California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Ecological Reserves: A Wild Time for Visitors

California’s ecological reserves not only protect special species and habitats, but also offer great opportunities for people to get out and enjoy nature with fishing, canoeing, photography, wildlife watching and more

Nature Walks

Nature trails on ecological reserves afford visitors many opportunities to see wildlife. Santa Rosa Plateau, Elkhorn Slough and Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserves have visitor centers where staff and docents can direct or lead visitors to special points of interest. Kiosks at ecological reserves such as Canebrake and Baldwin Lake provide trail information for self-guided nature walks.

Many ecological reserve trails traverse sensitive habitats, winding through wetlands, grasslands and woodlands. Some trails are closed during certain periods of the year to protect sensitive species, so check with the regional California Department of Fish and Wildlife office or the reserve before heading out. Remember the purpose of ecological reserves - protecting special species and habitats - and stay on the trail. This will help to safeguard both you and the sensitive resources. For a close up look, binoculars help bring distant animals and plants into view while minimizing disturbance to wildlife.

Learn Something New

Each ecological reserve holds the potential for visitors to learn something new. At Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitor Center life-like models of small creatures enlarged to gigantic proportions distinguish "The Unseen Slough" exhibit, which provides an up-close and personal view of some often-overlooked mud-dwellers.

At Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, students get to see marine life of the bay at the Back Bay Science Center. Aquaria provide a firsthand look at the fish and other creatures of a coastal tide pool, a sandy bay bottom, and a bay eelgrass bed. Tanks on site also allow for close-up observation of marine creatures captured in the bay.

Capture an Image

A successful photographer captures great images of wildlife by waiting for animals to adjust to his or her presence. Plants and landscapes make interesting subjects too, posing their own unique challenges. Catching a wildflower on film is more difficult than it might seem, especially when there is a breeze, or the lighting is not quite right. Nature photography requires patience, knowledge of the effects of weather and light, knowledge of the subject, and proficiency with your equipment.

Some good places to photograph wildlife include Boden Canyon, with its mixed chaparral, and woodlands of oak and sycamore. Santa Rosa Plateau attracts photographers with its panoramic woodland views and wildflower displays. To capture an image of sandhill cranes, try a guided tour at Woodbridge Ecological Reserve just west of Lodi in the Central Valley for a chance to photograph the birds from a blind.

Fishing and More...

It may surprise some anglers to know that some of California’s ecological reserves are good places to try their luck. Fishing from shore is allowed at most ecological reserves with others, like Peytonia Slough and Redwood Shores, also allowing fishing by boat. Several ecological reserves also allow hunting, including By Day Creek, Dales Lake and San Felipe Creek. Hunters and anglers can find more information about opportunities at particular ecological reserves by contacting CDFW at the number provided. Hunters and anglers must possess a valid hunting or fishing license, abide by general hunting and fishing regulations, and comply with special regulations for each reserve. All CDFW regulations, including those for ecological reserves, can be found online.

Leave no Trace

When visiting California's ecological reserves, remember to pack out what you pack in, and leave behind the treasures you find for others to discover. This will ensure the ecological reserves you visit will continue to protect sensitive species and habitats, and be there for your enjoyment and the enjoyment of others in years to come.

Wildlife Watching Tips

Use the Right Tools: A field guide, a pair of binoculars and a good pair of shoes are a good start.

Watch at Dawn and Dusk: This is the time when most wildlife species are active enough to view.

Keep your Distance: Stay on established trails and maintain a distance which prevents disturbance of wildlife.

Stay Quiet: Move slowly and quietly to increase your chances of viewing wildlife, and to avoid stressing the animals you wish to watch.

Do Not Feed Wildlife: There is plenty of food available in the wild. Human food can cause digestive problems, provide improper nutrition, and even kill an animal.

This information on this page appeared as an Outdoor California article by Kari Lewis. Colleen Flannery (LFB), Patricia Perkins (R2), Bruce Forman (R2), Becky Christensen (Elkhorn Slough), Steve Juarez (R4), and Terri Stewart (R5) also contributed. It has since been updated to reflect recent changes.