PT. REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE: A Ten-Mile Walking Meditation to the Coast and Back Via Super-Popular, Ever-Alluring Bear Valley Trail
We didn't intend to hike Bear Valley Trail, from the Visitor's Center at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, to the coast, four and a half somewhat long miles away, on this gorgeous classic California warm winter day. If you'd asked me prior to our noon time arrival in the jam-packed parking lot if I wanted to do a weekend hike on Bear Valley Trail from the Visitor's Center at Pt. Reyes National Seashore to the coast at Arch Rock, my first and immediate response would be "ARE YOU KIDDING?!" Don't you know that it's probably THE most popular trail head in Northern California, and for good reason, owing to its innumerable historic attractions, sylvan charms, riparian Siren allures, and littoral enticements; and yet somehow in my mind, from a lame memory twenty years ago when a Park Ranger busted me in front of a bunch of gawking passers-by for having my dog, Samantha, off-leash, it's been off my "A-List" all these years as a preferred destination to hike on a regular basis - and why? Certainly not because of a dearth of beauty, or a paucity of natural splendor, or any real short-comings. . .except, of course, for the eternally clogged overflow traffic of hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Talk about a turn-off! Why, this place is dog-eared in a hundred languages in every Bay Area guidebook, making it a de rigueur holy trek done daily by hundreds of people. If not an invigorating long outing to the impressive Arch Rock via Bear Valley Trail, then there's an inviting network of easy paths to lollygag the day away exploring and taking in nature's glorious bounty in an utterly leisure fashion - try Earthquake Trail @ 1 k; Woodpecker Trail @ .8 k; or Kule Loklo Trail @ .6 k). People of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities are out and about everywhere, all the time! (In actuality, this is a good thing, Gambolin' Man!) I figured that this stretch of woods has become a path so trodden that peace and solitude must surely be as impossible to come upon as a file-in-line parade up Mt. Fuji . . .oh, well, here we are, the day's precious, so let's enjoy it.
From the outset, we'd been looking to hike semi-old growth redwood forests in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, but on this cold, cold (apparently) morning, all the locals must be freezing their collective asses off because a million fire pits are stoked, turning the crisp air into a miasma of unbreatheable, choky smoke that clings to tree tops like a layer of funky fog. We climb back in the metal monstrosity, our own polluting machine, and push on farther until, just twenty minutes later, we arrive on the doorstep of Pt. Reyes land. Instinctively - probably more due to driving fatigue and a keen urge to get out and enjoy this brilliant day - I automatically pull into the Bear Valley Visitor's Center - Heaven forbid! - and drive a couple of football fields to find a place to park.
I'm quite skeptical whether this scene can be atoned or salvaged. . .it's a glorious, sunny, warm day after rains and gloom, and you couldn't hope to be anywhere prettier! -- but these crowds! My God! It's a jamboree! Now calmed down, and ambling ecstatically down the trail, I'm quite surprised at how few people we actually encounter. . . So, what's your friggin' gripe, Gambolin' Man?
No gripe from me! In all honesty, I'm totally blown away by this hike, the land that it goes through, where it ends up. Although flat and easy, and no marathoner by any stretch of the imagination, it's still nine or ten miles, and still does require a modicum of stamina and sturdy, reliable body parts, for all the tromping around and scampering about in insatiable bursts every five hundred feet or so of "look-see" forays to explore overlooked nooks and discover underappreciated crannies, can tend to do some tendon damage to already over-stressed lower extremities. Ah, the price to pay for doing what you love to do, what you live for, what you crave like a drug.
The hike - some would call it a stroll - leads down the pretty canyon corridor through diverse habitats of alternating vegetation zones, from riparian to mixed woodland to chaparral to extensive meadowlands, all along following the sweet meandering course of a nameless little creek that becomes Alder-choked Coast Creek below Divide Meadow about halfway into the hike. It's a richly aromatic forest where you'll find (in season) colorful displays of native wildflowers and endemic and California plant communities of ferns, thimbleberry, alder, bay, Douglas fir, coffeeberry, ceanothus, gooseberry, hazelnut, poison oak and countless other species comprising the floral understory of the magnificent forest.
Coast Creek, replenished by modest rains, flows vigorously to its terminus at ocean beach, relentlessly cutting a riparian path through the canyon, where coursing waters have divided the headland into the cascading debouchure on one side, and the peninsular spit of land jutting into the sea 100 ft. above the crashing sea below on the other - creating a gigantic, precarious cliff from which to take in the truly spectacular surroundings of this utterly pristine stretch of Pacific shoreline. (Little wonder it's a National Recreation Area / National Seashore.) Off to the left, the creek reaches the sea by way of a small gorge cutting a series of boulder-clogged twists, turns, and pretty little chutes spilling down its ultimate egress over a 10 ft. waterfall to flow over brown sand into the bosom of lapping waves. A most remarkable sight, ignored by four-fifths of the crowd up on the cliff admiring the sweeping pelagic views.
The day is unfolding leisurely; we're in no particular hurry - even though the open ocean beckons and the deeper hills call. And what about some ADVENTURE, dammit? Well, on a day like this, who needs it! There are about two dozen people here, who'd gotten an earlier jump on the day, already picnicking, loitering at the beach, most heading back now that the day's light is beginning to wane. Many are in groups, tourists, speaking French, German, Japanese. We stake out a piece of paradise and enjoy a lunch break, and hardly notice anyone as we take in the calm, blue expanse of infinite ocean, and the rolling green hills behind us framed by Mt. Wittenberg's 1407 ft. high eminence. We explore a side track leading out along the edge of the cliff, awed at the crashing waves below, and entranced with the opposite view looking back up Bear Valley, appearing as a long, white tipped Alder-choked ravine.
If there'd been any gas left in the tank, we would extend our hike by a few miles, and return via Sky Trail, or Coast Trail, back up through the secluded hills, but it's already been an ankle-buster, and we're only halfway done, so we opt to kick back in the sun and soak it all in for a few more leisurely minutes. I find a patch of diminishing sunlight, perch my haunch on a rock, and soak my foot in the gushing cold (healing) waters of Coast Creek. Finally, knowing it will take twice as long to make it back, we reluctantly pack it up and reverse course, heading back up Bear Valley Trail. It's slow, painful going for the most part for the hobbled Gambolin' Man, and we barely make it to the staging area by dusk, exhausted, sore, but exhilarated as always by the spiritual rewards reaped from another rejuvenating dose of the magical natural world.