Estero Tour: Landmarks to the Beach

Many people at the launch area at the Estero Americano tell me they’ve never paddled all the way to the ocean. That is understandable. It’s five and a half miles to the beach and that first mile is nothing special.

Most of the journey to Bodega Bay, however, is a lovely paddle.

With that in mind, permit me to show you just how grest it is.

Let’s start with a map showing the names of the landmarks along the way. Click to enlarge.

Black text for features on Land. White text for water features. Each feature will be discussed in the following narrative. Click to enlarge.

The public launch is at the intersection of Marsh Road and Valley Ford Estero Road in northwest Marin County.

Looking back towards Valley Ford.

A gravel driveway, often rough with potholes, runs along the south side of the road out to the narrow Estero channel. Parking is limited, but not many people come here. Leave room for others to park.

Launch site. Paddle under bridge to get to ocean

From this site, paddle north under the bridge and begin winding up the channel. You’re likely to pass dairy cattle who often show interest in paddlers passing by.

Dairy heifer

The dairy buildings on the Marin side have a pleasing geometric appeal. They mark the beginning of the wilder reaches of the Estero. You have come about a mile at this point. It gets better from here.

Dairy buildings in Marin County

Wild animals begin to appear beyond this dairy. On the most recent trip, Willets worked the Marin shoreline.


A luxuriant grove of Bay Laurel trees overhang the Estero. It’s a pleasant place to sit in shade on a warm afternoon.

Beyond Bay Laurel Grove you’ll  pass beyond the dairy and out to the rangeland of True Grass Farms. The cattle on this ranch aren’t making milk; they’re for meat. As cattle go, they enjoy some prime real estate. As a rancher I know says, “My cows have only one bad day.”

It is here that the Estero stretches out in a more or less straight mile running west northwest and gradually widening as it approaches Buckeye Bend.

Along this stretch of the Estero I often see Turkey Vultures, Ravens, and Hawks.

To the north is California Highway One.

Zooming in

And zooming in more

Highway One is far enough away so that the only vehicles you’re likely to hear are the unmuffled Harleys. If you know where to look, you can catch a glimpse of the traffic passing by. If you look north as you pass by Coyote Point, you should be able to see the traffic going by on the highway.

Coyote Point, so named for this coyote photographed here.

You’re just shy of halfway to the ocean when you reach Buckeye Bend.

Buckeye Bend. Another person went out that day in a motorized canoe. He is visible if you click on the photo to enlarge it. 

Whale’s Tail marks the halfway point of the trip out to the coast. It’s a landmark that requires no explanation.

Just beyond Whale’s Tail the landscape opens up.

Sonoma Reach

Sonoma Reach opens to the north of the main channel. Sadly there is barbed wire fencing blocking easy passage into this Reach.

Crossing the Reach and passing a Point on the Marin shore you arrive at the Hanging Gardens. A pair of Barn Owls had made their home in a cave near the top of the cliffs here.

Hanging Gardens

Beyond the Hanging Gardens the Estero narrows briefly before opening to Marin Reach.

Marin Reach

As you exit the broader waters of Marin Reach you enter the fiord-like Straits that pass by the Sonoma Land Trust site and lead to the beach. There is Inner Strait

Inner Strait

Middle Strait,

Middle Strait

and Outer Strait.

Outer Strait

Each of these straits requires less than ten minutes of moderate paddling. As you paddle into Outer Strait the sound of surf will become more and more prominent.

Almost there ?

Get out at the end. You’ve made it to the beach!

Lots of footprints on this trip

If you go on a weekday, you may find the beach entirely empty of other people, and, if you’re lucky, even empty of other human footprints. Of course you will see the flotsam and jetsam of humans. It’s everywhere.

I always bring a trash bag to pick up whatever trash I find.

Here is a link to a video panorama of the beach out there.

A Beach Without Footprints

Estero Americano is, again, a lovely place to paddle. On my last visit on February 13 the mouth had been open and the Estero’s tidally-influenced waters were too low to paddle to the coast.

But when I arrived at the launch this morning the calm water was nearly to the top of the channel.

The paddle out to the dairy in the warm morning sun was invigorating.

