Sometimes, the solitude of a place can be unexpected. On my first visit to the Lower Tubbs Island Trail, I was curious about how a wildlife refuge can exist there.
For one, the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge is bordered by two major roadways, a large water body and an active auto racing facility. But heading out on the trail, I found complete silence at first. This trail, nearly 8 miles, is a peaceful oasis. No wonder the bird-watching here is stellar.
The refuge is located just south of where Highways 37 and 121 meet and includes a stretch of coastline that juts out into San Pablo Bay and is bordered also by the Napa-Sonoma Marshes, a state wildlife area as well. It also encompasses several sloughs and the western approach to the Napa River. Together, this mass of land is an ideal place for migratory birds, muddy marshes and protected wetland habitats.
Starting out on the Tubbs Island Trailhead, it’s a 2.6-mile walk (you’re adjacent to Tubbs Island) to a 2.4-mile-long loop along that encircles Lower Tubbs Island. Once you get to the loop around the tidal marsh, take the clockwise route. (Trust me on that one.)
This hike is entirely exposed to sun, although you’re on the coastline itself so even on a hot day, it’s breezy enough, and it is completely flat with zero elevation. This is not a strenuous hike but it is a rewarding one.
On my unhasty, lazy hike, which spanned about 7-plus miles over three hours, I saw ducks, egrets, hawks and sparrows. Not as many were out as will be in the next month, but the springtime dances have started. The creatures were as peaceful as could be, soaring up and over the marsh lands completely oblivious to the handful of people out hiking and biking around the island.
At first, I was struck by how quiet the place was, although it is just a few open miles from several highways. But as I sat down on the rocks of the bay and let the waters lap at my feet, I listened and heard much. From the wildlife overhead to the rustling of frogs and mice in the long grass, it was clear that I wasn’t as alone as it first seemed. And that’s not including the 11 different fish species that are present in the protected waters.
Human development over the years, particularly mining and water diversion for agricultural and industrial uses, has extracted quite a cost on these tidal marshes. In some places, the wetlands are barely wet or redirected poorly, and the trail itself around two parts of the coastal path has come apart. It will depend on your agility and penchant for getting slightly wet to make it around the full trail. And this is not the place to go within a day of a rainstorm as it will be a muddy mess. (That, of course, has hardly been an issue around here recently.)
Throughout, I had a slightly surreal view of Mount Tam, with the familiar torso-shaped horizontal silhouette looming in front of me, and closer at hand, the waters of the bay.
A bit of history comes from my colleague Chris Coursey’s description in his vivid 1996 profile on the property: “Once a duck hunting club, the island in 1969 was purchased by the Nature Conservancy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought the property in 1978 to add it to the wildlife refuge.”
How to get there: On Highway 37 eastbound, drive past Sears Point and look for the parking area immediately to the east of where Tolay Creek comes in from the Bay. It’s a small gravel area on the right-hand side of the road with room for a handful of cars. There are trail maps and kiosks throughout the walk, and information about the status of the wildlife refuge, the birds spotted within and more. Further east on 37 is the official refuge headquarters, with restrooms and more information.