Albion Monitor /Features

Hiking Tomales Bay

Stalking the Narrow Gauge

by Simone Wilson

The trains made the Russian River a tourist mecca

Drive along the eastern edge of Tomales Bay in Marin County and you'll notice the remains of a strange levee skirting the edge of the bay. Rising about three feet above the level of the water, this odd levee doesn't follow the natural curves of the shore -- it takes little short-cuts from point to point. The coves trapped behind the barrier, cut off from the greater bay, are a separate habitat of pickleweed and salt grass; streams cut narrow channels that meander through the dense green mat.

These unique salt-water marshes -- biologists call them pocket marshes -- are the unintended result of a nineteenth-century feat of engineering. The levee that created them is the bed of the narrow gauge railroad that carried tourists to the Russian River and carried lumber away from it.

Timber was the original motivation for building something as costly as a railroad. Negotiating the hilly terrain between Tomales and the Russian River meant constructing major trestles and two tunnels -- one of them 1,700 feet long. The railroad started at the ferry docks in Sausalito; by 1874 it had reached Tomales Bay, and two years later it stretched to the Russian River. Owners of the North Pacific Coast (later North Shore) Railroad were eager to carry redwood lumber from the Russian River watershed to San Francisco Bay, and they built branch lines west and north to the mills at Duncans Mills and Cazadero.

Once the trains were in place, however, Bay Area residents discovered the vacation possibilities of the redwoods. and the Russian River became a tourist mecca. Before the automobile, the train was the major link to outside world for the towns in western Marin and Sonoma Counties. Marin stops included San Anselmo, Fairfax and Lagunitas. From Point Reyes Station, the train steamed north along the eastern edge of Tomales Bay, stopping at the towns of Bivalve (a name that proves oysters were already in favor), Millerton, Marconi (now a State Parks conference center) and Marshall before heading inland to redwood country.

Passengers could go out and back on the narrow gauge. But sightseers often booked a "Triangle Trip," taking the narrow gauge line to the Russian River and coming back on the broad gauge that ran through Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

Old railroad beds create pocket marshes, nurseries for young fish

By the 1920's, the mills began to fail (a disastrous fire in 1923 destroyed much of the timber) and tourists jolted through the countryside in their own autos. Northwestern Pacific, which now owned the narrow gauge, cancelled service and pulled up the tracks in 1930. But the railroad bed along the Tomales shore stayed put and became a player in the complex biology of the Bay.

"Wherever the railroad crossed a creek we now have a pocket marsh," says John Kelly, resident biologist at Cypress Grove, the Audubon Society's preserve near Marshall. "The marshes provide habitat for birds and for marine organisms -- they're virtual nurseries for young fishes and invertebrates."

The complicated biology of these marshes is not well understood, says Kelly, but they may act as filters between farms on the eastern shore and the water of the Bay. Rain sluices vegetation and cow pies down to the marshes. Plants and animals use it and later die and decompose, and eventually all that organic matter washes into the Bay itself.

"We believe the marshes may buffer the transport of organic nutrients from the land into the Bay," Kelly explains. "There's concern here about pollution from agricultural run-off, which is a concern of the oyster industry."

Tomales Bay itself is the result of a force more dramatic than tides or run-off. The San Andreas Fault runs down the middle of Tomales Bay, and the 1906 "San Francisco" Earthquake toppled surprised passengers from railroad cars. The grinding motion of the fault zone created a rift valley between the steep Inverness Ridge to the west and the gentler hills to the east, and now the waters of Tomales Bay fill that valley.

The Bay is only about a hour and a half from San Francisco, but it remains a remote spot. The hamlet of Inverness sits on the western side, surrounded by the wooded tracts of Tomales Bay State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. Kayakers, oyster aficionados and local dairy ranchers mostly have the eastern shore to themselves. As one of the last pristine estuaries on the west coast, the Bay is a perfect nursery for young oysters. Birdwatchers will generally find cormorants, brown pelicans, egrets and Great Blue herons, and in winter the Bay is a major stopover for loons, ducks and grebes cruising the Pacific flyway.

At low tide a lacework of channels is revealed

As a tourist destination, Tomales Bay is often overlooked by visitors who stop just short of the Bay at the more famous Point Reyes park. But anyone who enjoys hiking coastal bluffs will find several choice spots here. On Hwy. One, 1.6 miles north of downtown Point Reyes Station, turn left at the sign "Tomales Bay Trailhead." This bayside park is part of GGNRA (Golden Gate National Recreation Area). From the parking lot hike down to the shore past outcroppings of serpentine rock, across grasslands scored by gullies choked with blackberry and willow. From the highest spots, look north to see one of the longest remaining stretches of railroad bed, a 150-yard long strip with a classic marsh piled up behind it. At high tide, the marsh is half lagoon, at low tide the water sinks below the level of the pickleweed, revealing a lacework of channels.

Millerton Point, 4.8 miles north of Point Reyes Station, offers similar bluff-top hiking with the added advantage of a beach. From the parking lot shaded by giant eucalyptus, you can see a specially constructed osprey nest at the top of a pole. In the spring, adult osprey fly from the Bay to the nest with fish for the chicks. Later in the season, the fuzzy youngsters are visible above the rim of the nest.

From the wooden railing, hike left down to the beach, or go right onto the bluff for fine views of the Bay and of Inverness Ridge. (The ridge separates Tomales Bay from the ocean and acts as a fog barrier, so it's often sunny on the Bay when the coast is socked in.) The bluff road, lined with lupin and coyote bush, goes north and west and then loops back to the beach.

Tomasini Point, the promontory just north of Millerton, isn't marked, but it's also state park property. Turn left down the dirt road 1.75 miles north of Millerton and drive down the (very bumpy) dirt road to the shore, or park at the pull-out on the highway and walk down. You have to cross a marshy area to reach the point with its excellent views up and down the Bay. Between MIllerton and Tomasini Points, the railroad levee is clearly visible, but there's a such a large gap in the levee there's a lagoon behind it instead of a marsh.

Before or after your hike, you might stop in the town of Point Reyes Station. Armed with coffee from the Bovine Bakery, stroll across the street to the beautifully restored railroad depot (now the town Post Office) next to Toby's Feed Store, which has a room devoted to photos and maps of the railroad. A new mural on one side of the station features a locomotive and a crowd of cheerful 19th and 20th century locals -- a brakeman in a bowler hat, a little kid wearing a cow T-shirt -- plus other inhabitants including an eagle, a barn owl and the ever-present local cows.

Albion Monitor September 2, 1995 (

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