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The Serene Beauty of Sears Point Tidal Wetlands

An American Avocet at the Sears Point Wetlands

One of the most beautiful, serene, and unusual places to hike in Sonoma County is along the tidal wetlands at Sears Point, part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Serenity might seem surprising, given that trail parking is just south of the busy Highway 37/Lakeville Highway intersection, but once you pull into the parking lot and make your way to the trailhead, all those speeding cars disappear from sight and sound.

They’re replaced by a vast expanse of tidal wetlands edging San Pablo Bay, an unimpeded sky, and a silence broken only by the melody of songbirds and the occasional exultant screech of a hawk. You can almost always see San Francisco in the distance, sometimes surrounded by fog and at other times glinting in the sun.

More than 200,000 acres of tidal wetlands once ringed San Francisco Bay. After the Gold Rush, as the region's population increased and its land was settled, the wetlands were viewed as a barrier to progress. About 90 percent of the bay’s wetlands were drained, diked, and filled with soil to become farmland or to support buildings.

But attitudes have changed in recent decades, as climate change and sea level rise have become a reality. People have come to see the value of wetlands, which serve important purposes: they filter pollutants, sequester carbon, create a habitat for countless species (including endangered species), and — perhaps most important in an era of climate change — they create a buffer against storm surges.

The Sears Point wetlands were the focus of a 10-year marsh restoration project that ended in the fall of 2015, when Sonoma Land Trust breached the levee at Sears Point and allowed tides to return to 1,000 acres of land that had been diked off from the bay and farmed since the late 1800s.

On a hike here you’ll get to see all of this — the newly-thriving, still-growing wetlands; the fabulous views; the incoming and outgoing tides; the fledgling marsh mounds and emerging growths of pickleweed; and the wealth of birds and other wildlife. (Download wildlife and habitat lists for the Refuge.)

Two sections of the Bay Trail converge at the Sears Point trailhead. The Bay Trail is a planned 500-mile path encircling San Francisco Bay; at this date, 345 miles have been completed. The newest section here, 2.5 miles long, is also known as the Eliot Trail; it heads east from the trailhead, skirting the bay. The older, 1.5-mile section heads west, ending at Port Sonoma. Combine them for an 8-mile round trip, or just hike a section of one.

There's also a third trail, about a mile long, that runs west and then south along a segment of the old levee. I walked out there recently and was mesmerized by the beauty and peace.

When I arrived at Sears Point I was intent on pumping up my Fitbit step count by hiking the full eight miles, but once I started walking toward the levee everything, including me, seemed to slow down. I stopped for a while to watch a family of ducks cavorting in the water, admire the stately elegance of an egret, and marvel over the pickleweed…

The tides were out, so instead of walking atop the levee I picked my way along the muddy ground a few feet below, but as I approached the breach I climbed upward. The tide was flowing in through the breach, visibly powerful and fast enough to put a shiver down my spine. Nature was doing what it's wont to do, and that’s often just as scary as it is beautiful.

On the return I came up behind a man moving so slowly that I assumed he was in the midst of a walking meditation. I slowed and quieted my footsteps to pass without disturbing him, but he looked up and smiled as I moved by.

"Gorgeous place, isn't it?" I asked.

"Thirty minutes here," he said, "and I can feel all that stress just drain away."

My sentiments exactly. Come for a hike, and you’ll see what I mean.

Visiting Sears Point Wetlands

Address: 7715 Reclamation Road, Sonoma

Directions:

- From Hwy 12/121: Continue through the light at Sears Point and merge onto Hwy 37 west. Get in the left turn lane at Lakeville Highway, and turn south onto Reclamation Road. Park in the small lot on the left, and walk from there to the trailhead.

- From Highway 101: Take Hwy 37 eastbound from Novato to the light at Lakeville Highway. Follow directions above.

Guided Walks and Hikes:

Sonoma Land Trust offers free interpretive talks and bird walks on Saturdays, 9 a.m.-noon. Bring binoculars. Meet on the Bay Trail.

- May 6, 2017: Take It Outside at Sears Point: Bicycle the Bay Trail, view wildlife through a spotting scope, kayak the waters (must have your own kayak), and more at this annual event. Register through eventbrite, or contact Sonoma Land Trust at [email protected] or (707) 526-6930 x 110.

More Information:

- Watch Doug McConnell’s Open Road segment, “Sonoma Baylands Restoration.”

Love the outdoors? Find more fun things to do outside in Sonoma County

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