Upper Otay Lake
I’ve debated, over the years, writing an entry about Upper Otay Lake. One reason is it’s not a real long hike, only a couple of miles if you do a loop around the lake, another reason is suburban Chula Vista is creeping closer to lake, and the hills to the west of the lake are crowned by a row of mcmansions. To be fair, if you’re looking at what you’re supposed to be looking at – the flora, fauna, and where you’re walking – you wouldn’t even know they were there. A third reason is, access permission on the eastern side of the lake is dubious at best. You can, obviously, walk the loop in either clockwise, or counterclockwise directions. If you walk clockwise, you won’t know you’ve trespassed until you’re no longer trespassing. If you do the opposite, the first thing you see is a brawny, yellow, metal gate, with enormous no-trespassing signs on it. That said, the entire loop is very popular with hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and nature gawkers.
Upper Otay is part of the Sweetwater Authority’s reservoir system. It is easily the smallest in the system. It’s a renowned fishing lake as well, and home to one of the most successful Florida-strain largemouth bass breeding programs in the West. Unlike many lakes in the county, Upper Otay is a catch-and-release-only lake, and artificial lures with barbless hooks are the law. It’s also a zero-contact lake, it can only be fished from shore, waded, or from a float tube. No contact with skin allowed, waders must be worn in the lake. No dogs within 50 feet of the shoreline (though, while struggling into my waders on more than one occasion folks have pulled into the parking lot, got out, flung a tennis ball into the lake and a large lab has bound in after it).
This is the part of Chula Vista I roamed as a child. We rode our bmx bikes out here, then our 10-speeds to Lower Otay to try to catch fish, eventually our mountain bikes. My teachers marched us through these hills and taught about the plants and animals. The sights, sounds, and smells take me right back to those days whenever I am out there. When I was in high school, kids would come to the dam and leap from it into the water. Now it has a big notch cut into it, and is covered in graffiti. Covered.
For the most part, parking pretty obvious. You park at a small dirt lot on the edge of Otay Lakes Road. If it’s a Saturday, Sunday or Wednesday the gate should be open and you can drive up the hill and park right next to the lake. That’s not as great as it sounds, as it makes the loop a little more complicated. I recommend parking by the road. But if you’re just out for some bird watching, or a casual walk, parking at the lake is fine.
Speaking of bird watching… Upper Otay is one of the better bird-watching spots in the county, and not all that renowned for it either. If you can get a float tube and waders, you can see an incredible variety of birds, from American Coots, Great Blue Herons, Least Bitterns, I’ve even seen Purple Gallinule. All sort of ducks, and gulls use the lake, as well as Ospreys. The water is, for the most part, walled off from view by reeds, trees and bushes – until you get to the higher, eastern shore. The trail around the lake will reveal a large variety of birds as well. Red-wing Blackbirds, Grackles, Black Phoebes, are all common, as are American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Crows and Turkey Vultures. In fact this afternoon I saw a Northern Flicker, a type of woodpecker, I’d never seen there before.
Once parked, head up the weathered asphalt road, and when you get to the top go left, and follow the road down towards the fishermen’s parking lot. Ignore the iron ranger, only fishers need to pay. The road continues left, and around the lake. When you make it all the way to the northern end, there will appear a couple faint trails heading over the saddle, east. The one close to the prominent hill will take you to the correct place to cross. Don’t worry too much about picking the wrong trail, once you crest the saddle, it will be obvious, by the trail on the opposite hillside where the crossing is. After you’ve successfully crossed the creek(bed), follow the trail right, contouring the hillside back towards the road. A lot of the nicer views of the lake will be on this section of trail. A camera and/or binoculars are a must for the birders. If you’re more inclined towards flora, this is a great example of coastal sage scrub, and the spring blooms can be quite incredible.
There are also a few geocaches along this loop, and winter is a good time to avoid surprising any dangerous snakes. Upper Otay Lake is a tiny gem in the encroaching sea of suburbia creeping west.
The map below is from a geocaching trip, which why there is so much meandering.