8.5 mile out and back hike along the rim of Drakes Estero.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 8.5 mile out and back hike is moderate.
Trailhead elevation is about 140 feet. The featured hike descends easily
for about 1 mile, then climbs at a moderate-steep grade, descends, climbs,
descends (continuing at the same moderate-steep grade), plateaus at about
170 feet, then gently drops to sea level before backtracking to the trailhead.
Total elevation change is about 600 feet. If the trails are muddy, it can
be difficult to navigate the hills, and if it's windy and cold, you'll fight
the wind for purchase.
Full sun except for one pocket of shaded woods.
Can be very muddy in winter and early spring. Summer and autumn are quite
From US 101 in Marin County, exit Sir Francis Drake/San Anselmo. Drive west
on Sir Francis Drake about 20 miles, to the junction with CA 1, turn right,
drive 0.1 mile, and then turn left onto Bear Valley Road. After about 2
miles, Bear Valley Road ends at Sir Francis Drake; turn left. Continue on
Sir Francis Drake about 7.5 more miles, and turn left at the sign "Estero
Trail." Drive slowly (there
may be cows on this narrow road) about 1 more mile to the trailhead
on the right side of the road.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Pay phone, stores, and restaurants back on Sir Francis Drake in Inverness.
Gas in Point Reyes Station. There are overnight accommodations available
on the eastern fringes of the park, including a handful of motels in Inverness,
and numerous bed and breakfasts just off Sir Francis Drake. Point Reyes
has several hike-in campgrounds -- inquire at the Point Reyes Ranger Station
in Bear Valley, or read more about the options here.
No car camping in the park. Point Reyes Hostel, off Limantour Road, is an
inexpensive lodging option. Read my page describing Point Reyes hikes, accommodations, food, and more.
Parking for about 25 cars. No entrance or parking fees. Pit toilets at parking
lot. No maps available; the Bear Valley Visitor Center (look for the sign
on Bear Valley Road) has maps and drinking water. There is a map under glass
at the information signboard. No designated handicapped parking, but trail
access is unobstructed and people with strollers or wheelchairs should be
able to navigate about 1 mile, weather (and mud) permitting. There is no
direct public transportation to this trailhead.
Trails are multi-use. No dogs.
The Official Story:
Point Reyes National Seashore
Bear Valley Visitor Center (Ranger Station) 415-464-5100
the park map pdf from NPS
Point Reyes maps from NPS
This hike is
described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco,
by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com.
Point Reyes by Jessica Lage (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a good map and descriptions of this hike.
Trail Map of Point Reyes National Seashore, by Tom Harrison
(order from Amazon.com)
is the best all-purpose map to Point Reyes.
Don and Kay Martin's Point Reyes National Seashore has a good
map and trail descriptions (order
this book from Amazon.com).
Hiking Marin, by Don and Kay Martin, has a good map and trail
this book from Amazon.com).
View some photos from this
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Reyes' Estero Trail is a estuary tutorial (and nearby Abbotts
Lagoon is a primer for lagoons). If you come here without any knowledge
of estuaries, and hike the entire length of the 8+ mile Estero Trail,
you'll probably pass Estuary 101. Estero escorts the hiker past 5 estuaries, with
plenty of uphill and downhill climbing in between each one.
There are no loop hikes available from
this trailhead, just moderate to long out-and-back trips. Regardless of
your hike's length, be sure to bring layers of clothing, including a waterproof
jacket and a hat. The weather changes dramatically and quickly. When I
started out from the trailhead on a February hike, it was a soft and sunny
winter day. By
the the time I got to the far side of Home Bay, the sky had darkened and
the temperature had dropped considerably. A few raindrops fell here and
there, but by the time I returned to the trailhead, the sun was out again. If
the weather is pleasant, the sunshine and terrific views make the hike
to Sunset Beach worth your while, but if it's cold and overcast, consider
hiking just as far as the estuary at Home Bay.
Estero is one of the loneliest trailheads
at Point Reyes, and seems to get the most use from locals. Even in summer
you stand a chance to avoid the out-of-town visitors who pack the trails
around the Bear
Valley Visitor Center.
With relatively few humans visiting the
area, you stand a good chance to encounter wildlife. You might see some
mule deer near the trailhead, but keep a look out for the unusual white
fallow deer in the hills to the north. These deer, descendants of an introduced
European species, really stand out from the green or brown grass. I saw
two of them when I was driving out of the trailhead in February 2000.
If you miss them, visit the Bear Valley Visitor Center, where there are
a few photographs of the deer at the counter.
For the featured hike, walk to the information
signboard and look for the signed start of Estero Trail. Initially
the path may be faint (although it is a trail open to cyclists and equestrians
as well as hikers) as it winds slightly downhill, through grassland. Coyote
brush and blackberry brambles punctuate the gentle slopes of tall grass.
You may see deer munching off the sides of the trail. When it's clear, look
to the left (east) for a view of Mount Vision and the Inverness Ridge. A farm compound is visible downhill in the valley. Straight ahead a large
grove of pine trees (remnants of an old Christmas tree farm?) wall off
any additional views. As I drew close to the trees, I was unable to shake
the feeling that I was in a fairy tale, where a forest "suddenly
appears." One moment you are in the grassland and the next, you are
deep in the woods, where the thickly planted trees block almost all understory
vegetation. There's a bench where you can sit and listen to the trees creak
in the breeze. After cutting through the trees, the trail reemerges into
terrain that is mostly tall grass, with some other pines and a few nonnative
conifers sprinkled about. Coyote brush and blackberry bushes are common,
but you might also see wild rose. On a February hike I saw one very large
cottontail rabbit nibbling on a pine cone in the middle of the trail,
and then another, smaller rabbit on my return hike near the bridge. Home
Bay is visible
in breaks through the trees off the left side of the trail.
