Hit the Spit
Limantour Spit is a narrow spit of land that runs between the Gulf of the Farallons (Drakes Bay specifically) and Limantour Estuary. A hike to its end is a pleasant walk that combines both a trail and long stretches on the beach. The side of the spit that faces the Pacific Ocean is a wide, flat beach that abruptly drops into the surf. The beach offers a sense of oceanside isolation and wildness that one may think doesn't exist in crowded California. The side facing the estuary, sometimes called Estero de Limantour, is narrower than the beach and features mud flats and a rare coastal dune ecosystem. Marine estuaries are sometimes called salt marshes, and el Estero de Limantour is one of the most ecologically productive examples on earth. Collecting is strictly forbidden in Point Reyes National Seashore so this ecosystem has been relatively protected since the early 1960s.
The Limantour Spit trail technically begins about 200 yards down the path leading from the vault toilets across the bridge to the beach. You can either head directly west on the trail or continue a short ways over a dune to the most popular stretch of beach. The beach here can be extremely crowded, but the congestion peters out a few hundred yards in either direction. I took the trail about a half-mile from the trailhead before taking one of the numerous side trails that go down to the beach. This stretch has great views of 1,282' Mount Vision a few miles to the north beyond the upper reaches of Limantour Estuary. The estuary may be completely underwater or exposed mud flats that are full of Washington, White Shell, Geoduck and Horseneck clams. There are also the Ghost Moon snails that prey upon their slower mollusc cousins, but I understand they're more frequently seen when the tide is going out. The tide was coming in during my initial visit on June 29, 2013, and I only saw the countless "blowholes" of the clams covering the mudflats that were rapidly being covered in water.
The hike is flat with virtually zero elevation gain, but walking on sand isn't the easiest thing in the world. You'll want to do most of your hiking on the beach down near the surf where the sand is more firmly packed. This hike could probably be done barefoot if one keeps their pack light, but the stretch between the restrooms and the official trailhead is a little rocky. The official trail ends about a mile from the end of the spit, but it could be done barefoot if one is careful. However, I wouldn't recommend going barefoot while wearing a 10-15 lb. pack for 6.5 miles.
The end of the spit is one spectacular hunk of real estate. It's only about 200 yards wide at this point, and the swirling currents produce waves that seemingly come from all directions. The tide was rushing in on my visit so perhaps it was more turbulent than normal. I saw about a dozen harbor seals cavorting in the rough surf while keeping a close eye on me. There's a great view of the actual Point Reyes lies about 5 miles across Drake's Bay, but the famous lighthouse isn't visible.
Return either the way you came, or preferably take take the opposite side. Be forewarned that the estuary side has a few spots that require either walking through fine mud, wading, or bushwhacking through dense coastal scrub. The coastal scrub doesn't look like much until you try to walk through it. There aren't any stickers, but there are plenty of webs from orb weaver spiders that you don't want any part of. The dunes in the middle of the spit are covered in this coastal scrub which includes the introduced and invasive European beach grass. Limantour Spit was formerly covered in low-lying mats of dune lupine and goldenbush that supported a dense mix of flora and fauna, but the European beach grass that was introduced to stabilize Bay Area beaches has inevitably reduced this biodiversity. The European exotics have stabilized the dunes so that now the spit's center is now higher than it did when the natives allowed the spit to shift and move with the wind and tides.
Remember that it is easy to forget about hydration and sun protection in the cool ocean breeze. I get the impression that this spot has either cloudy, gloomy or bright sunshine worthy of any day at the beach. The water isn't very warm, and swimming should be confined to within the first break as the rip current is very strong pretty much everywhere at this beach. Anyone who swims even a few dozen yards offshore stands a good chance at being featured on the evening news.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.