The Bay Trail Comes of Age
full article with photos - (PDF, 486 kb)
by Irene Barnard
live in the Bay Area is to be enchanted, sometimes on a daily basis,
by the beauty and variety of its open spaces. I've spent most of my
lifetime here, but much of the area remains a mystery to me, ripe with
uncharted wonders. These are often in places we'd least think to look.
Discovering recently a tidal marsh alive with wildlife along the Bay
in Hayward was just such a revelation: Avocets, egrets, and stilts congregated
in a mass foraging spree where a shipping industry once thrived and
where, at an earlier time, the Ohlone gathered edible seeds andshellfish
along the shore. Glancing up from the shore and looking across the vast
sheet of the Bay, one is struck by the immensity of the sky, accentuated
here by the absence of trees, man-made structures, or any other obstructions
to vision or fancy.
San Francisco Bay, the 470-square-mile inland sea that is the dynamic
geographic center of this region, is our largest open space by far.
But it is also one of the most overlooked. For many local residents,
the Bay is often seen as an obstacle to be crossed to get to work or
to the airport, rather than as a source of connection to our region's
landscape. It is true that for many years the public has had little
direct access to the Bay from land, because so much of the shoreline
was in private hands (either diked farmlands or industrial facilities)
or simply impossible to get to. But all of that is changing, with the
maturing of a grand vision that has been more than a decade in the making:
the San Francisco Bay Trail.
The Bay Trail is a planned recreational route that will encircle the
entirety of San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, connecting the shoreline
of all nine Bay Area counties and crossing seven major toll bridges
by means of a 400-mile network of bicycling and walking paths. More
than half the trail system is now complete, either as dedicated hiking
or multiuse paths, or as on-street bike lanes and sidewalks.
The idea behind the Bay Trail is to provide easy access to as many facets
of the Bay as possible, for as wide a range of users as possible - walkers,
bicyclists, skaters, commuters, bird-watchers, artists, and schoolchildren.
The trail takes people of all ages and abilities to points as diverse
as the busy Embarcadero waterfront in San Francisco, solitary Tubbs
Island on San Pablo Bay, the braided marsh channels of Alviso in the
South Bay, and the sweeping views across the North Bay from Point Pinole.
Accessible to residents from all over the Bay Area, the Bay Trail can
bring us together to experience our gem of watery open space and the
magnificent diversity of wildlife that inhabits it.
The Bay Trail was born out of California Senate Bill 100, written by
former State Senator (now Attorney General) Bill Lockyer, and passed
into law in 1987. The Bay Trail Plan was developed over two years by
a coalition of local government representatives, regional agencies,
community groups, and environmental organizations and was adopted in
1989 by the regional planning agency, the Association of Bay Area Governments
(ABAG). The enabling legislation mandated that the trail provide connections
to existing parks and recreation areas as well as encourage use of public
transportation to get to and from the trail. Finally, the legislation
mandated that, while facilitating and encouraging public access, planners
should align the trail to avoid harming sensitive environments and wildlife
When complete, the trail system will consist of the main spine trail,
a continuous 400-mile ring around the Bay; spur trails to the waterfront
where shore access along the spine is not feasible; and connector trails
linking the spine to inland recreation sites, residential neighborhoods,
and commercial districts. Eventually, the trail will pass through or
connect to more than 100 parks and open spaces.
The implementation of such an ambitious undertaking depends on the cooperation
of many potentially competing interests. Shoreline property owners;
local, state, and federal agencies; recreational-use advocates; and
environmental organizations - all are stakeholders along the shores
of the Bay. The Bay Trail Project, a nonprofit entity, was created within
ABAG to oversee and coordinate work on the trail and to promote its
use to the public.
The number of partnerships formed by the Bay Trail Project marks it
as a thoroughly collaborative effort, one that has demonstrated an impressive
ability to leverage limited funding into an effective and comprehensive
regionwide program. The California Coastal Conservancy has been a strong
supporter and longtime funder of the Bay Trail, having provided approximately
$19 million since the project's inception. Invaluable assistance has
also come from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which
reviews development projects within 100 feet of the Bay shoreline and
can require Bay Trail construction as part of the permitting process.
