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Calling in the Wild at Chula Vista Nature Center

<i> The Grimms are free-lance writers/photographers living in Laguna Beach. </i>

Visitors may pet a shark or stingray now at the new Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center.

The impressive $2.25-million facility is in the middle of Sweetwater Marsh, a desolate area at the southeast rim of San Diego Bay.

The center displays how the marshes are important food areas for birds and marine life. Endangered species such as the California least tern and light-footed clapper rails also are exhibited.

Exhibits are the hands-on type. Minuscule creatures that make their home in wetlands are shown in enlarged size in a cup of Sweetwater Soup and a Marsh Mud Pie. In low-level display tanks you can look eye-to-eye at a mud-flat octopus, a California spiny lobster and other marine species.

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The petting pool is popular with youths who can touch a bat ray, a leopard shark or a shovel-nose guitarfish. They also can pet the stingrays, which have had their poisonous tail barbs removed.

In addition, visitors can feed squid to the sharks and rays daily at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Watching the Birds

The center is surrounded by a national wildlife refuge that’s along the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds.

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On the first and third Sundays of every month, visitors can join a three-hour bird walk over high ground in the marsh. About 60 species were seen on a recent outing, from a great blue heron to a very rare red knot. For 9 a.m. walk reservations, call (619) 422-2473. Bring binoculars.

To reach the Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center, exit Interstate 5 south of San Diego at E Street in Chula Vista and drive west. The street dead-ends at Bay Boulevard and a free parking area. Shuttle buses take guests to the center.

A bus runs every half hour beginning at 10:05 a.m., with the last departure at 4:35 p.m. The return trips leave the center at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour. Passengers 17 and younger ride free; others pay 50 cents round trip.

The nature center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday; closed Easter, March 26. Admission free but donations are accepted.

Another parking area and shuttle bus pickup point is just east of the freeway off E Street at the city visitor information center and San Diego Trolley station. Ask at the information center for the Chula Vista brochure that includes a coupon for a free round trip on the shuttle bus. The bus ride to the nature center takes only a few minutes.

Crops and Garbage

The area once grew broccoli and tomatoes, and marigold flowers were raised in greenhouses. It was also used as a garbage dump, and off-road vehicles raced along the levee roads. From 1916 to 1921 the marsh was home to Hercules Powder Co., where kelp was converted to chemicals such as acetone and potash.

Now the area again is a haven for birds; 170 species have been sighted. An outdoor aviary for burrowing owls is planned, as is a loop trail through the marsh for bird watchers.

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The museum building, which won awards for its design, has the look of a Yale boathouse. Artwork by San Diegan Charles Faust decorates the exterior. His pelican sculpture and bas-relief mural of beach sand depicts life in a salt marsh.

Visitors can buy natural history books, research supplies and gifts at the nonprofit nature center, which is operated by the Bayfront Conservancy Trust and the city.

After your visit, drive south along Bay Boulevard where plans call for a $500-million development of hotels and recreation facilities, including an Olympic training center with swimming pools and an ice rink.

Place to Eat

Already lining the road are a Days Inn and three restaurants: Anthony’s Fish Grotto, El Torito and the Soup Exchange. After passing the huge Rohr aerospace plant, turn right at J Street to Chula Vista Marina and eat outdoors at the Dockside Deli and Cafe.

For a look at another estuarine sanctuary and Border Field State Park, rejoin Interstate 5 at J Street. Continue south and exit on Dairy Mart Road two miles before the Mexican border. When that road ends, turn right to continue on Monument Road.

Just beyond a bridge over the Tijuana River you can mount up at Hilltop Stable to view the wetland park and preserve from horseback. It costs $12 per person an hour. When you rent a horse for two hours, the third hour is free. Hilltop Stable is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Information: (619) 428-5441.

After 40 minutes or so in the saddle following Monument Road, enter Border Field State Park, one of the last places in Southern California where horses are permitted on the beach.

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A park road leads to a marble monument erected in 1851 to mark the international border. The road is temporarily closed to cars, but horseback riders and hikers can follow trails in the park, which is part of a 2,531-acre wetland reserve.

Round trip from Los Angeles to Chula Vista is 232 miles.


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