NOTE: Bair Island is currently closed for restoration (1/1/11)

Bair Island,
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge,
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
San Mateo County

In brief:
3 mile loop on the bay, very close to U.S. 101.

Distance, category, and difficulty
Trails are perfectly flat and the 3 mile loop hike is easy.

Full sun.

Trail traffic

Trail surfaces
Dirt trails.

Hiking time
1 1/2 hours or less.

Nice year round.

Getting there:
From US 101 in San Mateo County, exit Whipple Road. Drive east on Whipple, and where the road curves sharply right (just past the 101 northbound entrance/exit ramps), carefully pull off into the small dirt lot on the left.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3729'52.93"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, pay phone, restaurants, and stores back on Whipple. No camping.

Trailhead details:
No parking or entrance fees. Room for perhaps 15 vehicles in an unimproved and rutted dirt lot. No facilities. There's a map posted on the information signboard. There are no designated handicapped parking spots, and trails access is obstructed for wheelchairs. There is no direct public transportation to the park.

Open sunrise to sunset. Dogs are permitted, but they must be leashed, and are prohibited to stray from the trails into the vegetation or water. Bicycles and equestrians are allowed, but this refuge is primarily used by joggers and walkers.

The Official Story:
Refuge headquarters 510-792-0222.
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge

Map Choices/More Information:
• Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there (or better yet, the AAA Palo Alto map)
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge brochure (pdf)

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

View photos from this hike

There are other more scenic, peaceful, Trailheadand user-friendly shoreline parks and preserves on San Francisco Bay, but Bair Island, like the underdog in a football game, is a place you'll find yourself rooting for. Purchased by Peninsula Open Space Trust and now under the stewardship of the Don Edward San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, Bair Island is being restored to tidal marsh, and will support wildlife including migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and at least two endangered species, the clapper rail, and salt marsh harvest mouse. Currently visitors walking the three-mile perimeter loop may see birds and animals such as cottontail rabbits, egrets, terns, and stilts. The land has historically been used to graze cattle and for salt harvesting. Redwood City residents rejected development plans in 1982, and after a long struggle, P.O.S.T. acquired Bair Island in 1999. As the property is restored, vegetation and animal life will become more varied and healthy, so it'll be interesting to watch the transformation of the 3,200 acre preserve. RestorationA little pool in the marsh adjacent to Highway 101 should bring facilities typically found at a shoreline preserve, such as restrooms and wildlife viewing platforms, but for now Bair Island remains in an undeveloped state.
      Bair Island is comprised of 3 islands separated by sloughs. Only the western island is publicly accessible, and unfortunately, it is directly adjacent to US 101. Access is easy from nearby peninsula towns, making Bair Island a convenient destination for jogging or dogwalking. It takes a bit of selective hearing to ignore the persistent highway traffic noise, as well as the drone of airplanes landing at San Carlos Airport, just to the north of Bair Island.
     Start at the gated entrance to Bair Island. Once you've squeezed through the gap between the gate and Walking along Smith Sloughfence, you are presented with three trail choices. You can head left or right for the three mile loop, or take the shortcut trail straight ahead. Turn left.
     The flat wide trail heads north. US 101 is visible and audible. Cordilleras Creek (which originates in Pulgas Ridge Open Space Preserve) feeds into the marsh from the west, but the levee trail keeps fresh water from penetrating the dry cracked dirt on the right side of the path. Pickleweed is common, and you might also see curly dock, New Zealand spinach, sea fig, fennel, and sea lavender. When I visited I saw a vulture sitting a few yards from the highway, picking at some poor creature thankfully obscured by the surrounding vegetation. When you reach the northern edge of the island, the trail turns east. Traffic noise is dampened, but never recedes completely. Respect the signs prohibiting exploration of the area to the right, and stay on the trail (dogs as well). The trail turns south at Smith Slough. Heading westLook for wading birds picking their way through the mudflats. The rest of the Bair Island property sits to the west, but public access is not yet permitted. At about 1.9 miles, the shortcut trail departs to the right, heading back to the trailhead from an unmarked but obvious junction. Continue straight.
     Across the narrow channel to the south you can see docked boats at Pete's Harbor, and a newish housing development. Once again you run out of land, and the trail curves right, to the west. An old footbridge is still visible to the left, partly connected to a metal power tower. Some of the bridge is still standing, but key sections hang in defeat. Rabbit droppings are conspicuous along the trail. At about 3 miles, the trail returns to the trailhead.

Total distance: about 3 miles
Last hiked: Friday, July 20, 2001

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