As Estero Trail nears the bay, the path
curves to the left near a sign warning that marine mammals are protected
by federal laws (elephant and harbor seals breed and give birth on the
shores of Point Reyes in the winter). A thin stretch of land, and a bridge
bisect Home Bay from a freshwater pond fed by Home Ranch Creek. Here's
field example number one of an estuary: the mingling of fresh water (the
river's current) and salt water (the ocean's tides) at the mouth of a
river. For a good look at the process, stand on the bridge and observe
the water mingling beneath your feet. You might see fish, or even some
small sharks. Egrets, ducks, and other shore birds are common near the
water, although they will most likely fly away with protesting cries upon
your approach. During the return leg of one hike two egrets were perched
on either side of the bridge, like sentinels. On the far shore of the
estuary I saw (and heard) a group of quail hurrying from the protective
shelter of a coyote brush shrub into another bush a few feet away. One
male puffed his chest feathers in my general direction, a ritual I've
never seen before.
Estero Trail bends to the right and heads
uphill. (If you want an easy, flat hike, stop near the bridge, turn around
and retrace your steps to the trailhead. The rest of the hike has a lot
of ups and downs.) The hillside to the left is clearly unstable, which
becomes more evident as you reach a recent slide near the crest of this
hill. Along the sides of the trail, look for an impressive variety of
plants, including currant, sticky monkeyflower, blackberry, lupine, wax
myrtle, California sagebrush, ceanothus, toyon, coyote brush, and even
a few hardy huckleberry bushes. On the left side of the trail on a winter
hike I observed and photographed bright orange fungi (orange cup/Aleuria
aurantia) that lay seemed to sit on the surface of the dirt like loose
flower petals. The path crests just past a deep channel cut through the
dirt, an obvious rerouting of the trail. From the top of the hill, the
view sweeps out to Drake's
Estero Trail drifts downhill to another
estuary. After a brief flat stretch, the trail climbs uphill along the
edge of the cliff and then reaches a fence and stile. Squeeze through
the shoot (not so easy with a hip pack) and enter cattle range. Immediately
the trail quality deteriorates, especially after a rain in the winter
months, when cow hooves whip the mud into stiff peaks faster than you
can say KitchenAid mixer. The path goes through a large sinkhole. At the
top of the hill, near a eucalyptus tree, a small grassy bluff is a nice
spot to catch your breath. A few large fallen tree branches even provide
a seat off the ground. In the winter a few patches of daffodils and a
rose bush bloom nearby; perhaps there was a house around here many years
Estero Trail heads back downhill to another
estuary. In winter, rushing water from the pond tends to erode the dirt
on the side of the bridge; in that case cross through the stream on the
right of the bridge, or wherever the water is lowest. As the trail climbs
yet again, you'll pass through an overgrown section and reach the muddiest/rutted
stretches of path yet. There may be standing water to slosh through in
winter. There's another fence and cow-proof shoot to navigate, and then
a signed junction at 2.53 miles. Estero Trail continues uphill to the
left (east) for another 5.7 miles (with more ups and downs) until it ends
at Muddy Hollow Trail. (If you want to extend
your hike a bit further from here, you could continue on Estero Trail
for another 0.7 mile, then turn south (right) onto Drakes' Head Trail,
and hike to the trail's end on a bluff overlooking Limantour Estero and
Drake's Bay.) Or, if you're tired or the weather is crappy, make this
junction of Estero and Sunset Beach the turnaround point for this hike.
But if you'd like to hike further, continue straight on Sunset Beach
Sunset Beach Trail maintains an easy downhill
grade, a welcome relief after the steep stretches on Estero Trail. Near
the high point of the hike, there are expansive views of Drake's Estero,
Bull Point, and the bluffs to the west. It's amazing to witness the change
in the bay's appearance when the weather shifts. I've seen the water change from a shimmering
tropical azure to an inky forbidding dusky blue, in the space of 30 minutes.
My mood seemed to downgrade right along with the weather. The wide multi-use
trail travels through mostly grassland, although coyote brush and blackberry
thickly coat the descending hillside on the right. In summer, you might
see the bright yellow spikes of goldenrod nestled throughout the scrub.
After one last cattle stile and fence, Sunset Beach Trail, curves right,
around the contour of a hill, and descends with a bit more urgency (with
so many cow paths, the trail can be hard to follow here). Another estuary
is visible, framed by towering bluffs, and with the ocean in the background.
The trail levels out, and meanders through coyote brush, poison oak, sagebrush,
and lupine. You might notice a broad, bare spot to the left, apparently
the official end of the trail, at 4.03 miles. However, you can continue on
the obvious path that heads right out on the edge of the mudflats, if
trail and weather conditions allow safe access. If it's muddy early on,
that's your cue to turn around. On a summer hike, I was able to walk along
the shore of Drake's Estero another 1/4 mile. The trail transitions from
firm yet damp to muddy, and then, at 4.23 miles, to soft sand. A rocky
beach permits views all the way southwest to Chimney Rock. The tiny beach
is a nice place to sit, but it may be prohibitively windy. I enjoyed watching
the gentle waves lapping at the shore, and the sweeping views. One of
my favorite things about this hike is that the trails take you far from
roads and traffic noise. As I sat on the beach, the only sounds were the
ebb and flow of water and hiss of blowing sand. When ready, retrace
your steps back to the trailhead.
Total distance: 8.46 miles
Last hiked: Tuesday, August