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Estero Trail

Point Reyes National Seashore

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May 31st, 2003

7.8 miles
990 vertical feet
Total Time: 5:10

Rating: 7/10

Directions: Take 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge. Exit Sir Francis Drake Boulevard west toward San Anselmo. After 20 miles, you'll reach Olema. Turn right onto Highway 1, then shortly (150 yards) left onto Bear Valley Road. After 2.2 miles, bear left onto Sir Francis Drake. Drive 7.6 miles and turn left at the sign for the Estero Trailhead. Drive another mile along the dirt road to the parking lot.   View Driving Map

If you keep your eyes open, you can see a lot on this hike. Angie, Cammy, Jason, Jean, Jenny, Tom, and I arrived at the trailhead shortly after 11am on a fine spring day, perfect for hiking. The skies were clear but the proximity to the ocean provided lots of cooling breezes. There were about 10 other cars at the parking lot, but we didn't meet many people on the trail. There are pit toilets at the trailhead, but no water, so bring your own.

The trail starts off heading west through grassland. There were wildflowers here and there, but no spectacular displays at this time of year. There were some very nice dark blue irises on display near the beginning of the hike.

Shortly, we came upon a forest of Monterey pine, which apparently is the remains of an old Christmas tree farm. The pines now soar 30-40 feet into the air, so I doubt you can fit this in your living room. This looks like a pleasant place to relax, and indeed there's a bench situated right in the middle of the forest. The trail skirts this first stand of trees, then descends through more grassland before descending through another stand.

Monterey pine forest

Earlier this week, we'd read that a black bear had been sighted at Point Reyes, searching through garbage at the hostel. It was the first bear sighting in Marin county in about 100 years. There was speculation that it had found its way down from Sonoma County, where they still roam. Unfortunately, we didn't see any signs of the bear on this hike.

After making our descent, we found ourselves coming out into the open and crossing a footbridge on the southeast end of Home Bay. It was low tide when we crossed, and we could see mud flats extending far out into the distance. In fact, we could later see egrets standing hundreds of yards west of the bridge.

Crossing the footbridge

Crabs under the bridge

While we were standing on the bridge, we saw our first animals on the hike. They probably would have gone unnoticed, but Jean looked down and saw that there were crabs along the shore under the bridge. I stopped to take several pictures. They're very skittish creatures, and crawled away rapidly as I got closer, so I tried not to disturb them as much as I could avoid it.

View from the bridge

After crossing the bridge, the trail heads up the hill to the right, climbing to provide great views of Home Bay. We climbed steadily past blackberry bushes for about 200 feet of elevation gain. We could now see the egrets and other birds out on the water. We could also see large metallic structures lying on the surface of the water. These are probably the oyster beds of Johnson's Oyster Farm.

View from above

Home Bay

At some point on the trail, there were muddy patches we had to navigate through or around. If do this hike earlier in the year, keep that in mind. It's not much of a problem in May, but I imagine it might be in January or February.

Hawks and turkey vultures soared above us occasionally. The trail veers to the left and begins a steep descent. Near the top of the descent there's a little overlook. I walked out to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the waters of Drake's Estero. I thought maybe we would see sea lions lying on the beach, but we didn't. Jason noticed what at first looked like the tips of sea lion fins poking through the surface of the water. We later realized these were actually the tips of rays as they flapped their big fins. Several rays were clearly visible swimming near the shore, their unmistakeable shapes gliding at the bottom of the water. Unfortunately we were well above them with no easy way to get down, so I don't have any pictures to share with you. You'll just have to witness them for yourself on the trail.

As we crossed a levee next to a small pond at the bottom, we saw these black birds with shoulders colored bright orange/red. They flitted about as we walked past more blackberries. The trail disappears into the short grass at one point, but it's pretty clear where it's headed, so you won't have a problem.

After 2.4 miles, we reached the one and only trail intersection on this hike. The Estero Trail continues to the left. Instead, we continued straight onto the Sunset Beach Trail, which continues for another 1.5 miles to the beach. The trail descends gradually, with views of Drake's Estero on the right and, eventually, views of the ocean in front.

At the end of the descent, we picked our way over some muddy sections and veered to the left, eventually picking up a faint trail. At one point while we were still on the grassy section of the trail, we passed a dead sea lion. We walked past as quickly as we could to avoid the horrible stench.

The trail follows a 15 foot wide beach along Drake's Estero beneath 50 foot high vertical sandstone walls. We walked and walked, but hunger eventually took over and we stopped at a section with some deadwood to sit down to lunch. I didn't think the actual beach was much further, so I continued along with Jason while the others settled down. It turned out we were less than 5 minutes away from the actual beach, but it was quite windy there so we decided to eat lunch at the original resting place, where it was not nearly as windy.

As we ate, we were entertained by the wildlife. There's a large kelp forest extending for a couple hundred feet here. Two or three sea lions occasionally popped their heads out of the water, as if they were checking us out and then hiding. There were also ducks and sea gulls.

High sandstone walls at Sunset Beach

Sandstone walls above the shore

After lunch, we made the short hike to Sunset Beach. Just as we arrived, the group that had been eating lunch there was starting their trek back to the trailhead. We settled down to explore the area to ourselves for a few minutes. The wind constantly blasted sand at us as we took in views of Drake's Bay. A tall bare sandstone wall backed us as we looked out onto the water to see two or three sea lions playing hide and seek with us. In the distance, dozens of the animals lay on Limantour Spit. We didn't hear their distinctive barking, as they all seemed to be taking an afternoon nap.

Head of a sea lion

Sea lions sunning themselves

After enjoying the views and the sea lions, we turned around and started back. The wind seemed to have picked up as we walked back the way we came. I didn't notice too much different as we walked back. One thing I did notice is that, to my eyes, the scenery looks better in morning light than in afternoon light.

Rocky shore heading back on the trail

At the top of a hill we passed is a large, solitary tortured tree. It reminds me of the famous "Lone Cypress," for it sits perched atop a cliff, braving the wind, its limbs twisted in unnatural positions. Now I regret not taking a picture of it. The book I have says it is a eucalyptus tree, but that probably wouldn't be your first guess if you just glanced at it.

On the way back, I stopped at the place where we'd seen the rays. At first I thought it was the wrong place, but I shortly realized that it was the same place, but the tide was now in. I could no longer see the beach, and I didn't see any rays.

As we descended the hill toward the first bridge, I could see that egrets that earlier were standing hundreds of feet further out into the bay, were now forced to move inland with the incoming tide. When we crossed the bridge, I didn't see any crabs.

Back at the bridge

We crossed the bridge, climbed back up through the pine trees, and back to the parking lot. This is a nice spring hike with lots going for it. Perhaps I'll return sometime and make a left turn at the trail intersection to explore the Drake's Head Trail. It's a bit longer, but I'm sure it would be worth it.

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