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Length 12 miles
Time 3 hours
Total Climb 1550 feet
Fun Rating
Scenic Rating
Aerobic Difficulty
Technical Difficulty 

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Point Reyes (Drakes Head)

I don't think Point Reyes is an option that comes to many mountain bikers' minds quickly when looking for a place to ride. While Point Reyes National Seashore contains roads that would make for very varied and scenic road rides, it's not very rich in terms of trail riding possibilities. However, it's one of the first places I think of when temperatures rise to uncomfortable levels, and pretty much the only reason for that is the availability of this particular ride option. On the day I did this ride the first time, the temperature forecast near Soquel Demo Forest was ranging in the mid-90s, whereas the one near Point Reyes was in the mid-60s.

Most bike-legal trails at Point Reyes are fire roads, or too short to be useful without extending them by paved segments, or both. This ride seems to be the only exception. This ride is the only one I know of in Point Reyes that presents some amount of technical riding fun as well as some singletrack mileage. In addition, the scenery is quite different from what you will find on other coastal rides in the Bay Area. The wind-swept, treeless slopes may make you think of Scotland, especially if you do the ride on a cloudy or foggy day. The wildlife you might see along the way is also unlike most other mountain bike rides: you may encounter harbor seals, raptors, pelicans, various song birds (the area is great for bird watching), and maybe even tule elk.

The trails traversed by this ride range from rutted and twisting narrow climbs or barely flattened grassy paths across wide meadows (as far as singletracks go) to widened, eroded, multi-path slopes or pristine doubletracks (as far as the fire-road-like trails go). I wouldn't be suprised if some of the trails along this ride are restored or re-routed some time in the near future, so you might want to plan your ride here as early as you can, because some of the most damaged and mangled trail segments also happen to be the ones that present the most fun technical challenges for a mountain biker. (Based on what I've seen on a ride here in June 2016, it turns out that my guess has since come true. Many of the rutted and technical stretches of trail on this ride appear to have been smoothed over with plenty of gravel. I'll still let my original text for this paragraph stay here for at least two reasons: (1) things have not changed from the junction with Sunset Beach Trail onward and (2) the condition of the smoothed-over trails is likely to turn back to something like what it was in another few years anyway.)

A few trail sections in the southern half of the ride route seem to be nothing more than a line followed across a flat meadow that turned into a trail due to wear, instead of any product of trail "construction"; meaning, the trail surfaces are usually pretty bumpy, following whatever the shape of the terrain happened to be along that line. The resulting trail surfaces can be so bad in some places as to behave like rock gardens, and some of the potholes can be large enough to catch your front wheel and feel like hitting a wall. So, be careful with your speed on those trails.

Grazing cows are plentiful along this ride. I'm sure they are partially responsible for some of the pockmarked trails. Consequently, cowpies are also pretty widespread and, at times, unavoidable. So, if you're sensitive to that kind of thing, you've been warned. Incidentally, I wouldn't want to do this ride when the trails are wet, because they look like they could get very nasty when muddy, and I don't savor the thought of the fresh cowpies that will become harder to distinguish from the muddy trail surfaces.

There are no extended climbs on this ride. Any climbs that are steep, though they sometimes approach 20% grade, are over very quickly. The ride follows a "forked out-and-back" route.

You may or may not be aware that the name "Drakes Head" and that of the adjoining Drakes Estero arises from the fact that this area is considered the most likely landing spot of Sir Francis Drake on the west coast of North America during his circling of the globe in 1579. This is commemorated by a historical marker, not at Drakes Head, as you might expect, but near the Kenneth C. Patrick visitor center, on Drakes Beach, roughly an eight-mile drive away from the trailhead of this ride.

The ride starts out on Estero Trail from the parking lot. After a brief shot across an open meadow, you reach a grove of Monterey pines. I've read that these are the grown remnants of an abandoned Christmas tree farm. Interesting.

On your way out of the pine grove, you go over a small bridge along a causeway that crosses Home Bay, and the first of the short but tricky climbs starts on the other side.

Somewhere along your third gentle climb (around the 2.5-mile mark from the parking lot) there is a muddy spot in the trail that's pretty tricky to get around (even by carrying your bike on foot). There must be a spring at that spot. You'll have to negotiate a short but treacherous bypass on the uphill side that really requires you to pick your steps carefully. At least this was true the first time I did this ride, but not when I was repeating it later on under drought conditions.

When you reach the signed junction where Sunset Beach Trail continues straight, you turn left, uphill, to stay on Estero Trail. This is where some of the trail segments that are hardest to follow will begin. Some arrow signs will help guide you. The photos available at the link on your left may also come in handy in figuring out how to navigate.

After you cross a final gate on this portion of Estero Trail, you continue on Drakes Head Trail and soon find yourself taking a straight shot across a wide-open coastal meadow heading right to the tip of Drakes Head. The downhill slope of this pleasant trail segment is gentle enough to be unnoticeable but just enough to keep you coasting at a moderate speed toward the sea. This is one of the loveliest parts of the ride.

After you take in the views from the tip of Drakes Head, you trace your route back to the junction where you had turned left. On your way there, you might want to be careful not to miss one "turn": The well-worn trail seems to continue almost flatly along the hillside whereas the segment that connects you back to that junction departs toward the right at an almost unnoticeable fork that might be easy to miss. In fact, you may notice on the GPS track on this page that I actually missed that turn and had to double back to find it. That was on my first time, though this fork looked less confusing in recent years.

When you return to the junction with Sunset Beach Trail, you turn south onto the second prong of the forked ride route. You're then on Sunset Beach Trail. This trail dead-ends at a marshy cross between a lagoon and an inlet. I don't think this spot is what the trail gets its name from. The only thing close to this spot that remotely resembles a sandy beach (judging by the satellite view in Google Maps) is a thin strip along the coast, on the western side of a spit of land that's west of this inlet. You'd have to leave your bike somewhere near the end of the trail to hike over there to see it. (I didn't.)

There aren't too many options to extend this ride. You could continue on Estero Trail instead of taking the right turn after that last gate onto Drakes Head Trail. This will lead you to White Gate Trail which should eventually connect to the hiking-only Muddy Hollow Road where you'd have to turn back. That would extend your ride by a maximum of just under four miles. Other than that, you'd need to follow paved roads to cover more distance. Of course, doing the ride may present you with the excuse to do some sightseeing unrelated to biking: You could drive a bit further to visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse and the Kenneth C. Patrick visitor center.

After the ride, if you have a need for a bite to eat, you may be able to find something to your liking in the handful of cafes and restaurants in Inverness, through which you drove to get to the start of this ride. If those are too crowded or unavailable, your best bet would be to drive less than a mile further north after you return to Highway 1 to get to the cute town of Point Reyes Station. There are a number of good eateries there. My favorite spot for espresso-based drinks here is Toby's Coffee Bar (a tiny stand tucked into Toby's Feed Barn). For a meal, the Station House Cafe is hard to fault, and they have plenty of outdoor seating. Another option I like is the Cowgirl Creamery deli in the Tomales Bay Foods building on 4th Street just off the main drag. It might be useful to know that Point Reyes Station also hosts at least one cool bike shop and frame builder: Black Mountain Cycles.

© Ergin Guney


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