Circling the San Francisco Bay, the 500-mile planned San Francisco Bay Trail brings us front and center to the largest estuary on the West Coast, as well as the flyways of colorful resident and migrant birds. As a bonus, pickleweed, a plant found in the bay’s salt marshes, turns magenta-red in autumn, offering a glimpse of fall foliage.
Whether you’re stretching your legs post-holiday feast or just out enjoying the crisp weather, fall and winter are a wonderful time to hike the Bay Trail, as birds zip through on the Pacific Flyway, “the birds’ highway system,” says Carolyn Knight, education and outreach manager for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. “With the flyway running through here, it makes for a really vibrant and changing ecosystem right within our neighborhoods. It’s a fantastic opportunity to (see) an amazing diversity without having to go very far.”
Keep your eyes open for ducks, as well as shorebirds, she says: “We have the teals — green wing teal, blue-wing teal, cinnamon teal — which are just amazingly colorful. Beyond that, we get a lot of shorebirds in. There’s an incredible diversity of size and shape, from the Least Sandpiper, North America’s smallest shorebird, to the Long-billed Curlew.”
Here are four family-friendly hikes along the Bay Trail in Oakland, Fremont, Mountain View and more that lead to birding hotspots — plus tips on delicious spots nearby where you can grab a pre- or post-hike bite. Find more Bay Trail hiking inspiration at https://baytrail.org.
Tucked behind Alameda Island and Oakland Airport, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline brings birdwatchers to some prime views and two public art installations along San Leandro Bay. Trace the eastern edge of the bay, as well as creeks and sloughs, on this 4.25-mile round-trip hike to Arrowhead Marsh.
Begin at the marsh observation tower and take in a 180-degree view of the arrowhead-shaped marsh and San Leandro Bay. Finches and sparrows flit among coyote brush, while egrets fly overhead. Take the wooden boardwalk out to Arrowhead Marsh, where endangered Ridgway’s rails hide furtively in the cordgrass.
Just across, you’ll spot “Duplex Cone,” one of two artworks along this route; “Fluid Dynamics” is near Damon Slough. Continue north on the mostly flat, paved multi-use trail to East Creek Slough, keeping your eyes peeled for hawks, plovers and sandpipers, as well as diving ducks like scaups. Turn around at the East Creek Slough bridge and retrace your steps when ready.
Trail map: tinyurl.com/arrowhead-marsh
Park details: The park opens at 8 a.m. daily, with closing hours that vary by season. Closing time is 5 p.m. from November through January, for example. The Arrowhead Marsh entrance is located 0.1 mile northeast of the Doolittle Drive and Swan Way junction in Oakland. Follow the park road to the end for the Arrowhead Marsh parking lot. Find details at ebparks.org.
Grab a bite: Alameda’s Julie’s Coffee & Tea Garden whips up espresso and tea beverages, along with treats like immunity nuggets ($2 each) and sandwiches from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at 1223 Park St. in Alameda. Peek at the menu and order online at juliestea.com.
Sunrise mountain vistas, sandpipers quietly foraging in restored salt marshes and levees that feel like they levitate between the two are highlights at the 1,841-acre Hayward Regional Shoreline. This 4.75-mile round-trip walk visits birding hotspots along the Bay Trail between West Winton Avenue and San Lorenzo Creek.
Begin at the Flood Control Channel, heading west on the paved trail to Hayward’s Landing, which offers waterfront vistas of the Santa Cruz Mountains from the foot of San Francisco Bay. Turn north on the now-gravely trail towards Frank’s Dump and the Oro Loma Marsh, where shorebirds like Willets, Long-billed Curlews, and Marbled Godwits probe with their long bills or tuck them in their feathers to keep warm. Ducks, such as American Wigeon, Northern Pintail and Mallard, swim and dabble offshore, and aerial divers like Brown Pelicans scan the surface for fish. Watch for egrets stalking prey and pink-legged Black-necked Stilts wading in a small pond near San Lorenzo Creek, your turnaround point.
