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HIKING: MARIN COUNTY

Three Walks in One Day Along Tomales Bay

October 01, 2000|JOHN McKINNEY

Tomales Bay Trail usually escapes the notice of Point Reyes National Seashore hikers for two reasons: It's one of the few footpaths on the east side of the bay and geographically isolated from most of the land and trails on the Point Reyes Peninsula, and it's overshadowed by the similarly named and better known Tomales Point Trail, which traverses the tule elk range on the northern tip of the peninsula.

Tomales Bay Trail offers glimpses into California's tumultuous geologic history. The bay is a submerged rift of the San Andreas Fault. Hikers walk atop the North American Plate (typified by mellow, rolling grassland) and look out at steep, wooded Inverness Ridge (characteristic terrain of the Pacific Plate).

Twelve miles long and a mile wide, the bay is a habitat for about 100 species of shore- and water birds. The bay's shallow waters (less than 10 feet deep in places along its southern end, where the trail passes) nourish an assortment of clams, crabs and oysters, the latter raised commercially.

During the 1970s, the bay's southeastern shores attracted developers, who wanted to buy the 260-acre Elmer Matinelli Ranch and build a resort, golf course and housing development. The National Park Service bought the property, however, and it has remained relatively pristine since.

Directions to trail head: From the hamlet of Point Reyes Station, head north on California Highway 1 for 1.5 miles to a signed National Park Service parking area on the west (left) side of the highway.

The hike: From the north end of the parking area, join the westbound path and soon pass a large rock outcropping. Narrow trails branch from Tomales Bay Trail, but stick with the main path.

About 0.5 mile out, the trail travels near two small, cattail-fringed ponds patrolled by coots and mallards. Keep an eye out for egrets and redwing blackbirds, frequently sighted near these ponds.

After the second pond, the path ascends a small hill, offers fine bay views, then descends to the marshy edge of Tomales Bay. Here you'll find some old levees and trestles--part of the right of way of the North Pacific Railroad, which extended from Sausalito north to the town of Tomales and then up to the Sonoma County coast. The rail line was used from the 1870s until 1933.

You can hike north along the bay shore for a few hundred yards until a fence and intimidating clumps of poison oak halt the prudent hiker.

Alan Sieroty Beach and Millerton Point: Hikers can gain another intriguing look at Tomales Bay via short paths above Alan Sieroty Beach, an isolated, 180-acre unit of Tomales Bay State Park. The beach was named for a longtime state legislator who was an effective advocate for conservation causes. One conservation cause promoted by the little-known park is aiding the endangered osprey. A short walk from the picnic area, a hiker encounters a specially constructed osprey nesting platform.

Some years ago, ospreys insisted on nesting on power poles and occasionally shorted out power to Inverness. PG&E responded by erecting an osprey-friendly nesting site atop a nearby pole and gently enticing the birds to relocate. The birds soon moved their nests, and today's visitor might just get a glimpse of ospreys in their room with a view.

Large birds of prey often mistaken for eagles, ospreys are common along the shores of the Point Reyes Peninsula and Tomales Bay, but a few decades ago the birds were in big trouble. The osprey population declined precipitously with the use of agricultural pesticides (particularly DDT), but rebounded after DDT was banned in the early '70s. Wildlife biologists follow the osprey's progress closely because the bird's acute sensitivity to pollution makes it an ideal "indicator species," alerting scientists to degradation of the natural world.

Even if you don't spot an osprey, this park is worth a stop for a short walk or a picnic.

Directions to trail head: From the town of Point Reyes Station, take California Highway 1 north 4.5 miles to the state park entrance on the left (west) side of the highway.

The hike: From the parking area and picnic ground, one path veers left over a footbridge to Alan Sieroty Beach.

For a longer stroll, take the other trail (an old farm road) out toward Millerton Point, named for early rancher James Millerton. From a bay-side promontory, you can look across the bay at Heart's Desire Beach and other handsome sand strands as well as the town of Inverness.

Marshall and Marconi: Complete your day by Tomales Bay with a stop at the fishing village of Marshall, on Highway 1, 12 miles north of Point Reyes Station. Here's the place to buy just-harvested oysters and mussels.

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