Saturday, May 24, 2008

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE: Whiling Away the Day Hiking Coastal Trail & Exploring the Geological Wonders of Sculptured Beach

I'm absorbed in tracking deer and raccoon prints in a muddy back hollow where a nameless little creek gathers in a marshy, forested area rife with mature alder trees, ferns and flowering bushes, when suddenly my attention turns upward to catch a glimpse, barely ten feet away, of a low-flying Great Horned Owl!
The bird, who I must have scared up from his roost, swerves toward me, and we lock eyes long enough to sense that his feathers are a bit ruffled at this early hour of the day.
Now, adeptly swooping up to alight on a tree limb, we engage in a momentary stare-down, before he flies off in a silent whir of elegant movement, leaving me satisfied and amazed at my second sighting of a Great Horned Owl in just two months (after 25 years of not spotting a single one in the Bay Area).
Hiking on, wondering who next in the animal kingdom will make an appearance, I watch through binoculars another rarely seen bird, the regal accipiter white kite, hunt for mice above a meadow.
With wildflowers prevalent, we enjoy the chaperoning presence of flirtatious hummingbirds and flitting butterflies and bumblebees seeking nectar delights; and we encounter a huge gopher snake sunning just off the trail who does not like it one bit when I reach down to feel his tail end.
Down at the beach, someone asks if we saw the gray whales swim by on their journey back north from the calving lagoons of Baja California where they migrate 5000 miles each January to partake in their annual feast and reproduce before making their way back another 5000 miles and two months of swimming to the nutrient-rich waters of Alaska.
Unfortunately, we missed that tremendous sighting which draws thousands of spectators to Point Reyes at this time of year hoping to catch a glimpse of the magnificent marine mammals en route to and from their breeding and feeding grounds.
Yeah, hard to argue, another day trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, a nearby world-class destination where pristine environments and unusual experiences await.
Whether you’re out and about sight-seeing by car – chances are good you’ll see big herds of elk from the roadside; or kayaking on Drakes Estero or Tomales Bay, you'll be alongside harbor seals and leopard sharks.
Or hiking or horseback riding in the hill country; mountain biking where it’s legal; or just lounging on easily accessible beaches – you never know what sights or encounters await, but surely something memorable or spectacular.
Having visited Point Reyes several months ago, the allure to return is strong on this sunny, warm weekend; the itch to do and see something different; the yearning to check out a part of the peninsula we’ve never hiked is compelling enough to make the hour and a half trip to westernmost Marin County.
How can it be that we're headed to a stretch of beach we don’t know? Easy – it goes to show just how expansive Point Reyes is! I've been to this nature wonderland probably twenty times, and yet Sculptured Beach was never part of any itinerary!
Hard to believe, and hard to be disappointed, too, with clear skies affording far-flung vistas of curvaceous Limantour Beach stretching all the way to the Lighthouse at Land's End, with rugged, picturesque Resistance Point framing the long-distance view to the south.
And with wildflowers abundant, birdsong filling the air, the wind at our backs, and  what we have come for – the beauty and tranquility of a gemlike littoral scene awaiting us at Sculptured Beach . . . and – surprise of surprises! – the remarkable place is all ours for the most part.
Where on earth is everyone?
From the youth hostel and Environmental Center off Limantour Road, Coastal Trail enters the Philip Burton Wilderness Area to begin its long and winding 11-mile route all the way to the southern terminus of the Marin Headlands near the Golden Gate Bridge, a trail system of spectacular hiking with spur trails adding hundreds of additional miles of superb back country trekking.
Can it get any better than this for living in one of the country’s top metropolitan areas? This first stretch of Coastal Trail begins as a fire road, offering quite nice hiking through hills and forests, nothing to complain about or scoff at, that's for sure!
 After all, it is Point Reyes National Seashore in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area!
After 2.8 miles – roughly a third of what we’ll hike today – we pass by beautiful Santa Maria Beach with colorful lupines bursting in bloom to create incredibly scenic views.
Here, at Coast Camp, the trail turns into single track. A group of dads are set up with their young daughters for an overnighter (must be giving the moms a reprieve from parenting duties on this Mother's Day weekend).