Trail map: tinyurl.com/haywardslanding
Park details: Hayward Regional Shoreline is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. A free parking lot is located at 3050 W. Winton Ave. in Hayward. Find more details at ebparks.org.
Grab a bite: Warm up with a hot horchata coffee ($6.50), tea or specialty beverage from Brewja Coffee, which opens at 7 a.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8 a.m. on weekends at 1432 Via Lacqua in San Lorenzo. Order online at brewjacoffee.com.
The 1.6-mile Tidelands Loop at the Don Edwards wildlife refuge, south of the Dumbarton Bridge, offers plenty of scenic bang-for-your-buck, with pedestrian bridges arching over mirrorlike Newark Slough, hilltop vistas and picnic tables with views of egrets, ducks, grebes and shorebirds.
From the main parking lot, follow signs for the Tidelands Trail on a descending gravel slope. As you journey across the wooden boardwalk toward a red picnic shelter, you’ll see patient egrets and herons hunting in the slough. Crossing a pedestrian bridge, you’re transported to a lakelike salt pond, where wintertime flocks of Northern Shovelers swim and chattering, skittering shorebirds, like the teeny Least Sandpiper, probe its edges.
At the 0.75 mile mark, take a second pedestrian bridge back over Newark Slough, climbing 150 feet to a hilltop vista overlooking the salt ponds and Coyote Hills Regional Park. Descend towards the parking lot to close your loop.
Trail map: tinyurl.com/tidelandsloop
Refuge details: The main parking lot (free) is just across from the Refuge Visitor Center at 1 Marshlands Road in Fremont. The Marshlands Road gate is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Trails near the visitor center are open from sunrise to sunset daily, but closed on Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Find more details at fws.gov.
Grab a bite: Pick up a croissant breakfast sandwich ($8) at Fresh Donuts & Bagels to enjoy at one of those picnic tables. The cash-only shop is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily at 34113 Fremont Blvd. in Fremont. To reach the shop, call 510-793-4999.
This 750-acre recreation area at the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay features a wonderful variety of birdwatching overlooks from creeks, sloughs, salt ponds, Shoreline Lake and Coast Casey Forebay. The 2.1-mile Shoreline Loop visits those birding hot spots with mountain views as a backdrop.
Begin on the paved trail in front of the boathouse. Head north for 150 feet, then bear right at the information kiosk to reach this stretch of the San Francisco Bay Trail. The flat, multi-use trail winds next to the Mountain View Tidal Marsh, then curves west along the A1 salt pond. Approaching Charleston Slough, look for American Avocets foraging in the mudflats. Just beyond it, the Adobe Creek viewpoint is a must-see for pelicans, herons and egrets.
Loop around marshy Coast Casey Forebay, keeping an eye out for shorebirds and perching birds. Finish along the northern edge of Shoreline Lake in the company of geese, coots, ducks and egrets.
Trail map: tinyurl.com/shorelinelakeloop
Park details: Shoreline at Mountain View is open from 6 a.m. to 30 minutes after sunset daily. There is no entrance fee. Parking is located at 3160 N. Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain Views. Find more details at mountainview.gov.
Grab a bite: The lakeside American Bistro offers coffee, tea, breakfast sandwiches ($13.50) and lunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and until 5 p.m. on weekends at 3160 N. Shoreline Blvd.; shorelinelake.com.
While enjoying the birds and scenery, please follow local guidelines and signage at each park for the birds’ health and safety. Check the weather before you go to avoid very windy days, which won’t be as productive for birdwatching.
Visit Audubon society websites, such as Santa Clara Valley’s scvas.org, the Bay Area’s goldengateaudubon.org and the East Bay’s mtdiabloaudubon.org, for birding resources and field trip information.
Try eBird.org to see what birds have been spotted where, to keep lists of birds you see and to share information with scientists and other birdwatchers.
Allaboutbirds.org has wonderful visuals and information about hundreds of bird species, as well as learning resources.
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