Newport Beach, Irvine's neighbor to the west, is known for many things. Most of those things revolve around the city's immense wealth; rich in an abundance of beaches, mansions, and beautiful people. But one of the city's greatest assets is not widely known by visitors, the Upper Newport Back Bay.
The Back Bay is one of the few remaining natural estuaries in Southern California. Before the mass development of the region, wetlands were as common to the Southern California landscape as bayous are in the South. This estuary, created by San Diego Creek meeting the Pacific Ocean, plays an important role in maintaining the health of the region's coastal ecosystem by serving as a natural water filter, nursery to several animal species, and important stopover for dozens of species of migratory birds. Less than 10% of the region's estuaries remain, making Newport's Back Bay, protected since the 1960's, an especially important part of our landscape.
There are several active ways to explore the Back Bay. Locals love the 10.5 mile Back Bay Loop Trail which is open to hikers, joggers, cyclists, and horseback riders. My family prefers to head out on one of the many spur trails which skirts the waterway, allowing us to enjoy the solitude and scenery. The air is always filled with birds chirping happy tunes and the refreshing scent of that salty sea air.
Non-motorized water craft are allowed in the upper reaches of Newport Bay, making kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding the ideal ways to quietly explore this vibrant ecosystem. You can launch your own vessels for free from Northstar Beach or rent a kayak or canoe from the Newport Aquatics Center. if you really want to get to know the Back Bay, sign up for a 2-hour guided kayak tour with the Newport Bay Conservancy. These tours, which highlight the history and ecology of the Bay, begin at the Newport Aquatics Center. Since our weather is almost always pleasant in sunny Orange County, the tours take place year-round on Saturday and Sunday morning at 10am and welcome children ages 8 and up. The $25 fee per person includes kayak rental.
Don't miss the Peter & Mary Muth Interpretive Center which is so cleverly hidden into the landscape that many visitors didn't even know it is there until they are right on top of it. Gray squirrels, cottontail bunnies, and vibrantly striped lizards will greet you as they scurrying back and forth amongst the bushes. In the distance, you may hear the call of a heron as he makes his approach for landing on the bay's watery runway. Inside this free facility visitors will find exhibits about wetlands, uplands, and estuaries that are designed to interest every age group. Tots are especially excited but the fish swimming in the center's aquariums and the birds "flying" overhead. Preschoolers and elementary-aged kids will enjoy the large classroom which is filled with live animals in terrariums, animal puzzles, kid-friendly microscopes, craft area, and plenty of books. The center offers classes geared towards children 2-8 on Thursdays and Fridays for just $5 per child.
Good Eats: After all that outdoor exploration, you probably will have worked up quite an appetite. The Back Bay Bistro is a great place to enjoy waterfront dining. The patio is pet friendly and the weekend brunch is especially popular.
*Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tracie Hall.