We wave, continuing on, passing below a rocky outcrop that reminds us of a miniature Mount Rushmore, and finally we venture down a drainage where, to my delight, a sweet little creek  Santa Maria  is merrily burbling at a bridge crossing.
It's a beautiful little creek, as they all are!
And yet a couple of hikers strut on by without even deigning to look at it so intent are they in their single-minded pursuit of getting to the main attraction – Sculptured Beach.
I suppose so. What possible interest could a “nothing little creek” hold?
Well, this nothing little creek happens to drain the hill country of the Mount Wittenberg and Mount Vision watershed!
Surprisingly, because of so little rain this season, the creek still carries enough water in its bed to charm us into stopping to take in the small but enchanting miracle of cold, flowing water seeking its course to join forces with the great ocean.
I take my shoes off, soak my sore feet, splash refreshing cold water on my face in a baptismal ritual of spiritual cleansing. As always, these restful stops are all about a few moments of reverential silence, just looking, listening, taking it all in – every little nuance of nature.
I explore around a bend to see what's new there . . . and chance upon skeletal remains, including a polished skull sans nose, of – what? who? – a small deer, perhaps.
We reluctantly leave the little creek scene and continue our pleasant amble through the open countryside, noting the burnt trees high above, remnants from the 1995 Vision Fire that consumed over 12,000 acres.
After about a mile beyond Coast Camp, we're wondering where the side trail is to Sculptured Beach, when suddenly the land clefts wide open.
It's carved by forceful waters coursing from the high country to the oceanic outlet to create a mini canyon replicating something much more forbiddingly rugged than it is in reality.
Later, from below, we find the outlet and scramble up a ways to explore its narrow twisty innards, and discover an isolated world from the ocean, where, in the rainy season, it must be a muddy torrent cutting little stair step falls to the ocean.
Now, it's gentle, hidden, with flowers in bloom, high red walls, no trace of water. It’s climbable back up to the high trail. Next time we’ll descend to the beach this way for some mild-mannered diversionary adventure.
The side trail to Sculptured Beach leads a quarter mile through a magical forest with birds singing and prancing about on tree limbs. It's a shady and moist retreat from the hot day, inviting us to linger endlessly in this cool arboreal womb.
But the pull of the ocean draws us out into the bright sunshine, the exposed, expansive world of blue sky and celadon ocean and the first hint of what's to come – the tortured geology of gigantic cliffs and elephantine rocks carved by eons of wind and water working its transformative magic beyond the grasp of a puny human lifetime.
Sculptured Beach!
My! My!
Simply amazing, this long, wide rocky stretch of shoreline with pounding surf, hundreds of seabirds, and many huge crabs washed up half dead.
Too bad it's not low tide, or it would be doubly spectacular with intriguing tide pools to explore exposing all manner and variety of marine creatures  anemones, seastars, barnacles snails crabs, fish.
I’ve never been so quickly and instantly impressed by a California beach! What a great feeling to come upon someplace new and dramatic – especially right in your figurative back yard!
I run amok like a little boy in a lost world landscape, thrilled at the sights – fantastic reddish fluted cliff formations and fairytale castle minarets; oddly sculpted rocks adorned with masses of clinging barnacles; exposed seabed layered white richly textured rock.
Giant shore boulders, fallen from high above, pockmarked by huge holes and carved into odd shapes by timeless forces infuse you with awe and wonder at Mother Nature's ways.
It's a visual feast, a visceral sensation of immensity, a marvelous escape from the mundane . . . all of which is easily attainable and accomplished at Point Reyes, but especially here at Sculptured Beach.
Kicked back in the shade of a horseshoe hollow, framed by a 100 ft. high flower-draped and dripping springs cliff face carved out by unique erosive forces, I stare in mindless contemplation at the great pelagic expanse, spellbound by its overwhelming raw power, trying to contextualize and reconcile a puny human lifetime within the infinite and eternal rhythms.
The mighty blue ocean will roar for a billion years more . . .
. . . and our lives are only the time it takes a single wave to wash ashore . . .
. . . beautiful and powerful, yet so transient and ephemeral . . .
Kick back and enjoy 22 videos of various scenes filmed on location at Point Reyes National Seashore: