California’s Biggest Estuary

California’s biggest estuary is called the San Francisco Bay.

It truly is a bay—and a great harbor—so it makes sense to call it a bay. Indeed, the New Oxford American Dictionary identifies the San Francisco Bay as an exemplar in its definition of the term “bay.”

From an economic point of view, the San Francisco Bay provides a world-class harbor on a rugged, foggy Northern California coastline that otherwise has few natural harbors and nothing nearly as large and accommodating of commercial water-born transport.

From an ecological point of view however, the San Francisco Bay might better be regarded as a vast estuarine system that includes the San Pablo Bay, the Suisun Bay, Richardson Bay, and the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta complex. Seen as an estuary, it is California’s biggest and most impressive place where fresh and salt water mix and mingle.

I like thinking about it as an estuary. As degraded as it is from an ecological perspective, it is still an important ecosystem in the lives of much of California’s wildlife. Its ecological importance to natural systems seems to me to be analogous to the the Bay Area’s current importance economically speaking today as the home to Silicon Valley and the birthplace of the tech revolution.

The Estuarian in me loves visiting San Francisco Bay. I feel happy just to be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of all the human and non-human activity there.

A very good way to see this estuary is to go paddling there, as I did with my nephew, John when we paddled on Richardson Bay from Sausalito not long ago.

If you don’t have a boat or are not inclined to paddle, there is another a great way to see this estuary/bay:

Ride a bike around it.

GGB on 8:24:16

Yesterday, to celebrate our 42nd wedding anniversary, my wife and I rode our bikes on the Tiburon/San Francisco bicycle loop which, in my opinion, is among the best bicycle rides in the world. (We were married on Angel Island in 1974, taking a ferry from the same terminal.)

We got an early start yesterday. Our journey began in Tiburon. We rode the $10 one-way Tiburon Ferry Express to San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal.

Most of our fellow passengers were commuters on their way to work. They settled in on the lower decks, many nursing coffees, staying attentive to their phones and/or laptop computers. Captivated by the virtual world displayed on their screens, the commuters appeared to be oblivious to nature’s splendor outside.

Sarah and I opted for the outdoors. Despite a nippy and chilling wind, we left warmth of the cozy cabins crammed with commuters and climbed a stairway to the wind-swept top deck.

The ferry crossed Raccoon Strait and zoomed past Angel and Alcatraz Islands. We took in spectacular views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges and the San Francisco skyline. The scenery called to mind a Langston Hughes’ children’s poem that my daughter used to recite when she was in preschool:

“I went to San Francisco,

I saw the bridges high,

Spun across the water

Like cobwebs in the sky.”

Upon arriving at the Ferry Building, the Peet’s Coffee Shop there proved an irresistible invitation to warm up. Sipping lattés, we watched ferries land and depart at the San Francisco Bay Ferry Terminal.

The previous Sunday we had ridden this same ride in the opposite direction. Everywhere it had been CROWDED with tourists. Riding across the bridge on weekends can be dicey. Too many visitors crowd the sidewalks. To relieve weekend sidewalk congestion the Bridge District opens the west sidewalk to bicycle traffic Saturdays and Sundays, but it still can be very busy, especially in the afternoons.

Yesterday by contrast we enjoyed the early start on a weekday. The San Francisco waterfront was comparatively quiet early on a Wednesday morning. The ride across the bridge Wednesday morning was uncrowded and pleasant even with bicyclists and pedestrians sharing the east sidewalk.

We started across the bridge under a leaden sky. As if on cue, the sun broke through and melted the gray fog away revealing bright cyan skies.

Once across the bridge, we zoomed down Alexander Avenue into sunny Sausalito, stopping at Dunphy Park for a thermos of piping hot tea made at home. We also some victuals purchased from Molly Stone’s Market in Sausalito as we passed by.

Thus fortified, we continued to make our way around Richardson Bay back to our car in Tiburon.

We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Servino’s Italian Restaurant, sharing a quiet table for two overlooking the ferry landing.

Rivendell & Ferry

Bike & ferry at the end of the ride

You don’t need to own a bike to do this ride. There are many bike rental outfits that can rent you wheels and maps and apps to guide you on this ride. One of them, Blazing Saddles, made this video. It will give you a good idea of what this ride is like.


A map of our day: