Nature Walks and Kayaking
Palo Alto Baylands

Neil Wiley

Whether you tramp along the trails, ride your bike along the roads, or paddle along the shore by kayak, the Palo Alto Baylands Preserve offers an interesting contrast to our Santa Cruz Mountains. This 1,940-acre preserve is the largest tract of undisturbed marshland remaining in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Considered by many to be the best bird-watching area on the West Coast, the Baylands provide habitat for over 150 species of waterfowl and migrating birds. If you like your birds up close and personal, visit the concrete-lined duck pond. Once a swimming pool, the pond is now home for hundreds of resident and migrating birds. Although signs discourage feeding, the ducks and gulls encourage people to spread bread upon the waters. A giant fountain sprays water to prevent stagnation and produce little rainbows.

If you like your nature more natural, you can hike over fifteen miles of multi-use trails. Along the way, youíll find the Lucy Evans Bayland Nature Interpretive Center, wildlife observation platforms, benches, and picnic facilities.

Itís not all wonderful. The preserve shares the area with the noisy Palo Alto Airport, a smelly sewage treatment plant, an unsightly dump, a recycling center, an animal-services center, and an "unnatural" golf course. Then again, the birds arenít complaining, so why should we?

One of the more interesting (and shortest) trails extends on an elevated plank boardwalk from the rear of the Nature Interpretive Center across a pickleweed marsh to an observation platform on the edge of the bay. If the tide is high, you may see endangered clapper rails and salt-marsh harvest mice.

You can also walk out to the Sailing Station dock. The 160-foot ramp to the dock keeps your feet out of the mud as you watch shorebirds lunch and small craft launch. This was once the proud home of the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor. Now, itís too silted in and shallow for all but kayaks and canoes at high tide.

Kayaking San Francisco Bay

Although I donít recommend freelance kayaking on San Francisco Bay, an experienced kayak guide can take you out from the Sailing Station dock, around Sand Point, and along the shoreline to Dumbarton Bridge. Although the Bay is big water, it can be relatively smooth. The big concerns are tide and wind. The channel out to the Bay is narrow. If you miss the high tide coming back, you could get stuck on the mud flats. Awaiting the next tide could be quite uncomfortable. Another problem is the possibility of heavy winds that could make it difficult to maintain headway or worse. An experienced guide knows the tides and watches weather conditions, preventing a pleasant cruise from becoming a frightening adventure.

Our kayak trip launched in heavy fog. Although it was spooky, the fog added a bit of mystery as we glided up the channel and out into the bay. As we headed north, the sun broke through. We stopped for lunch at the pipeline, and then paddled back. The entire trip was about seven miles long. Although I prefer kayaking in Elkhorn Slough or smaller reservoirs, such as Lexington or Loch Lomond, it was an interesting day, especially when combined with short hikes and bird viewing.

Both our kayak trip and a later bayland hike were guided by Greg Meyer, a certified kayak instructor, experienced naturalist, and biology instructor. These nature trips are available separately through Los Gatos-Saratoga Recreation. For more information, visit, or

To reach Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, go north on Highway 85 to Highway 101. Go east on Embarcadero Road toward the Bay. Watch for Baylands sign at 7/10 of a mile.



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