Outdoor photographer and mountaineer, Galen Rowell, wrote that a landscape is most alluring at the edges; where the mountains rise above the plains or a stream divides a lush meadow. But no scenic boundary has stirred humankind’s imagination through the ages more than the meeting of land and sea. Early explorers looked seaward wondering what unknown lands lay beyond the horizon. Even in today’s carefully mapped world, looking out to sea is as mesmerizing as staring into a campfire.
Three kinds of seaside settings come to mind: beaches, bluffs, and estuaries. The Bay Area’s wide array of natural habitats delivers once again. Stunning examples of each of these are a day trip away.
If your idea of a beach is towels, umbrellas and coolers, there are many to choose from. If, on the other hand, you wish to walk down a secluded beach so long that your stamina will give out before the sand does, head for Fort Ord Dunes State Park. They say the beach there is 4 miles long, and I will have to take their word for it. I have never reached the end. I just know that it is very long, and I have never seen more than a handful of people there.
Like Fort Ord Dunes, beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore are measured in miles. Point Reyes Beach is 11 miles of pounding surf that faces the roaring Pacific tumult head on. Also windswept, but not so fiercely, Limantour Beach is a quiet and elegant spit of sand tucked on the leeward side of the point in Drakes Bay.
Seaside bluffs, especially in winter, take a beating from storm-angered surf that is a supreme display of power. Wilder Ranch State Park north of Santa Cruz and the Cowell-Purisima Trail south of Half Moon Bay both put a hiker in cliffside front row seats. North of the Golden Gate in the Marin Headlands, hike along oceanside cliffs from Tennessee Valley in Mill Valley to Muir Beach, then fuel up with a tankard of ale at the Pelican Inn before heading home.
There is no trail that packs more seaside awe into two miles than the short Chimney Rock Trail in Point Reyes; Drakes Bay on one side of the point (look for elephants seals), the roiling open ocean far below on the other. Standing there leaves no doubt that you are alive.
Estuaries and sloughs, where freshwater and seawater mingle, are among the most productive biological habitats on earth. Our largest estuary is San Francisco Bay, but at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing and Drakes Estero at Point Reyes, the setting is more unspoiled and the wildlife more accessible. These estuaries are perfect for watching sea life, bird life, or just enjoying the reedy solitude from a rented kayak or a peaceful shoreline trail.
Whether you seek peace or power, it waits at the seashore every day along with a heavy helping of grandeur.