Just as crucial is the continuing involvement of countless environmental
and recreational groups, whose members (like you and me) care about
preserving natural areas and volunteer their time to advocate for completing
In recent years, money from state park bonds has been available to the
Bay Trail for a competitive grant program under which local agencies
receive funding for trail development in their areas. These funds are
leveraged several times over by public and private matching funds and
in-kind contributions, including construction work performed by youth
members of the California Conservation Corps.
Recently opened trail segments include Oyster Point Marina in South
San Francisco, with trails and access for windsurfers; San Rafael's
Shoreline Park, featuring exceptional bird-watching; Heron's Head Park
in San Francisco, where the trail follows the edge of a wetland restoration
in progress; and Napa's River to Ridge Trail linking the Bay Trail in
Kennedy Park to the Ridge Trail in Skyline Park. What's next? New segments
being planned include a new alignment along proposed wetlands in Novato,
the Wetlands Edge Trail in American Canyon (Napa County), Point Molate
in Richmond, Union Point Park in Oakland's Fruitvale District, and Coyote
Creek Trail in Milpitas. In the future, the proposed public purchase
of Cargill's salt-pond properties holds great promise for new Bay Trail
segments in the South Bay.
In the policy arena, the Bay Trail Project advocates for safe bicycle
and pedestrian access to and across the area's seven toll bridges, to
increase possibilities for longer-distance excursions and to promote
car-free commuting. (Such access is currently available only on the
Golden Gate and Dumbarton Bridges.) Another priority is the ongoing
independent wildlife and public access study, which is examining whether
trail users have an effect on the abundance and diversity of shorebirds
in adjacent wetlands. The results will help decision-makers and resource
agencies plan future trail segments so as to minimize the impact of
increased human visitation on wildlife.
More detailed information about the trail is now readily available,
with the recent publication of new Bay Trail maps. The set of six maps
covers the entire Bay and provides comprehensive and up-to-date information
about trail alignment, points of access, and trail characteristics.
The back of each map lists recommended hiking and bicycling routes.
This ambitious "ring around the Bay" is coming together piece
by piece. But you don't have to wait for the Bay Trail's completion
to start taking advantage of the increased access to the Bay that it
already provides. We've included brief descriptions of several trail
segments on the following pages, highlighting the diversity of scenery
and abundance of wildlife you'll encounter out on the Bay Trail. Each
one has its own charms. Together, they begin to reveal the enormity
of the gift that this estuary bestows on those of us who live next to
it. We're willing to bet that once you've spent a few hours out on the
trail, you'll never see the Bay in the same way again.
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by Rosemary Lombard
Seven and a half-mile loop trail on paved and gravel paths from
San Francisquito Creek to Charleston Slough.
It's nearly dusk on the salt marsh, and the setting
sun bathes the scene in a fading golden glow. Suddenly the calm is broken
by a raucous barrage of sound, an uncoordinated clattering chorus that
echoes in all directions. This clattering, or "clapping,"
as the signature vocalization is known, is heard long before the shy
birds that produce it are ever seen, giving the species an aura of mystery
- and its name: clapper rail. At dusk and dawn these contact calls bounce
over the marsh from nest to nest, like iterations of an ancient watchman's
The California clapper rail (Rallus longirostris obsoletus), the Central
Coast subspecies, now resides only in remnant tidal marshes around San
Francisco Bay. First declared endangered in 1970, the species is now
making a slow comeback from its low point of 300 individuals.
How does one go about glimpsing this elusive rare bird, so emblematic
of the struggles to save San Francisco Bay? A visit to the Palo Alto
Baylands segment of the Bay Trail at the right tide provides the best
opportunity. The most reliable time to spot the clappers (and their
even more elusive relatives the sora, Virginia rail, and black rail)
is at the peak of the highest winter tides, typically near full moon
or new moon, when rising waters force them out of hiding. The other
time to look for clappers is at any low tide, as they feed in the marsh
Like the clapper rail, these tidal marshes have had a close brush with
extinction. Along the edges of the marshes, we humans encroached on
a wetland that once stretched far beyond the freeway: golf course, airport,
roads, businesses, and landfill all make this, at first glance, an unlikely
place to find a reclusive endangered bird. Here, as elsewhere, the higher
marsh - easier to build on - went first. The remaining marshes had a
close call in the 1950s. As Palo Alto resident Harriet Mundy later explained,
it was only because she went to the city council to complain about a
broken sidewalk that she discovered a big Baylands development plan
ready to roll, complete with condominiums, a hotel, and a marina - but
no marsh. Mundy and other citizens harassed and educated the council
for a decade, until the city dedicated the Baylands Nature Preserve
Thanks to the preservation and subsequent restoration of the marshes,
the Bay Trail at the Palo Alto Baylands has become a prime location
for seeing all sorts of marsh and water birds. Trail access starts at
the end of Geng Road and then follows San Francisquito Creek, a steelhead
stream now the focus of cooperative restoration efforts by several groups.
