Dan and Hannah Hike the Coastal Trail at Point Reyes


Though the rain pours throughout the morning at our Quality Inn in Petaluma, CA, 23 miles to our southwest on the Pacific Ocean the forecast is for clear skies at Point Reyes National Seashore.  By 11A, we take to the winding Point Reyes/Petaluma Road through farm country so green are the valleys that you would think we are Hanny and Danny O’Rothermel of the Old Sod.

CT 1 D at sisn

The San Andreas Fault bisects Point Reyes National Park; the floating molten crusts of the North American Plate rumble west against the Pacific Plate which is moving and grooving north.  That collision caused the Big One in San Francisco in 1906 when the ground lurched 20’ in less than one minute.  The Big Two is acoming.  100 years?  1oo days?

cam map of park

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend in our rearview mirrors, we have the park to ourselves this Tuesday.  The winter is the quiet off-season here as we drive, passing just a car or two down Limantour Road, to the Coastal Trail trailhead at the Point Reyes Hostel.  On their website they explain their no Wi-Fi decision.  “We are a small, intimate hostel in a quiet natural setting where we try to encourage interaction between our guests in the common spaces we have. It is the perfect place to truly “unplug” (there is also no cell phone service around the hostel).”

CT 1A H at C

Selecting the five mile hiking loop beginning at the Coastal Trail, we have a wide soggy fire road to the ocean.   By choosing shorter five mile hikes when we hike, we have the opportunity to freelance; we can explore the beach further or take an alternate trail up a nearby cliff or linger with folks we meet on the trail without a time or mileage deadline calling us.

CT 1B H on wet trail CT

Level and wide enough for mountain bikers and hikers, the Coastal Trail, thanks to El Nino, has puddles and more puddles due to last night’s soaking rain.  At times we slop into the trail side grass and brush to avoid the swamped trail.  My low cut hiking shoes get soaked immediately while Hannah’s high cut boots keep her dry.  Fortunately, I am wearing wool blend socks that wick dry quickly.

CT 1C H on sandy trail to beach

Nearly two miles of hiking with very little elevation gain, we take an unmarked side trail to the beach.  Here, the wide beach stretches for miles and we don’t see a soul.  Usually, we are not fans of beach walking – you know, the slopiness of the beach to the water and the mushy sand of taking two steps to move one step forward.  Ah, but this California beach is different, being relatively level with hard packed sand near the water.


CT 2A H at beachJust this morning I see on the local news a man being rescued after he came to a beach to take a picture and all of sudden the water cut him off from behind.  That could be me as I search for the right picture to complement my hiking blog.


CT 2B sandy beachAs we walk south on the beach, the waves crash to our right as the tide pushes inland.  Looking behind us, we see nearly impregnable walls of what looks like calcified sandstone.  The beach is wide at this point and we are always aware where we could exit if the tide threatened.

CT 3 river divides beach

Due to El Nino, streams of water from the mountains bisect the beach making it nearly impassable, without slogging through a foot of water or more, to continue our beach walk.  Heading inland along the river bed, we eventually find the bridge across the storm-driven stream.

CT 4 D at end of beach

Hiking back to the beach, we have an afternoon of sandy nirvana.   Eventually, we bushwhack along a narrow trail of grass up to the bluffs above the beach.  Taking to the Fire Lane back to the trailhead, we have streams of water flowing down the trail as we easily step to the right or the left to avoid them.

CT 6E lake on trail

After a mile of the Fire Lane (really a trail), we head for the trailhead on the more level Laguna Trail.  More level means the rains of the past month pool in many spots on the trail; that includes 50 foot stretches where the thick gorse on either side of the trail means we have no choice but to slop through the water.

