Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Drakes Head

Point Reyes view at Drakes Head
9 miles round trip, 1050 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Narrow paved road to trailhead, no fee required

If you’re looking for a photo of a Canadian rapper’s face, this is the wrong page for you! But if you’re looking for a pretty (albeit long) hike in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore to a coastal promontory with views over bird-packed estuaries, long sandy beaches, and coastal bluffs, then you’re in luck. Drakes Head overlooks both Drakes Estero and Drakes Bay, all named after Sir Frances Drake, the Elizabethan era English naval officer and pirate who robbed Spanish galleons up and down the Pacific coast of the Americas and who likely landed here at Point Reyes. The scenery is generally good, if not superlative; this is one of the few day hikes in Point Reyes that accesses the wildlife-rich Estero, but there are a few long stretches of hiking on somewhat featureless grasslands along the way to the views from Drakes Head.

The hike is reasonably easy despite its length, as there are many short ups and downs but no extended ascents or descents; the trail is mostly out in the open, which can be punishing under the California sun. While perhaps not the highlight hike at Point Reyes, Drakes Head still makes a satisfying day outing and is somewhat less crowded than better known hikes in the area such as Alamere Falls and Tomales Point. High grass is especially common along the trail on the final single-track path to Drakes Head, so be prepared for ticks. The trail is open to both hikers and bikers: expect to see mountain bikers along the way.

I hiked to Drakes Head on a hazy January weekend. To reach the Estero Trailhead in Point Reyes National Seashore, I headed north from San Francisco on US 101 and took exit 450B in the direction of San Anselmo and Sir Francis Drake Blvd. I followed Sir Francis Drake Blvd west past San Anselmo and Samuel P. Taylor State Park for 21 miles to the junction with Highway 1 at Olema. I turned right at the junction and followed Highway 1 north for 2 miles, then turned left at Point Reyes Junction to stay on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. I took Sir Francis Drake Blvd for another 8.5 miles, passing the village of Inverness on Tomales Bay, and made a left turn at the signed turnoff for the Estero Trailhead. The paved spur road to the Estero Trailhead was very narrow but thankfully was only a mile long before reaching a large gravel parking lot with pit toilets and room for about 30 cars.

I started the hike to Drakes Head by following the Estero Trail out from the parking lot. The Estero Trail, which had a wide and well-maintained trail tread, headed to the southeast along the contours of a hill, starting out with a gentle to flat grade. The trail was completely out in grassy and brushy terrain here, allowing views of forested Inverness Ridge rising to the east and the hills of Point Reyes spreading out in the other directions. From this early stretch of trail, I was lucky to spot a herd of tule elk grazing on the grassy hill across the valley. These native Californian ungulates were nearly hunted to extinction in the late nineteenth century after European American settlers arrived; the herd at Point Reyes is part of a rebounding statewide population.

Elk herd
At 0.6 miles, the trail entered a grove of Monterey pines. Over the next half mile, the trail traveled through a pretty pine forest, eventually beginning a gradual descent that dropped the trail down to the shores of Home Bay, an arm of the Drake Estero, at 1.1 miles.

Monterey Pines along the Estero Trail
The Estero Trail crossed its namesake body of water on a small bridge. During high tide, water flows under the bridge and floods these tidal flats, bringing in numerous birds to feed on the creatures that make these tidelands their home. It was a delight to watch birds feed in the Estero while sitting on a bench on the bridge; I especially enjoyed seeing snowy plovers and an egret pecking for food.

Avian dinnertime at Home Bay
Shorebirds feeding
After crossing the bridge, the trail followed a causeway across the remainder of Home Bay. Reaching the other side of the Estero, the trail turned sharply to the right and began to ascend steadily up the side of the low ridge, with increasingly nice views of Home Bay and the grove of Monterey pines across the water. 

Estero Trail crossing Home Bay
The full extent of Home Bay, which included another inlet to the west, became apparent as I ascended. The trail soon leveled out and followed the side of the coastal bluffs, staying high above the water. At 1.6 miles, the Estero Trail began to bend to the left and a magnificent view of the entirety of Drakes Estero unfolded in front of me. The estero’s calm waters sparkled beneath low bluffs and long, grassy ridges.

Drakes Estero
Over the next mile, the Estero Trail made two undulating descents and ascents from the bluffs, each time descending to a small pond separated from the estuary by a small earthen dam that the trail would follow. Neither of the ponds were particularly scenic- one was heavily coated in algae- but both ponds attracted birds and I spotted egrets in the estuary near both spots. The views of the estero evolved each time I ascended back up to the bluffs. Cattle gates made their first appearances on the trail during this stretch.