(Note: Access from Geng Road is closed through November 2002 due to
construction; until then, visitors should proceed directly to the Baylands
As the levee trail leaves the creek, true saltmarsh vegetation takes
over. Resident shorebirds - stilts and avocets - demonstrate their feeding
styles in the shallows of the lagoon and tidepools. The stilts balance
on the long legs that give them their name, and reach down to pluck
small invertebrates from the water. The closely related avocets swing
their recurved (upturned) bills back and forth along the surface of
the mud. In fall and winter, look too for ducks and shorebirds of all
descriptions, attracted to the food-rich edge of the Bay on their migration
along the Pacific Flyway. Soon the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive
Center - named for another Baylands heroine - comes into view, balanced
on stilt-like legs over the marsh tides and attached to one end of the
Inside the center you'll find plenty of information about birds and
other denizens of the marsh. Outside, you can try out the new spotting
scopes. One scope, like the Bay Trail itself, is friendly to wheelchair
Descending to the marsh on the boardwalk, look for tracks in the mud
and the stories they tell; for example, it is only because of its oversized
toes that the rail can move about on this spongy surface. At winter
high tides song sparrows, marsh wrens, and common yellowthroats perch
on tall plants. Look too for salt crystals exuded onto the leaves of
cordgrass and salt grass, and for the lingering autumn red of the dominant
marsh plant - pickleweed - a hiding place for the marsh's most secretive
animals. If you visit in fall or winter, pickleweed's peculiar twining
parasite, marsh dodder, will have changed color too, its orange summer
tendrils turning into a brown mat. Like other marsh plants, its winter
destiny is to become detritus, the broken-down bits of biomass floating
on the surface waters or sprawled over the mud. This detritus is the
crucial base of the Bay's food chain.
"Rail Alley" is the deeply cut channel that runs under the
boardwalk. Here rail watchers and photographers tarry quietly, waiting
for their visual quarry, which eventually appears nonchalantly probing
and picking along the channel. If you sight a clapper at high tide,
wait until the water begins to recede. That's when the clapper has its
feast, wandering about in the open and picking stranded spiders, insects,
and even rodents off their vulnerable plant perches above the flood.
Why is this spot such good "rail estate"? Note how plants
overhang the deep channel here, so even a chicken-sized bird like the
clapper rail is hard to see from above. Tiny tributaries, even more
private, offer quick exits off the main channel. Notice how high these
banks are, compared to the rest of the marsh. When banks overflow, the
tide drops its largest soil particles first - an advantage to the clapper,
who needs a high, dry nesting spot near the best food sources and escape
routes. Happily, the tall yellow-flowered gumplant chooses the high
marsh too and affords perfect cover for secret nest sites. It's no wonder
that clappers nest no farther from a marsh channel than the spread of
a human's arms.
Though the clapper rail gets most of the press, its small and even more
secretive relative, the black rail, is virtually impossible to see anywhere
else in its range. Perhaps that is why winter high tides at the Baylands
bring another phenomenon: flocks of black rail seekers, as many as 125
at once, from across the nation. The high corner of the marsh by the
parking lot is probably the best place anywhere to catch a glimpse of
this bird of a lifetime, but only if you are very patient.
Another avian treat awaits those who continue along the trail between
the harbor and the Byxbee Park Hills to Adobe Creek. From July through
December hundreds of huge white pelicans take advantage of Adobe Creek's
protected habitat. Watch for their cooperative fishing behavior: Several
birds swim abreast, herding fish with their feet, then dip their voluminous
bills into the "fish pond" they have created. To the left
of the trail, Charleston Slough is home to a small colony of black skimmers,
another species otherwise rarely seen in the Bay Area. These sturdy
tern relatives fish on the fly, stretching their overgrown lower bills
into the water as they skim over it.
