Monday, July 11, 2016

Point Reyes National Seashore: Laguna/Fire Lane/Coast Loop (Blog Hike #585)

Trails: Laguna, Fire Lane, and Coast Trails
Hike Location: Point Reyes National Seashore
Geographic Location: northwest of San Rafael, CA
Length: 5.1 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A scenery-filled loop featuring a Pacific Ocean beach.
Seashore Information:

Directions to the trailhead: North of the Golden Gate Bridge, take US 101 to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (exit 450B).  Exit and go west on Sir Francis Drake Blvd.  Drive Sir Francis Drake Blvd. west 20.8 miles to SR 1 and turn right on SR 1.  Drive SR 1 north 0.1 miles to the seashore entrance (Bear Valley Road) on the left.  Turn left to enter the seashore, and drive Bear Valley Rd. 1.8 miles to Limantour Rd.  Turn left on Limantour Rd.  Drive Limantour Rd. 5.9 miles to the access road for the Education Center on the left.  Turn left and drive the access road 0.7 miles to the parking lot in front of the Education Center.

The hike: Located less than 30 miles from the Bay Area in geography but millions of miles away in ambiance, Point Reyes National Seashore protects 53,000 acres along the Pacific Ocean north of San Francisco.  The Coast Miwok Indians have lived on this land for millennia, and the national seashore land today contains a replica Miwok village that is still used for ceremonial purposes.  The national seashore was created in 1962 by an act of Congress signed by President Kennedy. 
            The drive to the trailhead passed several interesting sites.  The name Drake appears on the road you drove to Point Reyes and on the cove formed by Point Reyes because Sir Francis Drake’s journey around the world included a stop on these shores on June 17, 1579.  The seashore also features Drakes Beach and Drakes Cove in its assortment of Drake locations.  Sir Francis Drake Boulevard passes through Samuel P. Taylor State Park, which features some large redwood trees.  Finally, the section of SR 1 just outside the seashore runs through a stark valley that contains the famous earthquake-producing San Andreas Fault.  Thus, geologically speaking the national seashore is located on the Pacific plate, while most of the rest of California is located on the North American plate.
            The seashore features three Visitor Centers and a few developed areas including historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, but most of the seashore is undeveloped, making the extensive system of hiking trails on this property a real California gold mine for hikers.  The number of routes through the trail system is almost unlimited, but the loop hike described here gives a nice sample of what the seashore has to offer.  The scenery along this route is fantastic, especially when the region’s famous dense fog burns off.  I must be fog cursed, because both of my visits to the California coast (this one in 2016 and my trip to Angel Island back in 2009) have featured view-choking fog.  Also, be prepared for the Bay Area’s microclimates: when I left my lodging in Sacramento it was 80 degrees and sunny, but when I arrived at Point Reyes less than 2 hours later it was 58 degrees, foggy, and windy.
Laguna Trailhead
            This loop starts on the Laguna Trail, which departs in two directions from the signed trailhead on the southeast side of the Education Center.  Choose the gravel trail that continues straight as opposed to the grass trail that goes left, thus hiking southbound on the Laguna Trail.  The trail heads up a narrow ravine that contains a shrubby meadow and a large cluster of California buckeye trees, which were in full bloom on my mid-June visit.  The grade starts very gradual but intensifies slightly as you climb up the ravine.  Overall, the trail gains just over 200 feet of elevation over the first 0.4 miles.  Wildflowers including phacelia and lupine line the trail.
            As you exit the head of the ravine, at roughly 400 feet above sea level, some views start to open up to the right provided the fog does not enshroud you.  At 0.75 miles, you reach the Laguna Trail’s southern end at an intersection with the Fire Lane Trail, which goes left and straight.  Continue straight to start the Fire Lane Trail.
Intersecting the Fire Lane Trail
            At this point in my hike I began “chasing” a pair of California quails, the official state bird of California, down the trail.  The quails hopped along several yards in front of me, nibbling at various grasses along the way and refusing to leave the path to the right or left for nearly 0.5 miles.  I also saw a large number of hummingbirds sipping nectar from the meadow flowers that live up here.
California quail
            The grass/dirt Fire Lane Trail continues on a southward descent toward Santa Maria Creek.  The descent is mostly gradual with a couple of steeper and slightly eroded sections.  At 1.8 miles, you reach the end of the Fire Lane Trail at its signed intersection with the Coast Trail.  Angle right to begin heading northbound on the Coast Trail.  Note that the Coast Campground, a backcountry campground nestled along the Pacific Ocean, is located a short distance to the left here.
            True to its name, the Coast Trail, also known as the California Coastal Trail, extends 1200 miles along the entire California coast.  You are joining the Coast Trail at an inland point along Santa Maria Creek, but quickly the trail swings right as the ocean comes into view.  The trail stays within 100 yards of the ocean for almost the next mile, and the ocean views across the grassy coastal area are superlative. 
Hiking the Coast Trail
The ocean’s pounding surf is audible on the trail, but this area sits along the very sheltered Drakes Bay.  Thus, the waves are not as intense here compared to other parts of the coast.  A 50-foot cliff separates you from the ocean at this point, so do not think of trying to reach the beach yet. The cliffs at Point Reyes are very unstable.  Less than two years ago Arch Rock, one of the national seashore’s most famous cliffside rock formations, collapsed.
            Just shy of 2.5 miles, you get your first view of Santa Maria Beach as you look down a gap in the cliffline.  Some steep wild trails lead to the beach at this point, but the best spur trail to the beach exits left at 2.8 miles.  Although this area is rather remote, you may not be alone here: some people hike up the beach from the Limantour Beach parking area located at the end of Limantour Road and hike back down to the parking area on the Coast Trail.  I only encountered a couple of other people along the entire coastal stretch, so you will likely find much solitude along this stretch of paradise.
Looking north along the beach
A selfie I took on the beach
            Back on the Coast Trail, the trail heads slightly inland as it skirts a shallow pond that is separated from the ocean by only a single sand dune.  At 3.2 miles, the trail curves right to head up a deep ravine and leave the ocean for good.  A dense forest of young oak trees lives at the bottom of this ravine.
Hiking up the ravine
            As you hike up the ravine, you tread over a section of trail that was rebuilt in 2012 due to damage caused by seasonal flooding and erosion.  Notice that the wide gravel trailbed is built higher than the surrounding land.  At 4.8 miles, you reach a vehicle gate where the Coast Trail intersects the Education Center access road.  Angle right to begin the 0.3 mile road walk back to the trailhead.  Along the way you will pass the Point Reyes Hostel, a popular rustic lodging option for people visiting the national seashore.

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