Bay Nature Feature Article

Read about the Bay Trail in the October-December 2002 issue of Bay Nature.

The Bay Trail Comes of Age::Learn about the history of the Bay Trail, including how the vision of a Ring Around the Bay is being transformed from plan to a world-class trail.

Palo Alto Baylands: The Call of the Rails: Take an in-depth tour of the Palo Alto Baylands and learn about its diverse natural treasures, including rare birds such as the California clapper rail and the black rail.

On the Bay Trail, Selected Routes: Discover four featured Bay Trail routes spread around the Bay Area.

Bay Trail Regional Map, With Highlighted Routes: View the entire Bay Trail alignment with highlighted featured routes.

Articles provided by Bay Nature.




The Bay Trail Comes of Age

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by Irene Barnard

To 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 habitat.

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 the trail.

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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Palo Alto Baylands: The Call of the Rails (route #1 on regional map)

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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 "All's well!"

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 channels.

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 in 1969.

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 Nature Center.)

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 boardwalk.

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 riders.

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, contact or call the Nature Center at (650)329-2501 .

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On the Bay Trail, Selected Routes

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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 enthralled.

-Irene Barnard

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 it.

-Irene Barnard

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 bill.

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
(route #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 sparrow.

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.

-Irene Barnard

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Bay Trail Regional Map, With Highlighted Routes


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