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.