BOLINAS -- In these drought-dominated days, I’ve found that I go dowsing for water whenever I hit the trails – not to drink, nor to swim in, just to admire. Call it nostalgia for what winter used to be around here.
The sight of a brimming, sparkling body of water is, after all, so rare now, with Folsom Lake looking like a bathtub with the plug pulled and the American River showing way too many boulders and sand bars for this time of year.
So I recently got out my trail maps – yes, actual, old-school fold-out maps rather than the online equivalent – and searched for specks of blue amid the green cartographic expanse of Northern California. Whether these blue specks, denoting lakes and streams, would be as parched as our local watering holes I did not know but longed to discover.
I cheated a little and looked westward where, presumably, the Pacific Ocean still surged. That’s when my eye focused on the southern flank of the Point Reyes National Seashore, around Olema and Bolinas. There, wedged between the ridges of the San Andreas Fault Zone and the bluffs overlooking the ocean, lies what guide books call the “Lakes District.”
In a 5-mile stretch along the Coast Trail are five lakes – Bass, Pelican, Crystal, Ocean and Wildcat – and, farther inland, a sixth, Mud Lake. Add the Alamere Creek and Falls and assorted vernal pools and ponds, and this seemed the perfect antidote for my parched eyes. Worst case, if these lake beds turned out to be dry and cracked, the ocean views would remain a constant, right?
To end the suspense, yes, yes, the lakes of Marin County were still lakes – maybe not brimming-to-overflowing as in most winters, but certainly not evaporating before thine eyes like in time-lapse photography, a la Folsom.
Effects of the drought are evident, however, along this stretch of the Coast Trail, which runs for 16 miles from the Marin Headlands to Point Reyes. Many of the gullies and streams that feed into the lakes are bone dry, which some might find advantageous because they hate to get their shoes wet on the trail, but I found altogether depressing. In winter, you expect a little mud and creek-wading; that’s part of the allure. The weather, both times we made the trek in January, rose into the 60s with surprisingly little wind. This may not bode well for the springtime bloom of wildflowers – lupine, foxglove, iris and paintbrush – that seasonally attract visitors.
Even in its current condition, however, the 10.5-mile, out-and-back trek along the Coastal Trail, or an alternative 11.2-mile loop inland using the Lake Ranch and Ridge trails, makes for a pleasant day trip. It’s also a nice change of pace from the beautiful, but always crowded, trails carved into Mount Tamalpais that can be accessed a scant few miles away in Stinson Beach.
There may not be nearly as much climbing on the Coast Trail as on Mount Tam, but testing your fitness should not always be your reason to hit the trails. There’s something to be said for a pleasant jaunt with ocean views, though the coast route does feature a 2,000-foot elevation gain and the ridge route goes from a low point of 189 feet to a high of 1,359 in a few miles.
Really, the hardest part of this trek is finding the trailhead. It means finding your way to Bolinas, where grumpy locals tear down street signs in a vain attempt to detour visitors. But once you make the proper turnoff from Highway 1 at the Bolinas Lagoon and follow the directions (see accompanying fact box) to Mesa Road, it’s a straight 4-mile shot on Mesa Road beyond the Coast Guard station and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. The road goes from paved to dirt and eventually dead-ends at the Palomarin Trail head parking lot.
You can’t miss the start of the trail. A near-billboard-sized sign leads the way to a staircase and then the dirt path, wider than single track but not quite a fire road.
Almost immediately, you are plunged into a mini-forest of eucalyptus trees, which has littered the path with shed bark. You won’t see many more eucalyptus on the trek, so breathe in the enticing aroma. After a few hundred yards, you pass a trail heading west and down to Palomarin Beach – keep that in mind as a post-hike destination – and follow a winding cliffside path that afford sweeping views of the ocean.
You will be slaloming between inland gullies (dry) and stark bluffs (you can, if you dare, go off the path a little and peer down 200 feet to the beach below). Some climbing awaits, but nothing too taxing. Normally, in winter, you’d get splashed by the Arroyo Hondo crossing the trail, but it was bereft of liquid. There will be two footbridges to cross in the first mile or so, again without water beneath.
Just when you fear that you’ll never stumble upon water, that the pine trees and scrubbrush trailside will wither away, you reach a trio of small ponds to the west. It’s mostly stagnant water, gone green with scum. But still …
At 2.2 miles, the Lake Ranch Trail veers to the right. This will be the turn to take for the 11.2-mile Ridge loop (more on that option shortly). Stay on the Coast Trail for about another half-mile, and you are rewarded with an honest-to-goodness lake, edged by willows and a riparian forest.
The trail only skirts the eastern edge of Bass Lake – which looks pretty darn close to full capacity – but it affords an unobstructed view for at least a hundred yards.
In the summer, I’m told, people swim in Bass Lake. There’s an unmaintained path through a meadow that borders the lake for access. Though there’s no “beach,” people picnic on the shore during warm-weather months. Others have reported a chorus of frogs in the lake, but nary a peep could be heard on this day.
Those wanting a shorter out-and-back hike can make the lake their turnaround, for a 5.8-mile jaunt.
Continuing on the Coast Trail, veering toward the cliffs once more, you next hit Pelican Lake set atop a bluff and the rolling, verdant hills of Double Point. It’s larger than Bass Lake, but I saw no easy access point. There is a side trail that takes you south to the edge of Double Point, where seals are said to bark and frolic.
A quarter-mile farther on the Coast Trail comes the junction with Alamere Falls to the west. You cannot see the falls, or the ocean, from this point; you’ll need to hack your way through the unmaintained Alamere Trail through a canyon to the lookout point. It’s a four-tenths of a mile trek, one way, worth it when the falls are gushing but, due to lack of rainfall, not a glorious sight on this day.
At the 4-mile mark, the Coast Trail splits. To the left is the Ocean Lake Trail, which winds about 1.3 miles through a prairie with views of the ocean on the left and the lake on the right.
Continue north and you’ll veer right around Wildcat Lake, which looked to be the biggest of five lakes on the hike. You’ll meet up with the Coast Trail at this point. Turn right to loop around the east side of Wildcat Lake and eventually return to the out-and-back portion of the Coast Trail at the Palomarin Trail head.
If you’re not in a hurry, you can turn left and follow the Coast Trail a few tenths of a mile north to Wildcat Camp, and a respite at Wildcat Beach, a short stroll down. It’s a 2-mile stretch of sand that goes from Alamere Falls to the south to Arch Rock to the north.
A slightly longer, slightly harder option is to go inland after about 2 miles on the Coast Trail and do the loop using the Lake Ranch and Ridge trails. The initial climb may be steep, but it flattens out once you find yourself among Douglas firs. Mud Lake comes near the junction of Lake Ranch and Ridge and the downhill showed little more than marsh land. Not much mud.
Turning south on the Ridge Trail leads to a pleasant 4-mile trek on a soft trails, though heavily equine use results in some ruts. You’ll pass the Teixeira Trail at about the 8-mile mark, which is when the downhill begins. At certain points, you can catch glimpses of the ocean and the point of Bolinas.
The only downside to the loop is the finish, a 1-mile slog back up the dirt portion of Mesa Road, dodging cars coming to and from the trailhead.
Back at the trailhead, if you haven’t seen enough water to slake your desire, you can take the steep downhill trail to Palomarin Beach. Plenty of water there, especially at high tide.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.