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Tomales Bay

In northwest Marin County, Tomales Bay is celebrated for its natural beauty, the animal migrations, and the seasonal wildflowers.

Tomales Bay seen from Tomales Point Trail, image
Photo caption
From the Tomales Point Trail, you can gaze upon a scene that includes Tomales Bay and the surrounding hills.

A sign in the Bear Valley Visitor Center at Point Reyes National Seashore says that the average difference in temperature between summer and winter in the area is about seven degrees. Don’t leave your sweaters at home. Although clear skies and warm air can be found year-round, it’s not unusual for this sea- and bayside area to be shrouded in fog. And when that breaks, strong, cool winds will often follow—summer or winter. If El Niño watchers prove correct, this winter could also bring buckets of rain. The Point Reyes/Tomales Bay area offers plenty to winter travelers: migrating whales, elephant seals, rustic bed and breakfast inns, hearty meals, romantic settings, walks along the coast with anoraks pulled tight, seals and sea lions, birds flying to South America.

In California’s northwest Marin County, this area, celebrated for its natural beauty, is one of constant movement: the animal migrations, the seasonal wildflowers that push up through the earth, the land. Point Reyes National Seashore sits on the Pacific plate; the eastern side of Tomales Bay sits on the North American plate. The two meet at the San Andreas Fault, right under Tomales Bay, and grind and knock together, and every so often make a major readjustment. In 1906 the Point Reyes peninsula leaped 20 feet northwest. Today, visitors come to join in the motion: to hike; to ride mountain bikes; to watch the animals, the birds, the flowers.

Begin a visit to the Point Reyes National Seashore at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. It’s on Bear Valley Road near Olema. Here you’ll find daily postings of whale sightings, displays on the local flora and fauna, and explanations of how the huge fire of ’95 has changed the area. Rangers can point you in the right direction for whale watching at the lighthouse, seal sighting, hikes, beaches.

Although Point Reyes is packed with options, one to put high on a list is a trip to Tule Elk Preserve. Even the ridge-top drive, with rolls of green hills patched with bundles of black-and-white cows, is jaw-dropping.

Tule Elk are year-round residents. Elk calves and young bulls can be seen in May. In late summer and early fall, bull elk start to call their harems together, and sometimes the bulls battle to secure their territory.

Another list item should be a drive up the Mount Vision road that passes through areas still scarred from the ’95 burn. From the top you can look down the Inverness Ridge to part of Tomales Bay as well as Drake’s Bay in the west. And then, there are always miles of hiking trails, the 3/4-mile wheelchair-accessible Earthquake Trail, beaches to stroll, historic ranches to explore, and plenty left over for tomorrow.

So book a night or two: Cozy B&Bs are everywhere—so many in fact that we couldn’t list them all. In the town of Inverness is Manka’s Inverness Lodge, dating to 1917 when it was a hunting lodge. Manka’s restaurant serves what many locals will tell you is the best meal in the area. Menu items can include tenderloin of local lamb, gravlax of local sockeye salmon, halibut (also local). Perched above bay waters are such inns as the Dancing Coyote, and the Sandy Cove Inn. The Hotel Inverness, next to the tiny Inverness Library and Museum, has been a functioning hotel since 1906. Next door is popular Ten Inverness Way Bed and Breakfast. Or try an inn in Inverness Park, or budget-minded options such as the Motel Inverness and the Golden Hinde Inn.

Olema overnighters can opt for the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge, with loft bedrooms overlooking the gardens behind the lodge. Locals offering dining advice point towards The Olema Inn, on the corner of Highway 1 and Sir Francis Drake Blvd. One recent evening the menu included grilled ahi, stuffed pork tenderloin, home-smoked salmon filet. Across the street is the more casual Olema Farm House.

Life in the bayside towns around Tomales Bay is tranquil. During the day try poking into boutiques, gift stores, lazy lunches in the local restaurants. Evenings are filled with long dinners, maybe a drink in one of very few bars. In Inverness, and the smaller town of Inverness Park, passersby can buy local art in one of two gift shops, have pizza at The Gray Whale restaurant; early risers can stop by the Heart’s Desire Bakery.

The biggest area town, Point Reyes Station, is at the southern tip of Tomales Bay. Visitors will find more gift and curio stores (stop by Toby’s Feed Barn for everything from children’s books to dog food), art galleries, and a quirky mix of cuisine: chimichangas and exotic burritos at Cafe Reyes; California cuisine at the popular Station House Cafe (where on a nice day you can sit outside under the vine-filled trellis), a hot dog or burger and fries at Joe’s.

If it turns out to be picnic perfect, stop at the Tomales Bay Food Company at the north end of Point Reyes Station. Inside, you’ll find locally grown delicacies: cheeses and homemade ice cream from the Cowgirl Creamery (one of many area creameries); frittatas, asparagus, and spring garlic soup from the Tomales Bay Food Company.

Or stop by one of the local oyster farms such as Johnson’s in the National Seashore or Hog Island along the east shore of Tomales Bay, and head out to one of many barbeque areas.

One favorite: Heart’s Desire Beach along the west shore of Tomales Bay. Here, in Tomales Bay State Park, you’ll find a charming, wind-protected beach, possibly kayakers slipping their boats onto shore, hiking trails heading north and south along the low cliffs edging the bay (one offers a history of local Native American culture), and picnic tables and benches on cliff-top spots overlooking Tomales Bay.

About those kayakers: There are several shops around the bay where visitors can rent boats and slip onto the water. Blue Waters Kayaking, just a few miles north of downtown Inverness, offers rentals, lessons, guided trips (and next door is Barnaby’s restaurant, hearty fare for an after-paddling lunch). Along the east shore of the bay, in Marshall, is Tamal Saka kayak rentals; J&M kayak rentals, trips, and tours is in Olema.

Leave time for a drive along the east side of Tomales Bay, stopping for seafood at Tony’s in Marshall, open only on weekends. The road down the east side of Tomales Bay hugs the water and sails you past small marinas, rickety boat docks, the Hog Island Oyster Co., the stately Marconi State Park Conference Center, a tiny red church set just above the road, and, if you go far enough, the town of Tomales and beaches beyond.


This article was first published in January 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.