Egret in Drakes Estero
At 2.5 miles, the Estero Trail came to a junction with the Sunset Beach Trail. The Sunset Beach Trail continued straight ahead on the nice road trace that the Estero Trail had utilized thus far, while the Estero Trail headed to the left, turning into a grassy single-track trail. I stayed on the Estero Trail, which ascended gently through the grasses and offered improving views of Drakes Estero to the west. At 2.7 miles, I crossed a cattle gate and followed blue arrows that marked the trail through these cattle pastures. In the middle of a plateau-like grassland, I could no longer see the water on any side; the scenery transitioned to views of wooded Inverness Ridge and rolling grasslands dotted with grazing dairy cows.

Drakes Estero
The dairy industry has played a major role in Marin County’s economy since the California Gold Rush days and is still renowned today. Much of the non-wilderness part of Point Reyes National Seashore is still managed as cattle grazing land, continuing a practice that was first initiated by European American settlers in Point Reyes who made cheese and butter to sell to the growing city of San Francisco. That legacy lives on in the numerous cheesemakers and creameries that still call Marin County home: most famous of these is Cowgirl Creamery near Point Reyes Station, where the grass of the Marin hills is processed through ruminant metabolism and microbial fermentation into the delectable Mount Tam cheese, among others. Point Reyes Farmstead, Nicasio Valley Cheese, and Marin French Cheese are among other area cheesemakers whose products commonly grace the cheese section in Bay Area grocery stores. While legacy agriculture operations were grandfathered when Point Reyes National Seashore was established, there's still some level of controversy about whether they should continue; the Department of Interior acted in 2012 to discontinue legacy oyster farming in Drakes Estero.

Grazing cows
At 3.1 miles into the hike, I passed through another gate and arrived at the junction between the Estero Trail and the Drakes Head Trail. I took the right fork for the Drakes Head Trail, which began heading south across the broad plateau of the grasslands.

As I followed the Drakes Head Trail south, my destination came into view: Drakes Head was a prominent hill rising at the end of the low ridge that I was following. Soon, arms of Limantour Estero were visible to the east, with the dunes of Limantour Spit visible in the distance and the Pacific Ocean beyond that. The single-track trail headed through the high grass and had to cross a small gully at one point; the bottom of the gully was unfortunately extremely muddy. While hiking through the grass was fairly easy, I can see the terrain here being substantially more challenging with mud after recent rains, although the exposed nature of this hike should also dry things out quickly once the sun returns.

View of Limantour Estero from the Drakes Head Trail
I enjoyed the improving views along the walk down the ridge as the trail descended gently, until I finally started ascending gently again as I approached the end of the ridge. The final, mild uphill climb brought me up along the crest of the ridge towards Drakes Head, offering lovely views of Limantour Estero to one side and a small creek valley to the other side.

View along the grassy ridge leading out to Drakes Head
At 4.5 miles, I reached the destination of my hike atop 150-foot high Drakes Head, a bluff overlooking Drakes Bay with excellent views up and down the Point Reyes coast. The sandy finger of Limantour Spit ran beneath us, separating Limantour Estero’s calm waters from the waves of Drakes Bay and the Pacific. To the west, I could see the end of Limantour Spit and the mouth of Drakes Estero; beyond that, a line of Point Reyes’ distinctive yellow cliffs connected all the way to Chimney Rock at the edge of the peninsula. To the east, more cliffs rose beyond Limantour Estero, stretching down the coast. Haze on the day of my hike limited how far I could see; on a very clear day, the views should stretch all the way to the Farallon Islands, about 23 miles off the coast.

Drakes Bay and Point Reyes view from Drakes Head
Limantour Spit and Limantour Estero from Drakes Head
Egrets fly over Limantour Estero
In 1579, Sir Francis Drake landed in a sheltered harbor on the coast of California during his circumnavigation of the Earth. An explorer and English naval officer, Drake was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to explore the Americas and raid Spanish wealth. Despite an unfortunate start to his journey- the six ships with which we left England were reduced to just one, the Golden Hind, by the time he rounded Tierra del Fuego- Drake was wildly successful at sacking Spanish cities and plundering treasures from Spanish ships (treasures that the Spanish initially acquired through the downfall of the Inca and Aztec empires and through the encomienda system that committed indigenous Americans to slavery). While sailing off the California coast, Drake probably landed here in Drakes Bay to make repairs to the Golden Hind; he proclaimed this land to be Nova Albion and claimed the Coast Miwok homeland for the English throne. Anglo American settlers in late nineteenth century chose to reintroduce Drake's name to various landmarks around Point Reyes and Marin County; recently, a reevaluation of Drake's mixed legacy has begun, centered around Drake's role in the slave trade earlier in his life.

Overall, I found the hikes to Drakes Head to be enjoyable but not necessarily exceptional. The views along the Estero Trail and at Drakes Head are great, although there’s not too much variety in the scenery covered over this nine-mile round trip hike. The opening stretches of the hike along the Estero Trail are fairly popular and get a good amount of visitor traffic, although Drakes Head is sufficiently far from the trailhead that it sees fewer visitors. This isn’t a highlight hike in the Bay Area, or even in Point Reyes National Seashore, but it’s enjoyable and certainly worthwhile for Bay Area hikers who make the drive out.

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