Paddle-In Camping on Tomales Bay

Tomales Sunrise

We’ve been experiencing unseasonably mild temperatures here in the Bay Area so last week I decided to take advantage of all the sunshine and plan a kayak camping trip up on Tomales Bay along the Point Reyes National Seashore. Camping is allowed on the beaches on the westside of Tomales Bay north of Tomales Bay State Park’s northern boundary — many of these beaches can only be accessed by boat and a few of these beaches are even pet friendly, so the perfect opportunity for an adventure with Lola that required minimal hiking (more on the success of this later).

Tomales Bay is a long inlet of the Pacific Ocean bordered by the peninsula of Point Reyes National Seashore on the west and Hwy 1 on the east. It is roughly 15 miles long and 1 mile wide, so you are never really far from land at any one point. While the bay is relatively well protected, it can quickly turn nasty with dense fog, strong tidal currents, wind and big waves in bad weather.

Tomales Bay

I enlisted my friend who regularly paddleboards with her two dogs to join me on a mid-week camping adventure to Tomales Bay. We met at Miller Boat Launch, located a few miles north of Marshall on Hwy 1, to load up the boats. The long dock and two large boat ramps make launching a kayak or SUP super easy.

Our destination for the night was Elk Fence South Beach — only 1.7 miles away as the crow flies but we planned to take a scenic route via Hog Island and explore a bit of the shoreline before landing and making camp.

Harbor Seals

Tomales Bay is home to tons of wildlife — harbor seals, tule elk, coyotes, leopard sharks, brown pelican, bald eagles, and countless other birds. We had interesting encounters with a group of harbor seals that surrounded our boats, coyotes that hollowed all night, and leopard sharks that paced back and forth along the shoreline of camp.

With little wind and glass-like water conditions, it took us less than a couple of hours to reach our chosen camp spot. It was low tide, so we had quite a bit of hauling to do to get the boats safely onshore above the high tide line.

The dogs absolutely loved exploring the beach and at low tide, we were all able to hike over to neighboring Tomales Beach to explore further. As the sun sets extremely early this time of year and with no possibility of a camp fire, we found ourselves scrambling for the warm sleeping bags around 8:00. I woke up in the middle of the night and remember thinking it was a bit surreal to have coyotes howling behind us and dairy cows mooing on the hillsides across the bay. That sums up Marin County in a nutshell.

Tomales Breakfast

We awoke to a beautiful sunrise and high tide encroaching on our tents. After warming up with coffee and some breakfast, we made our way back across the bay to the Miller Boat Launch — no seal encounters this time. I can’t wait to do it all again.

The Gear

Kayak

Malibu Pedal

Ocean Kayak Malibu Pedal

I chose the Malibu Pedal for this adventure as its sit-on-top top, pedal-drive, wide design is super stable. While falling into the water in the middle of summer may not be such a bad thing, doing so in the middle of December is not so great.

The kayak is super intuitive to set up and quickly get on the water — it comes mostly put together. The seat slides easily on and off the side rails and can be adjusted to suit your leg length or comfort level. The pedal drive mounts to the front of the cockpit via a simple locking pole system. One spring-loaded motion pulls the prop down into the water where it locks in place right beneath your feet.

Supposedly the pedal drive system can reach speeds of up to 5.5 mph but I didn’t really push the boat that hard. I could easily paddle at a couple of miles an hour, however, without putting in a ton of effort. One nice feature is the splash resistant console on the top of the pedal drive where you can safely store your phone or camera for easy access.

When you are out on the water, a lever on your right side raises or lowers the rudder, while a dial on the left side steers the boat. You can pedal backwards or forwards, and the kayak turns surprisingly well.

I made use of the pedal drive out on the open ocean and then when we got close to shore, pulled up the rudder and prop and used the paddle instead (the paddle secures in a quick-grab latch on the left side of the boat). The pedal drive is nice to help you overcome strong tidal currents as well as choppy water without fatiguing quickly. It also leaves your hands free to take photos, drink coffee, etc.