CT 5A H above the beach

Another sweet hiking day in California.  With one more day on the trail, we are off to the Matt Davis Trail 15 miles to our south at the Mount Tamalpais State Park tomorrow, all just 35 minutes from the City by the Bay.   Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but mine is here with Hannah on the trails of the Pacific coast.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Tomales Point Trail at Point Reyes National Seashore

Scott and Tree's lighthouse at Point Arena

Scott and Tree’s lighthouse at Point Arena

Over the years, I’ve learned I don’t mess with Father Time or Mother Nature.  I now can add a third – El Nino.  Let me explain.   To celebrate the last days of our January fortnight in California, we plan to meet up with our friends Scott and Tree near Mendocino, CA, some 150 miles north of San Francisco.

Having slept and breakfasted well at the Quality Inn here in Petaluma, we are psyched for our drive north of 100+ miles on the Pacific Coast Highway this Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday morning.

Mendocino County

Mendocino County

Then I get a text from Scott with news that the Pacific Coast Highway, the main coastal artery north of San Francisco, has closed just south of their house due to flooding from the rains of El Nino.  What to do?  Go, delay, stay?  My first instinct is to drive north on the PCH right after breakfast, bluff hike just south of their place in Gualala, and hope the water recedes and the road opens.   We can certainly find a motel if the flooding persists.

tom flooded highway

Thirty minutes later, checking the road conditions online myself , I learn that now, to the north of Tree and
Scott, Route 128, a major access highway to the interior from the coast, is also closed due to flooding.  And with that water over the road our decision is made.

With heavy rain forecasted for tomorrow, it’s just possible that, though we may get to their house, we may get trapped there if the water levels rise again.  Needing to be in San Francisco Wednesday night for our Thursday 7A flight to Boston, we opt to stay put.


Bummed that we don’t get to hang with Scott and Tree, we look to the southwest for our hiking adventure for the day – Point Reyes National Seashore.  Just 23 miles from our motel, the Bear Valley Visitor Center has a ranger who suggests the Tomales Point Trail through the Tule Elk Preserve.

tom 1 sign to trail

With a 17 mile, 30 minute drive north on the Sir Francis Drake Highway, we end up at the Pierce Point Ranch.  Finding the trail hard packed dirt softened by last night’s rain, we easily circumvent the puddles and hike these rolling California hills.

High above the Pacific

High above the Pacific

High above the Pacific Ocean, we see the brilliant white of crashing waves.  The hillside is lush, rich green from the past two months of rain.  It must be what Ireland is like – green without end, overcast from dawn to dusk, and about to rain at any time.  With no desire to visit the Emerald Island, Hannah says, This is as close to Ireland as I need to be.


tom 3 h on trail above ocean

The trail, once an old farm lane, gently rises and falls throughout the hilly landscape.   And soon we see our first elk, males with a full rack.   Looking around and seeing not a tree anywhere, I wonder what we would do if they just decided they didn’t want to share their turf with us.  They have quite the home field advantage.

Tule Elk

Tule Elk

The reintroduction of the Tule Elk is a triumph for park officials.  Hunting during the Gold Rush of the 1850s nearly wiped out the elk.  Eventually protected and supported, 3700 roam the park today.

As it turns out, the elk just check us out and continue to dip down into the grass for lunch or take an afternoon siesta twenty yards from the trail.  The below video gives you an idea how close we are to these majestic animals.

The turn around grove in the distance

Our three mile turn around grove in the distance

Though the trail is 4.7 miles to the end, the National Park Service maintains only the first three miles.  Herds of elk from ten to thirty dot the landscape as we mellow ridge hike between the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay.

tom 6 d above ocean

Even at 2P, with sunset at 520P, families and couples keep coming.  It’s joyous on this holiday Monday; we ask others to take our picture and we offer to take theirs.   Nearly two and half hours later after seven miles of hiking, we return to the trailhead at the Pierce Point Ranch in light mist that has rain in its heart.

tom 7 mcclures beach sign

Before we head back to Petaluma for the night, we take the half mile trail to McClures Beach.  Though swimming is not allowed, the sandy beach welcomes families and us New Englanders today.  And then the first of two serendipitous encounters happens.  We meet the delightful world travelers Joan and PJ.

tom pj and joan

PJ and Joan six weeks later in Tucson as we cross paths once more

Learning of their adventures as snow birds in California, Arizona, and New Zealand, we in turn fill them in on our family and our plans to spend a month in California next winter.   I appreciate their interest, which is indeed quite rare on the trail.  Many hikers, it seems, just want to tell their story.  Since they are staying in Tucson for the winter and we are going to Tucson in six weeks, we plan to meet up.

