Nature Collective’s newest trail on Lake Drive features art, ocean views

The Lake Drive Trail features artwork by local high school students.

This summer, the Nature Collective celebrated one of its newest land acquisitions and public trails, the Lake Drive Trail in Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

The trail is accessible near the intersection of Sea Village Way and Lake Drive, offering an escape into nature, interpretive artwork by Canyon Crest Academy students and “awe-inspiring” views of the Pacific Ocean, making it a great spot to catch a sunset.

Previously the space was a grove of eucalyptus trees, the invasive species creating a dense canopy all the way across the slope. A Nature Collective donor, the Anthony Cerami + Ann Dunne Foundation for World Peace, made the 77-acre land acquisition possible in September 2017, allowing the Collective to purchase the land and preserve it as open space in perpetuity.

The view from the top of Lake Drive of the Nature Collective's newest land acquisition.
(Karen Billing)

Restoration work began on the site immediately, according to Jennifer Bright, The Nature Collective’s development and communications director. The first task was clearing the eucalyptus and other invasive species which not only take resources away from native plants and animals, but also posed a fire hazard to the community and proved to be quite the breeding ground for mosquitoes.

CalFire Conservation Corps helped clear the larger invasives and an all-women crew from the American Conservation Experience did a lot of the trail work. Native plantings went in, with more landscaping-style plantings and rocks placed close to the trailhead and neighborhood.

“The whole slope was planted by community habitat restoration volunteers,” Bright said. As much as possible the Collective loves to involve the community to be a part of habitat transformations as a way to give back to nature and make it their own, she said.

The plants on the Lake Drive site came from the Collective’s native plant nursery on the Santa Inez Trail in Solana Beach. For the nursery, volunteers collect seeds from within the San Elijo Reserve—over 3,000 plants a year are grown and matured at the nursery and transplanted back into the reserve.

“It’s something very unique that we’re doing,” Bright said, noting that nursery allows the Collective to maintain the integrity of the preserve and the genetics of locally collected seed, and also helps reduce restoration costs by growing their own plants.

On the Lake Drive property there was no defined trail, so the Collective defined and designed the trail, creating switchbacks so it’s not a straight vertical drop into the canyon. Bright said all Nature Collective trails are designed for safety, accessibility and the experience—the Lake Drive Trail faces away from the freeway as much as possible.

The trail lined with sagebrush and aided by ocean breezes has a few steeper portions and is about a 1.3-mile round trip, working its way up to a platform with views that stretch out over the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve.

The top of the trail provides a birds-eye view of the lagoon restoration underway and the Caltrans staging yard against the hillside off Manchester Avenue that will go into the Collective’s hands after the completion of the Interstate-5 widening project by the end of 2021.

After clearing the dense brush on the property, the Collective next took on the task of beautifying a large culvert that had become a bit of an eyesore—the hidden spot also appeared to have been a hang-out, complete with an old couch.

“So much of art is inspired by nature, so we thought let’s bring art into nature and share some of the knowledge behind what is here,” Bright said.

The Collective connected with Canyon Crest Academy’s Envision Arts teacher Jessica Mortensen to involve her high school students in the beautification project, painting not just the culvert but several storm drains on the property.

Canyon Crest Academy students with artwork on the culvert.

“We gave them a list of native and sensitive species and they used their imagination and interpretations to create beautiful pieces of art,” Bright said. “The students were incredibly talented…I was just so impressed by their designs and they were a great bunch of young adults to work with.”

The culvert was the largest art piece, with takes on Mojave yucca, sea dahlia, barrel cactus, gnatcatcher, snakes, orange-throated whiptail lizards--the San Diego pocket mouse also makes several playful appearances. What was once an eyesore is a nice place to sit and enjoy ocean views, Bright said.

Storm drain covers along the trail feature more of the artists’ colorful and unique interpretations of the reserve wildlife.

The students worked on their art throughout April and the Collective hosted a grand opening on June 21, coinciding with the Summer Solstice. The event was an outdoor art exhibit and hike for family and friends, including a “taste of the trail” refreshments like sage-infused brownies and prickly pear lemonade.

A painted storm drain on the Lake Drive Trail.
(Karen Billing)

The Nature Collective, formerly the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, was founded in 1987 by group of 20- year-olds who wanted to do something about the degraded San Elijo Lagoon and make sure that it stayed intact. Bright loves the organization’s history of activism, of the younger generation making things happen, “seeing a vision for the future that others can’t yet see.”

In May, the organization announced its name change to be more inclusive and to reflect the impact that they have beyond the San Elijo Lagoon: participating in habitat restorations from La Jolla to Oceanside and providing educational programs for 3,000 students a year across the county.

Bright said while the Collective’s mission is first to preserve nature, it is equally important for people to be able to connect with and experience nature and to be directly involved in making natural places better.

“When you have the opportunity to connect with and experience nature, you fall in love with it. In love, you want to protect beautiful places like this,” Bright said of special urban pockets like Lake Drive and all of the Collective’s lands. “We want everybody to have access to nature, that’s really important to us.”

To learn more about the Collective, visit

Volunteers at the Lake Drive Trail.