The skimmers are a fitting exclamation point to a day on the Palo Alto
Baylands section of the Bay Trail. It has been a day of many birds,
many sights, and many sounds, climaxing in the thrill of having briefly
entered the world of the California clapper rail, the elusive bird that
has become a symbol of both the threats facing the Bay and the hopeful
signs pointing toward its long-term revival.
Getting there: From Highway 101 (Bayshore Freeway) take the Embarcadero/East
Embarcadero exit in Palo Alto. Turn left at second light, Geng Road,
and continue to Baylands Athletic Center parking lot. (While Geng Road
access is closed through November 2002, proceed directly to Baylands
Nature Center: Stay on Embarcadero past Geng until the "T"
intersection, then turn left and follow road to the Center.) There is
no direct public transit access.
Bay Nature and the Baylands Nature Center are co-sponsoring a bird
walk led by naturalist Deborah Bartens on Saturday, December 14, 9:30
a.m. For more information, visit www.baynature.com,
or call the Nature Center at (650)329-2501 .
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On the Bay Trail, Selected
full article with photos - (PDF, 711 kb)
Fisherman's Wharf to Sausalito (route
#2 on regional map)
Eight-mile hike or bike (one way) along multiuse paths and surface
streets from Fisherman's Wharf across the Golden Gate Bridge to the
Sausalito waterfront. Return to Fisherman's Wharf by ferry.
There is no more internationally recognized site
in the Bay Area than the Golden Gate, dramatic entrance to San Francisco
Bay. But the Bay Trail segment that follows the city's northern shore
and then crosses the signature span over the Gate has many smaller-scale
treasures to commend it as well.
Heading west on the trail at Crissy Field, I watch dogs frolic on a
narrow beach and windsurfers fighting to stay upright in the stiff breeze
out on the Bay. A restricted wildlife-protection marsh area on my left
shelters beach strawberries that lace sandy shores. Freshwater rich
with organic nutrients, draining from the Presidio's Tennessee Hollow
watershed, merges with tidal inflow to create an ideal estuarine habitat
for yellow yarrow, coast goldenrod, and silver beach-bur growing close
to the ground to evade the area's relentless gales.
Across from this fragile ecosystem are dunes like those that once covered
more than a third of San Francisco, restored here by volunteers who
replaced invasive exotics with hundreds of native plants. The dunes
arch under succulent pink sand verbena and silver bush lupine, another
plant adapted to this harsh yet beautiful environment, with ingenious
pale leaves that reflect sunlight to withstand drought.
To the north are panoramic views of Alcatraz, Angel Island, and Sausalito;
to the east, Contra Costa and Alameda Counties spread out far beyond
where the eye can follow. To the west lie Fort Point and the Golden
Gate Bridge, where, at this most beautiful of harbor portals, the hills
of the Point Bonita headlands fold themselves into the sea. Here, amid
walkers, joggers, bikers, skaters, surfers, and strollers from every
corner of the world, on the border between the bustling city and the
Pacific Ocean, my senses are fully engaged and my spirit is thoroughly
Tolay Creek/Tubbs Island (San Pablo Bay) (route
#3 on regional map)
Nine-mile partial loop hike on dirt and gravel levee trail along
Tolay Creek from Highway 37 to Tubbs Island (San Pablo Bay).
The broad, flat expanse that borders Highway 37
between Mare Island and Novato is only a remnant of the extensive marshes
and sloughs found here before much of this area was diked for farmland
and culverted for highway construction. But this remnant is still one
of the largest contiguous marsh systems in the Bay Area, and it is now
protected within the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The only
way to explore it on foot is via the Tubbs Island Loop Trail, a spur
of the Bay Trail that runs atop a levee along Tolay Creek, winding over
four miles from Highway 37 out to the open Bay.
While other Bay Trail segments coexist with development, offering fragmented
glimpses of nature, here nothing distracts from immersion in the natural
world of the marsh. As you wind your way out of earshot of Highway 37,
the urban sprawl surrounding the rest of the Bay falls away. For those
reluctant to peer beneath the flat surface, monotony may soon set in.
For those willing to embrace the remote setting, these baylands yield
some thrilling rewards.
One is the stunning 360-degree view, where the trail approaches the
open Bay. The sky is an enormous canopy, the horizon stretching far
beyond vision's reach, heightening the sense of isolation from the world
you left behind. Mount Tamalpais, a sentinel encircled by fog, rises
to the south. Novato's Mount Burdell looms to the west. In the distance,
Mount Diablo punctures the broad horizon to the southeast.
