  Since the staging areas for the OSP don't normally open till 9:30, I prefer starting at the east end described above, at the famous "Steele Bridge", built in 1927 and now an historical landmark.

The "Steele Bridge"    Due to transient activity in this area, it is highly recommended that you bird with a buddy here.  There's a pretty good dip in the trail where it crosses a creek and you have to hitch up the bank a little; otherwise the trail is fairly flat.  Heading across the old bridge you'll see how the willow riparian woodland along the river has taken over, providing good habitat for Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Bell's Vireos, Yellow Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Yellow-breasted Chats in summer; Yellow-rumped Warblers, Hermit Thrushes, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets in winter; and Hutton's Vireos, Downy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and American and Lesser Goldfinches year-round.  Look for migrants such as Western Wood Pewee and warblers other times of the year.  Continue on the old road until just before it starts to veer left, and you'll see an opening in the boulders on your right where you can access the main trail.  It can be confusing along here, but I generally follow the wide trail that parallels the power lines.  This will take you along some sage scrub that can be good for Western Scrub Jay, Bushtit, and both California and Spotted Towhees year-round; Ash-throated Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting in summer; and sparrows in winter (Song and Rufous-crowned occur year-round).  The trail narrows and heads down into the woodland to cross the aforementioned creekbed, then continues out into the open again and shortly comes to an intersection; one could easily make an all-day A-B type hike by going straight and theoretically continuing all the way to the west-end  staging area of the OSP near I-805 (click here for a map of the area), but for the short loop, I turn left at the intersection and head back through the grasslands towards the road.  This can be a good place for Red-shouldered Hawks yelling in the woods or White-tailed Kites hovering overhead.  Surprisingly, Oak Titmice can sometimes be found in here!  The sage scrub can have California Gnatcatcher as well as Bewick's and House Wrens.  Other chaparral specialties such as California Quail, California Thrasher, and Wrentit are possible, but not numerous (beware that the chats can sometimes utter a very thrasher-like chuck).  The trail crosses another creekbed, then turns north and parallels highway 94, directing you back to the Steele Bridge (it actually is named after someone named Steele...)  Some folks like to hike the other side of the river by accessing a wide trail that begins up Singer Lane past the Water Authority buildings, but this loop gets you into the habitat faster.

Willows taking over the Steele Bridge

Scenes along the trail

Heading back towards the highway

Morrison Pond   Note that, while usually dry, there are a couple of spots where the trail crosses the river, and when flooded will block passage to the back side of the trail (unless you happen to be wearing your wellies)!  Again, mostly flat, but there's a good dip at one point, and the "Blue Heron Trail" has some humps more conducive to mountain bikers than hikers....  On your route west, Sweetwater Reservoir is actually closer as the crow flies, but due to the highway 125 construction, "you can't get there from here" as they say, so you'll actually hit this area first.  Return to highway 94 the way you came, making a left out of Singer and then another left at the "T", but instead of continuing on to the freeway, turn left on Jamacha Blvd. (note that Jamacha Road turns right at the "T"; you don't want that!)  Follow Jamacha Blvd. about four miles or so (you'll get tantalizing glimpses of the reservoir, but unfortunately there are no access points on the north side) to the junction of highway 54, and head west.  Take the Briarwood Street exit, and turn right at the light.  Follow Briarwood to where it ends at Sweetwater Road, and turn left (you'll see signs for Sweetwater OSP).  After making the left, the staging area for the park will be almost immediately on your right (even though it doesn't technically open until 9:30, they very often open the gates before then). 

This is another area where it's easy to get turned around on the many trails, but if you follow the stone-lined trail from the parking lot, it will take you to Morrison Pond, a nice little fresh-water pond where you may find Common Moorhen along with the Coots, Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue, Black-crowned Night and Green Herons, and Pied-billed Grebes as well as Belted Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, and other expected riparian songbirds.  Least Bitterns can sometimes be heard cackling from the reeds, and in winter look for Ring-necked Ducks.  You can follow the trail to the right around the pond and into the wooded area, where there's a bit of a drop-off to an "artificially rocky" trail (which is apparently part of an old dam; this is one of the spots that can flood).  This "T"s with the wider "Blue Heron Trail", where taking a left will take you along the back side of the pond and give you an overview of the area to the south.  Hummingbirds tend to like this area; Anna's is the default hummingbird, but Costa's and Black-chinned (the latter in summer) are also possible, as well as Selasphorus hummingbirds in migration.  This tends to be a good spot for Bushtits and Bewick's Wrens as well.  Take a left at the next intersection (watch for the yellow-topped brown post), which will take you back into the thick willow woodland and eventually to a wide open staging area where the parking lot is visible.  In summer these woods can be thick with Yellow Warblers, with lesser numbers of Yellow-breasted Chats, Hutton's and Bell's Vireos, Song Sparrows, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Common Yellowthroats In the more disturbed areas near the trailhead all three goldfinches are possible, but Lesser is the most common; look for flocks of White-crowned Sparrows here in winter, along with possible Fox Sparrows skulking in the bushes.  This may be your best bet for Cedar Waxwing in winter and Hooded Oriole in summer as well, as they tend to like more park-like areas.

Trail to Morrison Pond

The Lake

One of the "usually dry" river crossings...

