Note: as of January 2013, the loop described below is unavailable (trail is washed out)
Tubbs Island,
San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge,
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
Sonoma County
In brief:
This easy 8 mile hike requires a long out and back slog on levee roads, but the reward is sublime bird watching and serenity on paths at the bay's edge.

Distance, category, and difficulty
This 8 mile partial loop hike is easy, but long. Trails are flat.

Full sun.

Trail traffic

Trail surfaces
Wide dirt levees and narrow trails.

Hiking time
3 hours.

Very hot in summer, but good anytime.

Getting there
From US 101 in Marin County, exit CA 37. Drive about 7.5 miles east on CA 37, to the junction with 121. Continue east on CA 37 about 0.7 mile more, then turn right into the preserve (there is no refuge sign, but the entrance is just after a flurry of "no parking" signs along the side of the road). Note: there is no access to the refuge from westbound CA 37. If you're approaching that direction, you'll need to turn around at the CA 121 junction and enter from the eastbound lane of CA 37.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 38 9'10.49"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, restaurants, stores, and pay phones back in Novato. No camping.

Trailhead details:
Small paved lot. No parking or entrance fees. No designated handicapped parking, and poor wheelchair access. No drinking water or restrooms. Maps at an information signboard 2.5 miles into the refuge. There is no direct public transportation to this trailhead. Note that hunting is permitted in parts of this refuge, from September to February.

Trails are open to hikers and cyclists during daylight hours. Dogs are not permitted, except to accompany hunters during hunting season.

The Official Story:
Park office at Mare Island 707-562-3000
San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Map Choices:
Map from San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Map from the Bay Trail website

Tubbs Island in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.

View photos from this hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

Tubbs Island, part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, is home to an astounding assortment of wildlife. TrailheadThroughout 13,000 acres of salt marsh, mudflats, freshwater wetlands, and uplands, you might see jackrabbits, hawks, pelicans, ducks, avocets, swifts, egrets, stilts, and endangered creatures like the clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. These year-round residents are joined in autumn by migratory ducks and shorebirds, and the raptor population swells to include falcons, kestrels, kites, and northern harriers. Larger mammals roam the marsh as well, but you will probably only see their footprints. Although there are a few farms on the outskirts of the refuge, and CA 37 is rarely out of earshot, Tubbs Island feels very remote.
     Hiker "El Rayo" suggested this Tubbs Island visit, and you might well consider his warning about conditions during the wet months: "pick your day carefully -- mud, mud, mud." Leaving the parking lot, the trail starts out along a leveeIt's best to wait a few days after winter and spring rains before visiting. Although autumn and early winter are the best seasons for birdwatching, this is also hunting season at San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I like summer, when unlike practically every other landscape in the bay area the marsh is still green, and trails are cooled by breezes blowing off the bay.
     Begin at the gated fire road. The wide trail, open to hikers and cyclists, runs along a levee, then curves left and descends a few feet to an information signboard and picnic table. Bordered on the right by a tall levee blocking any views west, the trail heads south through a mixture of invasive thistles, coyote brush, dock, and fennel. In August dry strawberry blond mustard plants rustle in the wind. You might see empty shotgun shells littered on the ground. Bay TrailThe trail sweeps right, all the while keeping a level pace. In adjacent farmland to the left look for jackrabbits (and hawks) when the fields are shorn in summer. One stretch of trail hosts a bonanza of nightshade. Another turn, this time to the left, angles the route south again. The levee's scrim drops a bit to nearly head-level, and there are some views into the marsh on the right. Look for pickleweed, gumplant, and New Zealand spinach. At 2.59 miles, you'll reach a junction and information signboard, just before a little protected bay, on the left. White pelicans are commonly spotted on the water, or flying overhead in airshow formation. Continue straight to a signed junction at 2.64 miles, then stay to the left on Bay Trail.
     On my visit there were jackrabbits running up and down the trail, and egrets and great blue herons wading through the marsh on the right. At 2.96 miles, you'll reach an unsigned T junction with a closed trail. Turn right to remain on Bay Trail.View north
     Clinging to the shoreline, the trail winds through fennel, wild radish, yellow star thistle, and mustard. When the skies are clear, there are views across San Pablo Bay to all the substantial mountains of eastern Marin County. You'll likely see some shorebirds and egrets picking through the mudflats on the left. In summer butterflies and dragonflies float through the air. Gradually the trail turns north, running parallel to a watery channel on the right popular with egrets and great blue herons. Coyote brush lines the trail. Mosquitoes can be a problem on still summer days. At 4.61 miles, an unsigned path heads east across the marsh. Continue straight/left, now on Wingspan Way. Wingspan Way
     Ducks float on a broad waterway to the right, and avocets and stilts plod through muddy puddles on the left. If it's a race day at Sears Point you may be able to hear the action, along with car traffic from CA 37. On this trail in August, a hawk suddenly flew off from a spot along the trail, less than 20 feet away. When I got to the area, I peered into the pickleweed and saw a dismembered freshly-killed rabbit. I had interrupted lunch! No doubt the vultures would be by, happy with any leftovers. At 5.35 miles, you'll reach a previously encountered junction. Turn left and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Total distance: 8.05 miles
Last hiked: Tuesday, August 13, 2002