Estero Trailhead,
Point Reyes National Seashore,
National Park Service, Marin County
In brief:
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.

Exposure:
Full sun except for one pocket of shaded woods.

Trail traffic
:
Light.

Trail surfaces
:
Dirt trails.

Hiking time
:
4 hours.

Season
:
Can be very muddy in winter and early spring. Summer and autumn are quite nice.

Getting there:
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:
http://www.transitandtrails.org/trailheads/368

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 38 4'53.45"N
Longitude
12254'51.26"W
(* 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.

Trailhead details:
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.

Rules:
Trails are multi-use. No dogs.

The Official Story:
Point Reyes National Seashore website
Bear Valley Visitor Center (Ranger Station) 415-464-5100

Map/book choices:
Download the park map pdf from NPS
Other 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 description (order this book from Amazon.com).


View some photos from this hike.




Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

Point Reyes' Estero Trail is a estuary tutorial (and nearby Abbotts Lagoon is a primer for lagoons). TrailheadIf 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. Start of Estero TrailIf 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. View to the bridge at the first estuary 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." Climbing near the slide areaOne 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. Fence is an obstacle on Estero TrailHere'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. View north of Drakes EsteroAlong 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.
      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. Sunset Beach TrailThe 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 ago.
      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 you'll reach 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. On the beach (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 Trail.
     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. Turnaround point, and view back to the northMy 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. Returning through the woodsIf 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 28, 2001