Tomales Bay, shade and Shell Beach

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Tomales Bay, shade and Shell Beach

Hot day? This easy three-mile hike in a bishop pine forest at Tomales Bay State Park is green and shady most of the way, and has the added bonus of an optional swim at Shell Beach. By leaving one car at the Shell Beach parking lot and carpooling to the start of the Jepson trail, you can avoid the uphill entailed in a round-trip hike.

Take the signed Jepson trail, and in .1 mile turn right. In another .1 mile there is a signpost where you turn right to go 2.5 miles to Shell Beach.

There were eight Coast Miwok village sites in what is now Tomales Bay State Park. The land and bay supplied food, medicine, basketry materials and other necessities. This walk gives you the opportunity to contemplate the richness of the area, and similar areas along the coast where Miwok, Pomo and other tribes lived.

Many kinds of edible berries grow here, including thimbleberries, woodland strawberries (which are finished for the season though you can still see the leaves), huckleberries, gooseberries, currants, salal, native blackberries and madrone berries. Toyon berries, which are tiny and green now but will be red in December, were welcomed in winter when the other berries were finished for the season. They were eaten cooked.

Tan oaks and live oak provided the staple, acorns. Buckeyes were only used when the oak harvest failed since it took more work to leach them than to leach acorns. Bay, hazel and chinquapin trees also provided edible nuts. Hazel sticks were used for making cradles and other strong baskets. Other plants were used as medicine, including the minty-smelling yerba buena, which has tiny white flowers, sticky monkeyflower, ocean spray, coffeeberry berries, honeysuckle root and poison oak, which was used for wart removal. Rushes, chain ferns, bracken ferns, ground iris leaves and hedge nettles were used to make baskets, traps for fish and rope.

The land even supplied the material for musical instruments. The Miwoks made clappers from elderberry bushes.

The trail winds under bishop pines and tan oaks. The understory is thick with sword ferns and bracken ferns, huckleberry bushes and sticky monkeyflower. A raised boardwalk announces you are in a wetter area. Rushes and lady ferns grow by it. The valley to the left is full of lovely magenta giant coastal hedge nettles and the shrub Labrador tea, with its distinctive odor.

When you arrive at the beach on Tomales Bay it is easy to look out at the water, but take time to notice the wetland as well. The wetlands flower in summer when the hills are brown. The tiny bright yellow jaumea flowers are in bloom now, as well as lavender marsh rosemary. You will probably also notice a large number of 1-1½-cone-shaped snails in the shallows of the wetland. These are Asian hornsnails, an invasive species that reached the U.S. in the late 1920s to early 1930s. Through competition they have decreased the populations of native California hornsnails, which the California Native American tribes gathered for food, especially between mussel harvests.

Go up the stairs and over the knoll, and in a few minutes you come to Shell Beach. There is another small wetland, with cattails toward the back. Cattail roots were sometimes ground and mixed with acorn meal in making acorn bread. The absorbent fluffy seeds served as a lining for baby baskets. A short .3 mile trail uphill takes you to the Shell Beach parking lot.

To get to Shell Beach take the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard exit from Highway 101, continue west through the town of Inverness and turn right on Camino del Mar, which ends at the parking lot. Leave one car there and return to Sir Francis Drake. Continue to the junction with Pierce Point Road. Take Pierce Point Road for about four miles to a dirt parking lot on your right. It is before the main entrance to Tomales Bay State Park. No dogs. No entrance fee.

Wendy Dreskin has led the College of Marin nature/hiking class Meandering in Marin since 1998, and teaches other nature classes for adults and children. To contact her, go to

source Marin IJ