The trail to McClures Beach

The trail to McClures Beach

Not two hundred feet later, I see a man hiking from the beach wearing a Cornell shirt (Cornell is in Ithaca, NY).  As he approaches, I lift my black Maine sweatshirt to reveal my white hiking Ithaca shirt.  Learning of his daughter at Cornell, we mention our son Will’s job at Ithaca College on the next hill there in central New York.  Again, we have an interaction of mutual interest with Craig.  A real conversation, not just a monologue that eventually just causes me to look for an escape route from the verbal onslaught.

McClures Beach

McClures Beach

With good vibes, Craig suggests the Matt Davis Trail at Mount Tamalpais State Park down the road in Stinson Beach.  In two weeks, I’ll report from that trail.

Though the elk are cool (and respectful of our space and we theirs), the back and forth with these three brightens the overcast and reminds us how it’s the good people that shine light on our days in California.

Dan and Hannah Hike at Point Reyes near San Francisco, California

The snow trench in front of our house in Maine

The snow trench in front of our house in Maine

As we awake in northern California, thirty inches of snow has fallen in Seacoast Maine this late January day. Though the snow has stopped, life in New England has come to a standstill. Crawling highway traffic; backroads under siege; driveways waiting, and waiting some more to be cleared. It turns out that this blockbuster of a storm was just the first of a string of snowstorms during the epic winter of 2015; there will be more snow than we have ever seen in 33 years living on Chases Pond Road.

Reyes map of coast

But that’s a challenge for tomorrow, for today we are more than 3000 miles away in California. Leaving Tree and Scott’s place after five days together, we drive south on the oceanside of the Pacific Coast Highway with its steep cliffs plunging hundreds of feet below us. Riding shotgun, I lean Hannah’s way as she drives the lofty serpentine roads; the white line is all there is to the shoulder on my side.

The interfaith chapel just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Sea Ranch, CA

The interfaith chapel just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Sea Ranch, CA

As we pass first through Sea Ranch and on to Jenner, Bodega Bay, and then Tomales on our last day in California, we are heading for Point Reyes National Seashore, some 45 miles north of San Francisco on the Pacific Ocean. Once down from where eagles fly, we mellow out as it takes us two hours to go 70 minutes on this section of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Reyes map of parkWith our red-eye flight at 11P from San Francisco to Boston still on schedule, we drive through the small town of Point Reyes Station in the late morning. Taking a sharp right at the Bear Valley Inn B&B at Bear Valley Road, we motor an easy half mile to the visitor center.

Reyes2 - Bear Valley Trail signThere the ranger asks what we are looking for; they have 150 miles of trails. The Dan and Hannah prescription: Sunshine and three hours of hiking! The most popular trail to the Pacific Ocean is the Bear Valley Trail. The ranger provides a fabulous trail map with distances to the tenth of a mile.  Being within an hour of San Francisco, Point Reyes gets two and a half million visitors each year.

The Bear Valley trail begins

The Bear Valley trail begins

The Bear Valley Trail begins as a gently rising fire road on this mid-week Wednesday in the sunny 60s. To our right, Morgan horses are sheltered and trained to patrol the park. Wide enough for four to walk abreast, the trail has couples with young children, women out for an afternoon walk, and retired couples.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake

1906 San Francisco Earthquake

We are crossing the San Andreas Fault where the earth’s crust is “floating on a sea of molten rock.”   In 1906 the underlying rock moved 20 feet in less than a minute which caused massive devastation in San Francisco. It could happen again in 30 minutes or 300 years. Fortunately, it did not happen today.

VCU Ram on his last day on the coast of California

VCU Ram on his last day on the coast of California

The warm sun is just the sendoff we savor before returning to the snowy East. Just two-tenths of a mile into the hike, the trail turns shady, forest covered. Putting on our sweatshirts, we climb some 400 feet of elevation gain through the coastal mountains; beside us is a west flowing trail stream bracketed by ferns.

Spotting a young couple seeming to be struggling with the backpack for their ten month old, we are impressed that they are out miles from the visitor center this afternoon with their child. We ask if they need any help, but they just smile and thank us.

Bike rack here half way to the Pacific?

Bike rack here half way to the Pacific?

Coming across this bicycle rack two miles into the trail, we wonder what gives.  What’s a bicycle rack out of New Jersey in the 1950s doing here?   It takes me a while to make sense of this anomaly.  Any idea why this bike rack is two miles into the wilderness?  See below.

The coastal trail within a half mile of the ocean

The coastal trail within a half mile of the ocean

The trail map shows we have two and a half miles to Arch Rock now that we summit at the Divide Meadows. One last walk along the beach sounds pretty sweet.   The gently rising trail means we can keep up a three mph pace heading to the ocean. Our hike only offers glimpses of sunshine through a Douglas fir forest, but it’s no sacrifice to be in shorts in dappled sun rather than be housebound due to the blizzard of 2015.

Northern coastline as we stand atop Arch Rock

Northern coastline as we stand atop Arch Rock

With Arch Rock on the Pacific in sight, we realize that the perch is 70 feet above the water, which makes the beach inaccessible from the trail. Checking out the coastline north and south from Arch Rock, we learn that the Arch itself is below us as we stand on the shoreline mesa.

To the south from Arch Rock

To the south from Arch Rock

There is a descending steep rocky trail to the river bed rocks and the arch. On the climb down, we grab the rocks to steady ourselves as we slip slide down to the creek. Through the arch we can see the ocean, but there is no way we can navigate these rocks through a very cold mountain stream. We lunch on our pb&js and dismiss the thought of any more rock scrambling.

As we climb out we see the couple with the bambino, not fifteen minutes behind us. We approach and say how impressed we are with their hiking with a baby. They smile. We ask where they are from.  It turns out it’s Switzerland.   This little hike is small potatoes compared to other alpine hikes that they have done before with their son.

As we head for the trailhead, we know that the snow is not going away and we are just going to have deal with it. Thanks to Nolan, we are able to drive into our driveway after the red-eye. Two days later, all is right in snowy New England world as we spend the morning with Owen and Max while Molly and Tip go out to breakfast.

The reason there is a bike rack in the wilderness

The reason there is a bike rack in the wilderness

And the bike rack?  Trail bike riding is only allowed to a certain point. After that, bikes are prohibited; hence the 1950s Radburn (NJ) School bike rack.

Fissure at Arch Rock six weeks after we hiked to this promontory point

Fissure at Arch Rock six weeks after we hiked to this promontory point

Since our visit in late January 2015, tragedy struck at the Arch Rock of Point Reyes.

This recent hoto provided by Point Reyes National Seashore shows a fissure that has opened up atop Arch Rock less than two months after our trek there. One person died and another needed to be treated for life-threatening injuries after the bluff at the end of a popular hiking trail collapsed on Saturday, March 21, 2015. Two visitors were standing on the Arch Rock lookout point just before 6 p.m. when the bluff gave way. The pair fell about 70 feet and were covered with rocks and debris. One of the hikers was pronounced dead at the scene. The other was airlifted to a hospital. (AP Photo/Point Reyes National Seashore)

We hiked this trail and stood atop Arch Rock on January 28, 2015.   The trail is no longer open to Arch Rock.

Click on this this link or copy and paste it to read more about the fatal rockslide.      http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3703372-181/hiker-killed-in-point-reyes