Hiking: San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge

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Hiking: San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge

The trails at the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge offer some of the most rewarding and unusual Sonoma County hikes, with wide open spaces just minutes away.

With its bay and tidal marsh, mud flats, wetland habitat, and open water, the refuge is an important location on the Pacific Flyway, home to large populations of resident and migrating birds at every season of the year.

Late fall through early January is a particularly good time of the year here. That's when the refuge becomes home to a huge array of migrating/wintering waterbird and shorebird species - in addition to its diverse population of resident bird, mammal, invertebrate, fish, and plant species.

And this place lives up to its name; it's truly a refuge, a protected place to shelter and breed for many species at serious risk of survival. Some species like the California Clapper Rail and Least Tern are listed as both state and federally endangered. One fish the Delta Smelt is on both state and federally threatened lists.

A great many bird species that breed here are considered by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service to be "species of conservation concern." Many more rare creatures take refuge here throughout the year. (The refuge lists recently seen birds, as well as species list for the birds, fish, invertebrates, mammals, and plants found in the refuge.)

The Trails

There are now several trails of varying lengths open to the public in San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuge. Download a Trail Map.

Tolay Creek/Lower Tubbs

The longest and most interesting of the trails in the refuge, the Tolay Creek/Lower Tubbs Trail is flat and graded, and runs atop levees, perfect for easy hiking and effortless biking. 

The trailhead and a small parking lot are located off Highway 37, one-quarter mile east of its junction with Highway 121 to Sonoma. Park your car, walk down the dirt road past the trailhead gate and kiosk, and then follow the Tolay Creek levee past broad agricultural lands. 

In late fall these agricultural lands are typically plowed and empty, stretching east as far as you can see, often under a vast blue sky. As you walk, marshy areas begin to appear. The ubiquitous salt-tolerant pickleweed, bright green in summer, turns red and orange in the fall. 

Keep an eye out for smallish birds with long beaks poking around the shallows, seeking food; snow-white egrets standing aloof and looking bore; or flocks of ducks moving across deeper waters or taking refuge in tall reeds.

Trail note: Older maps may show the Lower Tubbs Island portion of the trail as a loop, but the 2014 South Napa Earthquake tore a breach in the levee, making two sections of the loop trail impassible. The U. S. Fish & Wildlife decided that this breach was best for the wetlands, and the current trail map shows the trail as it is today, without the loop section.

Out and back, the trail is 8.1 miles long. On many days you'll only see a few other hikers on this pathway through truly beautiful landscapes. On clear days you can see the mountains of Marin, the East Bay, and Sonoma that surround you, and possibly San Francisco and its bridges. 

Cullinan Ranch

This 1.3-mile trail offers views of Cullinan Ranch to the east and a pond to the west, with numerous waterfowl and shorebirds foraging and resting in both areas. The parking lost is located 3.4 miles west of Mare Island on Highway 37. From there, the trail heads north until you reach South Slough.

Sears Point

The parking lot at 7699 Reclamation Road offers access to four trails:

  • The 1.3-mile Sears Point Trail leads to the headquarters of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, with views of oat hay fields that create seasonal wetlands in the wet months. 
  • The 2.5-mile-long Eliot Trail is one of the newest sections of the San Francisco Bay Trail, a planned 500-mile walking and cycling path around the entire San Francisco Bay. The Eliot Trail offers views of the new Sears Point Wetland and Watershed Restoration Project. Seasonally the area contains open water, and waterfowl and shorebirds rest and forage here.
  • Just 0.3 miles long, the Dickson Trail runs south on the levee from the Eliot Trail, providing views of the Sonoma Baylands to the west and the Sears Point Restoration Project to the east.
  • Traveling west on the levee for 1.4 miles, the Sonoma Baylands Trail provides views of newly forming tidal marsh vegetation in the Sonoma Baylands, which was restored in 1996. This trail can also be accessed at Port Sonoma Marina Boulevard, 1.5 miles west of Reclamation Road. 

The San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round during daylight hours. Hiking and biking are permitted on the trails, but dogs are not allowed on the trail.

To discover other great hikes, check out our Guide to Hiking In Sonoma County, then find more info about things to do, restaurants, and hotels & lodging in Sonoma County.

Written by Sonoma Insider Suzie Rodriguez