Backpacking in Point Reyes National Seashore

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Bongo at Bear Valley Trailhead

In April of 2018 I scored a permit to camp inside the Point Reyes National Seashore just north of San Francisco. There are no drive-in campsites in Point Reyes; they are all walk-in or boat in. In the case of the Glen Campground, where I had a ($20) permit, this meant about 5 miles from the visitor center.

Just long enough to call it backpacking.

The Bear Canyon Visitor Center is everyone’s first stop, being where the permits come from, and correspondingly crowded. Get beyond it, and the little maze of day-use trails wandering around the picnic grounds, and the crowds started to thin, even on a Sunday afternoon with good weather.

I headed south(ish) along the Bear Valley trail until I realized this dirt road is everyone’s day hike. So I cut to the right, west, up the Meadow Trail. This spur trail cuts steeply uphill to the Skyline Trail, which bisects the main ridge forming the peninsula.

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Pretty typical…

The heart of Point Reyes is Inverness Ridge, which has been separated from Bolinas Ridge on the coast be the San Andreas fault. To the north end of the peninsula, that fault line is submerged by Tomales Bay. To the south it runs roughly under Highway 1. Point Reyes is a couple notches of Richter Scale away from being an island.

The thick canopy of trees and brush are all part of the Phillip Burton Wilderness, which actually encompasses about a third of the total peninsula. The rest is extant private ranches and a scattering of state and local parks.

It felt strange climbing the hill, until I realized that I was still at about 700’ total elevation. The atmosphere was still thick. And humid – I soaked everything in sweat with temps in the low 80’s.

 

About a mile and a half past where I picked it up from the Meadow trail, Skyline winds down the west side of the ridge towards but not to the Pacific. The trees open up, and you are in for a heavy dose of sea breeze and sunlight. It cuts back inland to cross Coast Creek via a wooden bridge. I snuck off to the side here,and found a place to force my feet into the frigid creek.

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The bridge across Coast Creek

I wasn’t at blisters yet, but I could feel them coming.

Work boots aren’t hiking boots. Good Advice from Direct Experience.

Happily, I was less than a mile at that point from Glen Camp, though I likely hiked 6.5 miles overall taking the scenic route.

 

The walk-in campsite has twelve designated sites fanning out from a vault toilet. Each campsite has a table, fire ring and an enclosure to protect your food from ambitious raccoons. There is also, unpublicized, a water spicket available for use. I had to hang my hammock over some pretty steep hillside, but otherwise had no complaints.

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Glen Campground – site 12.

In April, the overnight low reached the low 40’s, maybe upper 30’s. I had to use all my layers.

In the morning, after a leisurely – for me – breakfast, I conceded to my blisters and took a more direct route to the wide and sunny Bear Valley trail. With the ridge to my west, and Divide Meadow refusing to block any morning sun to my east, and limp-marched back to the visitor center.

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Even at that pace, I had time to drive out to McClure’s Beach towards the north tip of the Peninsula. You reach it via a narrow road winding sharply through prairie covered hills, where you are not likely to get out of 4th gear. The short trail follows a drainage to a wide beach flanked by tide pools. Worth it even with blisters.

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Bongo at McClure’s Beach

Worth it more: the bar in Olema, the tiny town that guards the entrance to the park, where I had oysters and whiskey for a late-late lunch. Cannot recommend that sort of thing enough.

So, Easy, Scenic and Fun. The hard part is getting there – and totally worth it.

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Willow Creek (whatever)

The city of Prescott has three man-made reservoirs in or about city limits, and Willow Creek is the most accessible, and arguably the most scenic. While you can float a non-powered boat on it, and fish and bird-watch, or even peer into the excavated homes of the long-gone natives if you time it right, the attraction – at least for me -is as a hiking destination.

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There are three trailheads, and I picked the only one with a parking fee – City-run Willow Lake Park on the north side.

Let’s stop here and clarify: the body of water is called Willow Lake, Willow Creek Lake, Willow Creek Basin or Willow Creek Reservoir depending on what source you look at. It is all the same body of water.

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The city park is the most developed site, with the boat launch and the well-guarded aboriginal ruins. They were closed when I was there, and thus we skip right past them. The park asks for a $3 fee paid by an honor-system kiosk. Or you could park at the ball-fields of adjacent Heritage Park – as I did, and hoof in for half a mile extra.

The lake, and the 6 mile trail that wanders around its perimeter can be accessed by the Jim McCasland Willow Creek Park, which has a ball-field and a dog park, on the east shore, and some undeveloped gravel parking areas on the south shore. McCasland, for your planning convenience, also has restrooms and water fountains. The south lots have only trash cans.

Back on the north shore, the city park is adjacent to a trailer park and a campground, and a number of social trails connect the two. I went clockwise, past all of these and into the portion of the Granite Dells, a large, relatively famous jumble of granite boulders and mounds that line the north and east shores of the lake.

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Like all trails through this terrain, the path has a lot of up and down and round and round and is often a scramble over granite marked only by spots of white paint.

In the NE corner, some side trails loop further into the Dells, but I skipped these, to budget time and energy. Originally, I was just going to go to the dam, and then turn back. Past the junction with the loop trails, heading south through the boulders, you can look for the red bridge, though if you take the offshore leg of the loop you could miss it, before you wind down into the valley behind the dam.

I have been through this valley both wet and dry. Dry is far more likely, but trails exist which will get you across when the water is spilling out from the concrete barrier.

On the south wall of this valley are the stairs, rail-road tie stairs, which will march up 200’ in elevation to the last leg of the journey south through the Dells.

Here I reasoned, correctly I still believe, that retracing the just under two-mile journey from the city park to the top of the stairs would consumed as much energy as continuing along the remaining four miles ahead of me, and I decided to press forward around the lake.

Another half mile of big boulders, including a close encounter with the edge of the lake, that required a bit of rock hopping, separated the stairs from more open terrain. You can avoid the edge of the lake via a loop I did not take.

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Both will dump you into the shadeless, swamp-grass covered expanse of the south-eat edge of the lake, The map claims this part of the trail could be submerged, but this is rare. When I traveled it, it was a dry dirt track through the tall grass and swarms of insects that live there. This turns west and rises into the hard-pack of the southern shore. Power lines and an intermittent fence-line separate the trail from Willow Road to the south. Past the gravel parking areas, and across a wooden bridge, the trail wanders away from the road, and skirts some low granite formations before turning north along the east shore.


forklift stuntsIt will dip in and around some wooded washes before reaching McCasland Park, where I found the water and restrooms nearly life-saving. Past there the trail wanders through scrub along the shore, passing Embry-Riddle University on the far side of the road, and finally back to the city park sprawling along the north shoreline.

I did the trail in about three hours. The Dells are Hard, the rest of the trail is easy, but the Dells are the worthwhile portion in my opinion. These Dells would be a premier destination for burning off the energy of junior high boys. Even as an adult, this hike remains a good way to kill a few hours if you happen to be in Prescott, in good weather, with time on your hands, and reasonably sturdy shoes.