I caught up with and paddled past a couple in a canoe who had arrived ahead of me and were motoring halfway out to the coast. They told me that the mouth was open and the Estero was influenced by tides; I was almost certain that the mouth was closed.

Above us was a large variety of birds: hawks, vultures, ravens, crows, geese, ducks among others. This hawk, which was kiting, defies my ability to identify it. Maybe Larry will know.


Canada Geese are migrating north and stopping here to rest along their journey.

It took less than two hours to paddle the five and a half miles out to the ocean beach which was shrouded in a coastal peasouper.

Not many people find their way to this part of he Pacific Coast. The only human footprints on the beach today were the ones my feet made.

The sandbar at the mouth has indeed sealed the Estero up in all but the highest tides.

And the Estero should slowly fill up with the water running into it from its tributaries. This makes for a pretty place to paddle indeed.

On the return trip I saw

Great Blue Heron

A solitary Western Grebe, who kept well away from me.

Ravens gathered in a group of a dozen birds and put on a show of amazing aerobics. The ravens harassed any hawks and vultures who flew too nearby. It’s usually crows, not Ravens who gather in flocks, but these birds were definitely Ravens.

A breeding pair of Mergansers

And lots of cows from the dairy, including these  heifers.

Gotta love them!

Paddling in the Estero Americano is a great way to enjoy some animal-enriched solitude.

A map of the journey:

Spring Lake

My plans to paddle Lake Sonoma today were foiled by the fact that the road to the boat launch at Yorty Creek was closed. I decided to paddle on the much smaller Spring Lake instead. Fellow blogger and birder Loren Webster visits Spring Lake when he is in the area and has taken many great photos there.

Spring Lake is a Sonoma County Water Agency flood control reservoir built in 1964 to help Santa Rosa avoid floods downtown in heavy rains. In 1986 and 2014 it fulfilled its intended purpose and saved Santa Rosa from significant flooding.

The Sonoma County Regional Parks Department manages recreational uses of the lake. It’s a very popular walking, jogging, dog walking and picnicking park.

The water agency produced a series of seldom-seen short videos about Spring Lake. I’m not exactly sure what audience the producers had in mind, perhaps people walking around the lake and watching YouTube videos about the lake as they go from sign to sign. Their videos won’t win any awards, but they might be worth a look if you’re really interested in this sort of thing. Here’s one of them:

I launched my kayak and immediately encountered a Black-crowned Night Heron.

All around the lake I saw a variety of birds, none of them too shy. Green Herons on the Russian River are much more skittish than the one here along the northeast shore of the lake.

These are secretive birds, so I was happy to get some good photos of this fellow.

Nearby a Mute Swan was taking a midday snooze. It did crack it’s eye open from time to time to keep tabs on me.

I saw only one Pied-billed Grebe. It surfaced very near my kayak and dove back underwater soon after the shutter closed.

Double-crested Cormorants were everywhere on the lake.

Common Mergansers usually hang out in small groups or mating pairs. This female, though, was all by herself on Spring Lake today.

Canada Geese are talkative birds. The only species at the lake that come close in noisiness are the humans.

As I unloaded my kayak, a Mute Swan came over to see if I might have a treat to offer for a snack.

Spring Lake might not be the most adventurous venue for kayaking, but as Loren’s blog has taught me, it is a good place to go bird watching.

Red Hill Hike

One of the best hikes in Western Sonoma County is the four mIle loop to the top of Red Hill. It begins on the coastal bluff above Shell Beach and climbs, steeply at first, then gradually, to the 860′ summit.

My wife and I enjoyed watching the aerobatic antics of a pair of ravens, the purposeful and deliberate manoevers of birds of prey, and the turkey vultures’majestic slope soaring and thermaling.

On a clear day you can see north to Fort Ross, south to Point Reyes, east to Mount St. Helena, and more than 35 nautical miles out to the Pacific Ocean’s horizon.

The views are long and the scenery is varied–forests, rangeland, ocean, the lower Russian River Estuary, and the tiny seaside hamlet of Jenner.

Looking south from Jenner you can see Red Hill in the distance.

If you’re able to get away for a half day in natural splendor, this is a great place to visit.