Hiking: San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge
One of the most rewarding and unusual Sonoma County hikes I’ve taken lately has been on the Lower Tubbs Island/Tolay Creek trail at the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
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. (Download species lists for birds, fish, invertebrates, mammals and plants.)
At approximately eight miles, the Lower Tubbs Island/Tolay Creek Trail is currently the only accessible trail at the refuge. Flat and graded, and running atop levees, it makes 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 (complete directions at the end of this article). 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.
On our trek, in late fall, these agricultural lands were plowed and empty, stretching east as far as we could see. It was a pleasantly warm day, with a vast blue sky empty of clouds. We found it hard to believe that only 10 minutes before we’d been speeding down a busy highway. Now we were completely alone, no other humans in sight, in a kind of California version of “Big Sky” country.
Eventually the agricultural lands fell away and marshy areas began to appear. The ubiquitous salt-tolerant pickleweed, bright green in summer, had turned red and orange on our visit. Smallish birds with long beaks poked around the shallows, seeking food. Snow-white egrets stood aloof and looked bored. Flocks of ducks moved across deeper waters or took refuge in tall reeds.
After a bit more than two miles a kiosk marked the entrance to Lower Tubbs Island Bird Sanctuary.
Here’s an important trail note. When you look at current maps of the trail at this point — including the official trail map — this portion of the trail appears to be a loop. The truth is, it once was a loop, but it no longer is. Mother Nature wore away a breach in the levee, and U. S. Fish & Wildlife determined that this breach was best for the wetlands. A new map is coming, but has been delayed by the sequester and other budgetary problems.
So when you get to the bird sanctuary kiosk, do not turn right, because you won’t get very far (yeah, we tried); what looks like a trail swiftly turns into thick undergrowth. Instead of turning right, continue along on the trail that brought you to the kiosk. You’ll go past beautiful marsh scenery and onto the edge of San Pablo Bay. At that point you can turn right, walk along the bay for a while and then head north along the levee until you reach the breach mentioned above. That’s where you’ll turn around and retrace your steps.
We only saw four hikers the entire time we were on the trail and found it amazing to be alone with so much beautiful landscape. On the edge of the bay water lapped gently onto Lower Tubbs Island; it was too hazy to spot San Francisco or any of its bridges, but we could see the mountains of Marin, East Bay and Sonoma surrounding us in the distance.
At one point, stopping on the trail for a water break, I felt a sudden change in the atmosphere and heard an odd rustling noise. I looked up to see hundreds of birds flying in unison directly above. With a sudden flick they changed direction and came to land on a broad watery expanse formed in the marshes by the incoming tide.
We continued on until we hit that impassable break in the levee and then returned the way we’d come. Less than an hour had passed since we’d walked west beside San Pablo Bay, but now, going in the opposite direction, the incoming tide had caused the small beach to disappear on the bay side of the levee; on the other, water was steadily rising in the wetlands.
We walked on through the marshes, past the agricultural lands, and back to the embrace of our automobiles. Between getting lost a couple of times, seeking ways around the levee break, backtracking and assorted other brilliant hiking maneuvers, we figured we’d traveled more than 10 miles on what’s said to be an 8.1-mile trail.
But who’s counting? A gorgeous day in autumn, a wealth of wildlife, mountain ranges everywhere. This huge landscape belonged only to us, if just for a short time. And like all good hiking trips, it lives on in my memory.
Directions: The entrance to Lower Tubbs Island and the Tolay Creek Trail is located adjacent to Highway 37, approximately a half-mile east of the Highway 121/37 intersection in Sonoma County. Download a map for the refuge and trail.
- The refuge is open year-round during daylight hours.
- Hiking and biking are permitted on the trail.
- Dogs are not allowed on the trail.