You should encounter a variety of birds on the long walk down to Midshipman's
Point, where Tolay Creek enters the Bay. The cut-cut-turr of marsh wrens
trills through yellow-flowered common gumplant along the levees. Snowy
egrets and great blue herons probe among the cattails. Black-shouldered
kites and terns hover and dive for prey. Below, the endangered salt
marsh harvest munse moves through the pickleweed and cordgrass, mostly
hidden from view. You aren't really alone out here; it only feels like
Point Isabel to Marina Bay (Richmond) (route
#4 on regional map)
Three and a half miles (one-way) along paved multiuse path from the
northern edge of Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond to Marina
Bay Park and the future site of Lucretia Edwards Park.
Birds may not be the first thing that come to
mind when people think of Richmond. But the Bay Trail between Point
Isabel and Marina Bay is a bird-watcher's paradise. From the 51st Street
entrance just off I-580, I head onto the trail, binoculars in hand,
crossing Baxter Creek on a pedestrian bridge. In late summer and early
fall, the bright yellow flowers of gumplant line the creek's banks.
Straight ahead lies open water, the silvery-white Bay Bridge a mirage
in the distance. I turn to the left - east - and head toward Point Isabel.
A steady stream of dog walkers and dogs, joggers, cyclists, and roller-bladers
flows by. Bushtits flit across the path, whispering to each other as
they land in the fennel and coyote bush. A strong breeze carries the
sulfur smell of the mudflats that form the crescent-shaped shoreline
to my right. There, I see shorebirds of every shape and size - dowitchers,
whimbrels, avocets, and sandpipers - probing in the mud, each seeking
the delicious invertebrates hiding at the exact depth of its specialized
In the opposite direction - west from the 51st Street entrance - a long
finger of salt marsh reaches into the Bay, Brooks Island looming beyond.
In one of the ponds to the right of the trail, a Say's phoebe perches
on a tidal marker, pumping its tail and venturing forth to catch a dragonfly
now and then. Nearing Marina Bay, I cross Meeker Slough on another bridge.
This area, where fresh water meets the saltier Bay, belongs to coots
and ducks: Mallards; American wigeons, with their coppery breasts and
odd white bills; and green-winged teal all bob tranquilly in the slough.
The insistent rhythm of a helicopter overhead and the rumble of a nearby
train are certainly distractions, but rising above the urban noise are
the plaintive cries of shorebirds scurrying across the mud before the
incoming tide. I can still hear them long after I've left the trail.
- Lisa Owens-Viani
Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center to Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline
#5 on regional map)
Seventeen-mile round-trip along multiuse dirt and gravel trail between
Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center and Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline
in San Leandro.
We're starting off on a 17-mile, round-trip bicycle
excursion between Hayward Regional Shoreline, with its nearby wastewater
treatment plant, and Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline in San Leandro, next
door to a recycling center, and I'm dubious. My boyfriend, a sometime
archaeologist, has no such doubts, likening this stretch to the dumps
he explored as a child, "with cool things growing everywhere."
Turns out he's right. You can make this ride in just a few hours. Or
you can take the whole day, stopping along the way to investigate the
impressive variety of wildlife and habitats.
After coasting down the winding trail to the Hayward Shoreline, we cross
the aptly named Sulphur Creek, whose red-brown water flows sluggishly
near a flood control channel. This sometimes malodorous creek actually
nourishes a healthy array of wildlife, and the treatment plant provides
fresh water for the restored marshes. Stretching to the north and south
are salt, brackish, and freshwater marshes that bustle with great and
snowy egrets, avocets, and marbled godwits prowling the shallows. Northern
shovelers strain small surface plants and animals through the comblike
edges of their bills. To the east, raised grasslands support tangled
growths of thistles and mustards sheltering the diminutive savannah
Returning from Oyster Bay at the end of the trip, we find a small sandy
beach off the spit at Johnson's Landing. We eat lunch on a driftwood
log amid beach glass and pottery shards of every conceivable color:
amethyst, aquamarine, Heineken-bottle green. Getting up to leave, we
scan the pale and boundless horizon, here at the widest part of San
Francisco Bay, and watch the clouds roll away, framing the skyline of
San Francisco sparkling across the vast expanse of open water like shards
of glass in the slanting sunlight.
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Bay Trail Regional
Map, With Highlighted Routes