Any trip, even a brief one, to Bolinas is an escape from the rush hour, fast food rat race of contemporary California life. If you can fit in a couple hours of paddling, you've had a perfect get away. However, before you go, make sure you have a tide table.
On a very high tide you can paddle pretty much anywhere in Bolinas Lagoon without concern. At low tides there are mud flats that can get the unwary paddler stuck in something resembling black glue. I learned that the hard way on my first trip.
Also, if you launch from the mouth of the lagoon in Bolinas, extreme tidal changes can make launching and landing difficult, as the better than 1,100 acres of this triangular lagoon drain and fill through a narrow channel, creating a strong current at large tidal fluxuations.
There is an alternate launch area along Highway One, just north of Stinson Beach. Look for a place on the lagoon side to pull out and park. This spot is opposite the mouth, and while saving the drive into town and the current at the mouth, it doesn't save you from watching for the low tide mud.
From the mouth or highway launch, going south, it is mostly clear paddling. Just remember that the deeper parts of this shallow lagoon are along the edges, so approach the middle with a wary eye.
As the lagoon narrows to the south, it becomes channels that lead almost into Stinson Beach. This is a great area for up close bird watching, with egrets standing along the banks, and the paddle along the ocean side takes you past some lovely beachfront homes.
Paddling in from the mouth, you can turn right toward Stinson on continue toward Highway one. Doing so will take you along side a large mud flat usually lined with seals, gulls and pelicans. This mud flat recedes as the tide goes up. However, just inside the entrance channel, you can turn left and paddle the deep channel along side the town and the boats tied up behind houses.
Shortly, the houses give way to a wooded area which eventually opens up to typical wetlands vegetation. Ideally, an on a high tide, you can paddle almost to the northern end of the lagoon and return along Highway One in a long loop. This, however, is where I got in trouble on my first visit.
The tide was dropping as I passed the houses, the wooded area and into the northern branch of the lagoon. Then, as I could see it getting more shallow, I turned toward the highway. I could see obvious deep water just ahead, but there was a patch of 50 to 70 yards that looked dicey. I thought, having a shallow draft, that I could pick my way through this short section. I was wrong.
I had to climb out and drag the boat some 50 yards through knee-deep mud, losing a sport sandal and getting my clothes permanently stained with peat. Once on the east side of this mud, the paddle back along highway one was pleasant and uneventful.
There is one other thing that can make a fun day unpleasant. Sometimes a stiff wind comes up in the afternoon, making Bolinas Lagoon choppy and the trip back to the beach more hard work than play.
On a day when the ocean swells are small, an option is to also paddle out and play in the long rolling waves that break just out from the mouth, and if the ocean is very calm, you can paddle a couple miles north to Duxbury Reef, which shelters the beaches of Bolinas.
On the weekends, the parking at the end of Wharf Road can be full, necessitating a bit of a walk. However, the road ends at the beach, and just a few feet past the end of the road is a perfect place to launch, far enough in to avoid any wave action.
While Bolinas is getting more popular in recent years, it is still likely that you'll have the entire lagoon to yourself on any given summer day. You can make a circuit of this 1,100 acre wetland for an aerobic workout or just wander around enjoying the abundant wildlife and the magnificent views of the green west Marin hills, rising almost straight up to the east.
Before you leave, stop in town, walk around, check out the arts and crafts, stop at Smiley's for a light lunch and a drink or take a meal at one the other restaurants along Wharf Road. It's a long drive from anywhere, so don't be in a hurry to leave.
Getting there: from the south, take the Hwy One turn off just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and continue up the winding road and through Stinson Beach, along the lagoon and to an unmarked left. That is Olema Bolinas Rd. Turn left and left again in a few yards. Continue to the intersection with Horseshoe Hill Rd., and turn left and continue on Olema Bolinas Rd. into town, and continue through town on Wharf road to the end at the beach and entrance to the lagoon.
From the north, you can exit 101 in Petaluma and take D street west, which turns into Point Reyas-Petaluma Road. After you pass the lake and hit a stop sign, continue toward Olema, and once in Olema, turn left toward Stinson Beach. The unmarked turn off is at about 17.50 mp. If you get to the lagoon, you've gone too far.
Causes Meade Fischer Supports
Big Sur Land Trust, Wilderness Society, Ventana Wilderness Alliance, State Parks initiative, Nature Conservacy