Drakes Head, Point Reyes: Estero Trailhead, San Francisco: Marin Headlands - Mt Tamalpais - Point Reyes, California

Drakes Head - 9.0 miles

Point Reyes: Estero Trailhead

View of Limantour Spit from Drakes Head

View of Limantour Spit from Drakes Head

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Round-Trip Length: 9.0 miles
Start-End Elevation: 153' - 148' (243' max elevation)
Elevation Change: -5' net elevation loss (+837' total roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Moderate
Dogs Allowed: No
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
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Drakes Head - 9.0 Miles Round-Trip

Estero - Spanish for Estuary - is a semi-enclosed coastal body of water with fresh water influx and a free connection to the open sea. Contributions from each make estuaries one of the most biologically rich and diverse ecosystems found on earth.

Drakes Estero encompasses approximately 2000 acres: seagrass beds and tidal mud flats are primary sub-habitats in the estuary-proper, with salt marshes and intertidal zones on the periphery.

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Expansive mudflats and eelgrass beds serve as foraging and breeding grounds for many birds, fish, and pinnipeds. The US Shorebird Conservation Plan recognizes Drakes Estero as one of the most crucial areas for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl in California.

In the summer of 1579 English explorer Sir Francis Drake careened his ship on the accommodating shores of this massive inlet for repairs and replenishment. He's believed to have spent 36 days ashore exploring and documenting the land, wildlife and native people before claiming it for England and continuing southwest to complete his global circumnavigation.

Today the estuary, bay and most prominent terrestrial feature above it - Drakes Head - bear his name.

Drakes Head caps a vertical bluff with commanding views of the estero, Pacific Ocean, Limantour Spit, Estero de Limantour, Drakes Beach and distant Chimney Rock. Though the southernmost tip of Drakes Head is perilously steep, confident hikers may find safe routes down its flanks to the Estero de Limantour (east), or a narrow inlet (west):

The Estero Trail begins on double track, bouncing through open rolling hills to a tranquil coastal glade (.65 miles : 117'), its sparse understory well-suited for observing wildlife such as deer, fox, coyote and nesting raptors. The trail emerges on the water's edge and crosses Home Bay over a narrow isthmus to the west of Drakes Headland (1.2 miles : 14').

The crossing is a particularly good place to observe scores of sea and marshland bird species that inhabit these overlapping ecosystems. Look for seals lounging on sprawling mudflats at low tide.

Once across, the rutted-out trail rises sharply up the headland to a gate (1.65 miles : 140'); pass through the turnstile and begin a series of moderately-steep undulations above Drakes Estero.

Trail conditions vary, but are generally uneven and worsened by rain. High points en route yield terrific views across the Estero, and of minor inlets such as Schooner Bay, Creamery Bay and Barries Bay. The shallower waters below are used today by Johnson's Oyster Farm.

From the Sunset Beach - Estero Trail to Drakes Head Trail junction (2.55 miles : 148') turn left and continue on the Estero Trail. The Estero Trail rises sharply for .25 miles to a cattle tank and marked junction that guides you on a hard right turn through a cattle turnstile (2.8 miles : 215').

It's worth noting that few maps adequately illustrate this important change of direction, and that numerous conjoining cattle trails en route should be ignored.

Once through the turnstile, the trail parallels a cattle fence (with guidance from small blue arrow signs) for .45 miles to the Drakes Head Trail junction (3.25 miles : 225'). Hemmed in between this fence and heavily used pastoral land, a close brush or two with free-range cattle can be expected; exercise patience and common sense if confronted.

Bear right (south) on the Drakes Head Trail. The trail glides gently through open space, occasionally obscured by well-worn, intersecting cattle trails; directional vigilance with an eye to the south should keep you on track. These heavily grazed fields blaze green after winter rains, sparkle with spring wildflowers and turn gold in the fall.

The Estero de Limantour comes into clear view as you approach 4 miles and momentarily slide down the headland spine toward it.

Amid this compelling scenery remain alert, as an anonymous wooden post marks an abrupt right turn back up the headland spine (4.25 miles). A more visible cattle tank and pocket of windswept pines in the near distance will help you anticipate this insufficiently marked point.

The trail is now easily and intuitively followed to Drakes Head (4.5 miles : 148'). Though the southernmost tip of Drakes Head is perilously steep, confident trekkers may identify safe routes down its flanks to the Estero de Limantour (east), or a narrow inlet (west).

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Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

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  • N38 04.884 W122 54.849 — Estero Trailhead
  • N38 04.462 W122 54.876 — .65 miles : Skirt thin coastal pine glade
  • N38 04.165 W122 55.047 — 1.2 miles : Exit glade and cross bridge over Home Bay
  • N38 03.936 W122 55.263 — 1.65 miles : Climb headland and pass through gate
  • N38 03.414 W122 55.460 — 2.55 miles : Estero Trail - Sunset Beach Trail junction
  • N38 03.293 W122 55.284 — 2.8 miles : Hard right @ water tank
  • N38 03.109 W122 54.954 — 3.25 miles : Drakes Head Trail junction - bear right
  • N38 02.237 W122 54.953 — 4.25 miles : Bear right at anonymous post
  • N38 02.022 W122 54.953 — 4.5 miles : Drakes Head

Worth Noting

  • The Limantour Estero, Beach and Spit are named after French explorer Jose Yves Limantour, whose ship and crew were stranded on the spit in 1861.

  • Although most flowering plants cannot tolerate salt, specially adapted wetland plants thrive in the estero. Pickleweed is one of the most common plants found in this habitat.

  • Over 400 bird species have been spotted within Point Reyes National Seashore, and the Drakes-Limantour esteros provide the perfect habitat for most. Binoculars are highly recommended on this trail.

  • Contributing Bibliographic Note: 'Drakes Estero, a superlative estuary in Point Reyes National Seashore'.

Directions to Trailhead

From US 101 in Marin County, exit Sir Francis Drake/San Anselmo. Drive west on Sir Francis Drake about 20 miles to the junction with CA 1. Turn right. Drive 0.1 mile, and then turn left onto Bear Valley Road. After about 2 miles, Bear Valley Road ends at Sir Francis Drake; turn left. Continue on Sir Francis Drake about 7.5 more miles, then turn left at the sign "Estero Trail". Drive slowly (avoid free range cattle) about 1 more mile to the trailhead on the right side of the road.

Contact Information

Point Reyes National Seashore
1 Bear Valley Rd.
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956

Visitor Information: 415.464.5100 x2 or 415.663.8522 x2

Headquarters: 415.464.5100 x 1

Volunteer Information: 415.464.5145

Education Programs: 415.464.5139

Special Use Permits: 415.464.5111

Fax: 415.663.8132

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