What: on and off trail beach and coast hiking.
Where: Point Reyes National Seashore.
When: April 2-7 2009 (6 days).
Distance: about 120 miles.
Highlights: great beaches, birds, mammals, scenery; diverse habitats; satisfaction of circumambulation.
There are three publishers of excellent waterproof maps of Point Reyes: Tom Harrison, Trails Illustrated, or Map Adventures. We prefer the one from Map Adventure simply because it marks the bus stops.
It’s critical to have tide data. We use the iPhone apps Shralp Tide for offline access to tide charts.
Public transit serves Bolinas, Inverness, and Point Reyes Station.
The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula by Jules Evans is an excellent book.
Why we went
We love Point Reyes National Seashore and have taken many day hikes and a few overnight trips there. James loves to study maps and create interesting routes, and he was able to put together this novel route that follows the perimeter of the whole peninsula. Finally, the act of circumambulation is a worldwide practice and doing it in a local park we know and love honors that tradition.
Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.
This was a five-star trip. Scenery and wildlife on any trip to Point Reyes are consistently great. In addition there were several aspects of this route that made it special. First, I truly enjoyed walking around all of the arms of Drake’s and Limantour Esteros. Rather than getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible I felt I was immersing myself in this ecologically intact tidal zone. Second, it was fun to be off-trail and dealing with tides; it was not a physically challenging trip, but we weren’t sure in advance when we would be able to stay on the shore and when we would face tidal muck or rock obstacles. Third, there is something emotionally satisfying about circumambulating the whole peninsula rather than visiting just one region. Point Reyes is a special magical place, and I think this route is the best way to take it all in.
This was one of my all time favorite walks. Point Reyes is a magical place. There is so much diversity packed into a compact area: Doug Fir covered ridges, tidal estuaries, big sandy beaches, a fine old lighthouse, herds of Tule Elk, and large numbers of birds. The walking is always satisfying. Doing this trip helped me gain yet a deeper understanding of the place and how it is all put together. I definitely plan to repeat this walk.
Notes for Potential Hikers
Point Reyes is the name of the peninsula bisected from the mainland by the San Andreas Fault. It is also the name of the National Seashore that encompasses most of the peninsula. It is the first significant piece of coast north of the border with Mexico where there is no road hugging the coast. It offers a unique opportunity for Bay Area backpackers to visit a wild coast close to home, and the scenery and ecological values are good enough that we believe this is a worthwhile destination for those who live outside the area.
Our ultimate goal was to hike as much of the perimeter of the peninsula as possible. Most of Point Reyes is public land, so access is not a problem. There are a few places where we deviated from the immediate shore.
- Sir Francis Drake Boulevard runs along the shore of Tomales Bay, but private property blocks access to parts of the shore: we elected to stay on trails on Inverness Ridge.
- At times, we were forced away from the water by high tide, steep cliffs, or impassable rocks. Shoreline accessibility in a number of places varies considerably based on the tides.
- It used to be possible at low tide to walk along the beach from Kelham Beach to Arch Rock, pass through the sea tunnel and ascend to the trail on the south side of Arch Rock; however the arch collapsed in 2015 and this routing is no longer possible. We did not follow the beach on our trip because they tide was too high. The trail that used to give access to the top of the arch is closed as the area is highly unstable and dangerous.
- The route follows the road south from Pearce Point Ranch in the Tomales Point area. It may be possible to go cross-country from the ranch to Kehoe Beach, but there is a high fence around the Tule Elk enclosure and some thick coastal chaparral with abundant Poison Oak. We opted to follow the road rather than try to hike west of the road closer to shore. The road is only busy on weekends.
During parts of the year, some beaches are closed due to the presence of marine mammals, in particular Elephant Seals which sometimes haul out on Point Reyes beaches. Although they look like big slugs, they can be dangerous and giving them space is necessary for both ethical and safety reasons.
Portions of our route are off-trail to avoid using paved roads.
The area is laced with trails, so variations on our route are easy to plan.
Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense.
Point Reyes is a great place to hike all year, except during winter storms that can be very wet and windy. The storms typically last for only a couple of days, and there is often a week or two of fine weather between storms. The maritime influence is strong and temperatures are mild. Point Reyes Lighthouse records the least diurnal and seasonal swings in temperature of any US weather station.
Legal camping is restricted to a half dozen designated back-country campsites. We are generally rigorous about following park regulations, however, on this trip we broke the rules and stealth camped as the campsite locations did not fit our itinerary.
We ate a meal at the Drake’s Beach Cafe which has since closed. We bought a few groceries in Bolinas. There are also shops and restaurants in Point Reyes Station, Olema, Inverness Park, and Inverness.
The walk around the perimeter of Drake’s Estero and Limantour Estero is interesting but long and convoluted. With care, a backpacker could instead cross the mouth of the Estero using a pack-raft. However this would bypass a very interesting part of the walk.
At low tide, Duxbury Reef near Bolinas is one of the best places to explore tide pools on the California coast. We timed our trip to be there during a very low tide.
There are cattle and dairy ranches within the National Seashore boundaries; these are long term leases granted when the Seashore was established in 1962. All these lands are open to the public but do not harass the animals and leave gates as you find them.
Point Reyes trails get the vast majority of their use on weekends. Limantour Beach, the Bear Valley and Mt. Wittenberg area trails, and the coast trail north from Palo Marin are the most popular. The rest of the trail system is much less busy and solitude is not difficult to find.