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Wild Kingdom: Hiking the Tomales Point Trail
By Janis Cooke Newman
You are entering an area of confirmed mountain lion sightings," I read from a sign at the Tomales Point trailhead. Above these words is a drawing of a mountain lion with sharp-looking teeth.
"I've hiked out here a million times," says my husband, "and I've never seen a mountain lion."
"Do not let children hike alone," I read from the sign.
"Don't worry," says my 7-year-old son Alex. "I brought Excalibur." Excalibur is a three-inch replica of King Arthur's sword.
"Still, try to stay close to us," I tell him.
It's an early spring day, and we've driven out to the end of Pierce Point Road in the Point Reyes National Seashore to hike the Tomales Point Trail. This trail, which winds its way for close to five miles along a spit of land between Tomales Bay and the Pacific Ocean, is the best place for spotting Tule elk. Now I'm wondering if it isn't also a pretty good spot for turning into a mountain lion snack.
Before heading out on the trail, we take the time to wander among the white clapboard buildings of the old Pierce Point Ranch, a dairy farm that once supplied butter to the Alice Waters and Reed Herons of late-1800s San Francisco. Alex and I peek into the one-room schoolhouse, where the children who lived on the ranch, as well as the children of local fishermen, were taught by a teacher ferried up from San Francisco. We walk through the dim light of a big barn, listening to the rustling of birds or maybe bats in the eaves above our heads.
"Hey, look what I found!" my husband shouts from outside the barn.
"A mountain lion?" asks Alex, digging around in his backpack for Excalibur.
"Not quite," says my husband. Crawling up his arm is a black newt with an orange belly.
We take turns letting the newt tickle our palms with his rubbery toes before returning him to the grass. Then we start hiking.
The hills are an eye-piercing green from the winter rain, and in every sunny spot there are circles of purple iris, too frilly to be called wildflowers. Red-winged blackbirds perch on blackberry brambles alongside the trail, calling to each other with a cry that sounds like a rusty screen door. Above us, a small brown kestrel floats on the air currents that sweep up from the sea. Below us, are small, smooth-sand beaches, accessible only to sea lions.
"Look!" says Alex, pointing to something in the middle of the trail. "Mountain lion poop!"
"That is raptor scat," says my husband, with the authority of a man who spent his formative years as a Boy Scout. "See the fur. Raptors can't digest it."
In the interest of science, we poke at the raptor poop with a stick, turning up something that is either a small crab claw or the front incisors of a rodent-like creature.
A little farther down the trail, Alex spots another pile of animal byproduct.
"Now this is mountain lion poop," he says. And I have to agree with him. What he's poking with his stick looks to have come from a meat eater, and it's too big to belong to a fox or a bobcat.
"It's probably from a German shepherd," says my husband.
"Dogs aren't allowed on this trail," I tell him.
"It is not mountain lion poop," he says definitively. And in light of the fact that I didn't even go camping until I was 40, I don't feel qualified to debate it with him.
Stepping carefully around the disputed animal waste, we continue down the trail, walking between tangled vines of pink-striped morning glory.
"Oh, my God!" gasps my husband, stopping suddenly.
"What?" asks Alex. "A mountain lion?"
Sitting atop a manzanita bush only a couple of feet from us is an enormous hawk with mottled brown wings. The hawk glares at us with shiny eyes, as though sizing up potential prey.
"Make yourself look bigger," I tell Alex.
The hawk angles its large head, taking in our hiking boots and backpacks and Alex's poop-dissecting stick. Then with a flap of its wide wings, it soars out over the ocean, perhaps in search of more edible-sized lunch.
We keep walking, following the trail as it dips down into a small valley filled with Tule elk. The elk stand pale against the bright green grass, white rumps and bellies, light tan flanks. A male lifts his coat-rack-like head and bellows at the blue sky, sending out an eerily high-pitched cry that seems more like the call of a bird than the trumpeting of a large animal.
"I think this is where Santa keeps his reindeer when he doesn't need them," Alex says.
We climb a low hill to a picnic spot that gives us a view of the crashing Pacific on one side, the smooth water of Tomales Bay on the other, and the grazing elk below. Some bread and cheese and a bottle of Chardonnay later, we decide it isn't really necessary to walk any farther.
On our way back, my husband and Alex tie branches to the top of their heads and pretend to be elk. Terrified rabbits leap off the trail away from them.
As we near Pierce Point Ranch, a gray mist begins to drift in from the water, turning the dark cypress trees along the trail nearly as white as the dairy farm buildings. From the foggy woods, we hear the soft who-who-ing of an owl.
Just as we're about to reach the trailhead, we spot something moving in the open field beside us. I squint my eyes and catch the flash of golden paws, a broad head with a black nose.
"That's a mountain lion," I say.
"It's a bobcat," my husband tells me. He trains his binoculars on the animal that seems much too big to be a bobcat. "Alex!" he shouts, dropping the binoculars. "Stand closer to me!"
The three of us watch the mountain lion pad across the field away from us, small sightings of gold that appear and disappear in the mist.
"I knew that was mountain lion poop," says Alex. He is brandishing the two-inch shaft of Excalibur. On the ground beside him is a pile of Skittles and Legos dumped from his backpack.
We stand at the edge of the field until there's nothing left to see but fog. Then my husband lets Alex lead the way back to the car.
Directions to Tomales Point
Getting to the Trailhead: Take Highway 101 north to the Lucas Valley Road off-ramp at Marinwood, and head west toward Nicasio and Point Reyes Station. Continue past the turnoff for Point Reyes Station, and go through the towns of Inverness Park and Inverness. Follow Pierce Point Road until it dead-ends at the parking lot at Pierce Point Ranch. This is the start of the Tomales Point Trail. (Depending on traffic, the drive from Noe Valley takes 11/2 to 2 hours.)
The trail follows the ridge between the ocean and Tomales Bay for 4.7 miles. If you hike all the way to the end and back, it's a 9.4-mile walk. We usually check our watches when we start, and turn around when we've hiked half the amount of time we want to be on the trail.
Note: There is no restroom at the Tomales Point trailhead. Your best bet is to stop at the parking lot for the Abbott's Lagoon trailhead a couple of miles before the end of Pierce Point Road and use the facilities there.
Picnicking on the Tomales Point Trail: If you'd like to feast on West Marin delicacies during your hike, take a short detour into Point Reyes Station and visit Tomales Bay Foods at 80 Fourth Street. Here you can buy farm produce, cheese, and gourmet sandwiches. Tomales Bay Foods is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.
Janis Cooke Newman's memoir, The Russian Word for Snow, is available in paperback at Cover to Cover bookstore.