Boats Tomales

In some seaweed and kelp forest sections of the bay, the rudder got gummed up a bit. You can tell when that happens as it suddenly becomes more difficult to pedal. All you have to do is lift up the prop, clean it out, and put it back in the water. But if you plan to boat in heavy reeds or kelp forests, I would recommend using the paddle instead.

The Malibu Pedal offers tons of room for storing gear, including bungeed tankwells on both the bow and stern, as well as a secured hatch inside the hull. As my friend was using her paddleboard with two dogs in tow, there was no way she could safely secure dry bags to her board as well so I took all the gear on the kayak — no problems whatsoever.

The main issue I have with the boat is its weight. At 100 pounds, there is no way one person can lift this boat on their own, whether it’s loading it onto the car rack or pulling it ashore at low tide. I would love to take it out on a solo mission but unless you live in a place where you can store it on a lift, that’s not very feasible. Regardless, it’s a fun boat.

PFD: A requirement to paddle the bay, I enjoy wearing the female-form-friendly Astral Layla. And don’t forget a Ruffwear Float Coat for your dog, too.

Camping Gear

REI Quarter Dome 1

This is my go-to setup where weight and size are an issue for adventures like bikepacking, backpacking, and kayak camping.

REI Quarter Dome 1: This is a super livable one-person tent where you can actually sit up to get dressed and generally hang out more comfortably. I appreciate the large access door and generous 10-square-foot vestibule for storing large amounts of gear. All this for just over two pounds.

REI Magma 17 Sleeping Bag: Stuffed with 850-fill goose down and with a fitted shape, this bag really does keep you cozy even in temperatures down in the teens. Weighing just over two pounds, it packs down pretty small.

REI Flash Insulated Sleeping Pad: The R-value of 3.7 gives you a nighttime warmth booster while the weld-through construction not only ups the comfort level, but helps keep you from sliding off the pad at night.

Dry Bags: Obviously you need to store your gear in dry bags for the crossing and I would even recommend keep your excess gear in dry bags at night as condensation is a huge issue. For example, our tent flys were absolutely soaked the minute the temp dropped in the evening. For the two of us, I used a combination of Stio, Aquapac, and SealLine dry bags.

Garmin InReach Explorer: Although not forecasted, I brought my InReach with me just in case we ran into heavy fog in the morning. I made sure to mark the Miller Boat Launch as a waypoint so we would be able to navigate our way back to the other side of the bay if need be. It also came in handy for texting as there was no cell coverage on Elk Fence South Beach (there is in the middle of the bay, however).

If You Go

Permit: A permit is required for any camping on Tomales Bay. You can reserve a boat-in campsite permit on Recreation.gov which allows you to camp on select beaches along the west side of the bay. You must pick up the permit in person at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, which provides a great opportunity to chat with the rangers about current conditions.

Fires: While campfires are allowed on the beach with a free fire permit (get it at the same time you pick up the camping permit), Marin is currently under strict no burning lockdown due to the extremely high fire danger.

Where to Launch: There are a four places to launch onto Tomales Bay. We chose the Miller Boat Launch for a couple of reasons — you can park cars there overnight, and it is close to Hog Island which we wanted to explore.

Tides: You need to know the tide schedules and keep an eye on the high tide mark on shore, especially during king tide season here in the Bay Area. Some of the beaches we paddled past didn’t leave much room for camping above the high tide line, and even where we did end up camping, we had just enough room for our tents and boats and not much more. Some beaches, like Tomales Beach, offer more camping room than others.

Leave No Trace: Tomales and Marshall beaches are the only ones with pit toilets. This means you need to bring WAG bags and pack out your poo. No digging cat holes here – you need to bring everything out with you. Please don’t ruin it for the rest of us.

Water:  As there are few water sources emptying into the bay on the west side, you need to carry all your water with you.

Lola Kayak

Sadly, Lola didn’t end up coming on the adventure. During a couple of practice runs on San Francisco Bay, she was somewhat terrified to be in the kayak. I am working to make her more comfortable so fingers crossed for next time.

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