"Blue Heron Trail" along the back side of the lake

Sweetwater County Park    from the campground day use area (there's a pretty good slope heading down to the reservoir, but if you want to skip that part you can still scope the lake from a little knoll just before the drop-off), Saturday to Monday when you can drive right up to the lake.  From the Morrison Pond staging area, turn right onto Sweetwater and follow it to the light, where you'll turn right on Bonita.  At the next light, turn left onto San Miguel, and follow this road for almost a mile to the entrance to the county park on your left (fee for day use).  Park in the day use area, and walk past the entrance kiosk to the trailhead (follow the "fishing access" signs).  This is one trail where it's useful to drag your scope along, as birds on the lake can be distant.  Going through the grasslands at first could bag you Western Meadowlarks, Say's Phoebes, and Cassin's Kingbirds year-round; American Pipits and Horned Larks in winter, and Western Kingbird and perhaps Grasshopper Sparrows in summer.  The lake soon comes into view, and almost always has several Eared and Western Grebes and smaller numbers of Clark's.  Although normally very rare inland, Brown Pelicans are regular here as well as Western Gulls.  At the bottom of the hill you can check for herons, ibis, and shorebirds around the shallow arm; watch also for swifts and swallows feeding over the water, as well as various ducks and gulls in winter.  Watch overhead for the resident Osprey and for Northern Harriers cruising the open area (both Peregrine Falcon and Merlin are possible, but rare).  Again, the ambitious hiker can walk all the way to the Steele Bridge from here (about four miles one way), and some birds such as the Coastal Cactus Wren are easier to find by doing just that. 

Trailhead at Sweetwater CP (actually part of the California Riding & Hiking Trail)

Sweetwater Reservoir from the "knoll"

Inlet at lake level

Sweetwater OSP - West End (River Bottom Trail)   Although I include this trail in the whole package, I've only hiked it twice as almost every time I've pulled in the staging area there have been "interesting" people parked there, so to be on the safe side, it might be prudent to bird this area with a partner.  From the county park, retrace your way to Bonita Road and go straight at the light.  Follow this road through Bonita; you may want to swing in the parking area at the little park at the head of Otay Lake Road to check the feeding frenzy for blackbirds, gulls, and ducks other than the domestic type.  Continue west towards the 805 freeway; watch for a driving range on your right, and just before the freeway you'll see a little flower shop on the right; turn right here for the staging area for the west end trailhead.  It looks like they're currently constructing a paved hiking/biking trail that swings to the left, which takes you under Bonita Plaza Road (beyond this point the trail isn't very productive).  Going right (south) gives you more access to the riparian area, although they're also doing major trail construction along this stretch as well.  You should probably expect many of the same birds found along the Morrison Pond portion of the preserve.

West end staging area

River Bottom Trail heading south

Personal Checklist  ●=small numbers  █ = large numbers (10+) 

Please keep in mind that these lists are NOT comprehensive, and that some months may have had poor overall coverage. 

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Eared Grebe                  
Pied-billed Grebe          
Western Grebe  
Clark's Grebe        
Brown Pelican              
Double-crested Cormorant            
Least Bittern                      
Great Blue Heron                
Great Egret          
Snowy Egret                
Green Heron                  
Black-crowned Night Heron              
White-faced Ibis                      
Mallard            
Gadwall                
Northern Pintail                      
Green-winged Teal                      
American Wigeon                      
Northern Shoveler                
Ring-necked Duck                      
Bufflehead                      
Ruddy Duck                
Turkey Vulture                  
Northern Harrier                  
White-tailed Kite                  
Sharp-shinned Hawk                    
Cooper's Hawk                
Red-shouldered Hawk            
Red-tailed Hawk              
Osprey                    
Merlin                      
American Kestrel                  
Peregrine Falcon                      
California Quail                      
Common Moorhen                
American Coot        
Killdeer              
American Avocet                      
Black-necked Stilt                      
Spotted Sandpiper                      
Western Sandpiper                      
Least Sandpiper                  
Western Gull          
California Gull                    
Ring-billed Gull                    
Bonaparte's Gull                    
Caspian Tern                    
Forster's Tern                  
Mourning Dove
Rock Pigeon          
Vaux's Swift                      
White-throated Swift                  
Anna's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird                      
Black-chinned Hummingbird                      
Allen's Hummingbird                      
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Belted Kingfisher              
Northern Flicker                    
Nuttall's Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker              
Ash-throated Flycatcher                
Black Phoebe
Say's Phoebe      
Pacific-slope Flycatcher              
Western Wood Pewee                      
Cassin's Kingbird        
Western Kingbird                      
Bell's Vireo              
Hutton's Vireo          
American Crow  
Common Raven    
Western Scrub Jay
Horned Lark                      
Northern Rough-winged Swallow            
Violet-green Swallow                      
Tree Swallow              
Cliff Swallow                
Barn Swallow                      
Oak Titmouse                
Bushtit    
House Wren      
Marsh Wren                      
Bewick's Wren  
Cactus Wren                      
Wrentit            
Ruby-crowned Kinglet            
California Gnatcatcher                    
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher            
Western Bluebird                      
Hermit Thrush                  
Northern Mockingbird      
California Thrasher          
European Starling          
American Pipit              
Phainopepla                      
Cedar Waxwing                      
Orange-crowned Warbler        
Yellow Warbler              
Yellow-rumped Warbler          
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Townsend's Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler                      
Yellow-breasted Chat                  
Black-headed Grosbeak                
Blue Grosbeak                  
Lazuli Bunting                      
Spotted Towhee    
California Towhee
Rufous-crowned Sparrow                  
Grasshopper Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow            
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow                      
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow                    
Western Meadowlark            
Brown-headed Cowbird                    
Red-winged Blackbird                    
Brewer's Blackbird                    
Bullock's Oriole                      
Hooded Oriole                    
Lawrence's Goldfinch                      
Lesser Goldfinch    
American Goldfinch          
House Finch
House Sparrow                    

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