Tomales Bay Boat-in Camping! (5/24-5/26)

Sometimes even three-day weekends aren’t long enough. Nevertheless, cramming in an outdoor adventure is always a good idea! I spent Memorial Day weekend near Point Reyes (north of San Francisco) at Tomales Bay. A group of six of us rented kayaks, boated in to campsites on the beach, and generally spent our weekend enjoying the beach and wilderness.

Read on for a recap (and cost breakdown, for anyone who wants to take the same trip). All photos are courtesy of Melissa and her GoPro!

We packed up our gear and dry bagged as much of it as we could on Friday night before we left. The tent didn’t fit in any of the dry bags we had, so we ended up using trash compactor bags and some creative taping.

Our rental place provided a great packing list for overnight trips, and they rent out pretty much anything you don’t have (dry bags, firewood, water jugs, backpacking stoves, etc.). Luckily we didn’t need to rent any gear, which definitely made this trip cheaper; my parents’ gear emporium and TiffHu’s roommate’s gear shack had us covered.

Day 1

We left the South Bay around 8AM and headed north to the Point Reyes National Seashore. We couldn’t fit all six of us in the same car, so we split into two cars — the girls’ car stopped by the Visitor Center first to pick up our camping permit (they definitely check permits on the beaches, even the boat-in ones) and grab a (free) fire permit in case we decided to make a beach bonfire.

We made an elephant seal friend!
We made an elephant seal friend!

From there we met up with the boys at Blue Waters Kayaking in Marshall. Once we signed away our lives, we sunblocked up, got the kayaks, and started loading up.

Steve likes Pop Tarts. He may or may not have called them Top Parts during the trip.
Steve likes Pop Tarts. He may or may not have called them Top Parts during the trip.

Our gear haul looked daunting in the trunk of a car, but the kayaks actually fit a lot more gear than I thought — more than I’d bring on a backpacking trip at least. Weight is far less of an issue, so packing in a 5 gallon jug of water was no problem.

Loading up the kayaks.
Loading up the kayaks.

We spent a couple hours kayaking around the bay that day, checking out the beaches. Melissa and Alex got stuck with the one double we rented (which in retrospect wasn’t a great idea since neither of them have kayaked much before). Brian, Steve, and I did a lot of floating and making fun of the other three while we waited for them to catch up.

The wind picked up speed in the afternoon. That happened to be right as we were trying to reach Pelican Point, about two miles north of where we started. The water got so choppy that I had to rest my arms when the wind got particularly bad and hope I was hunkered and aerodynamic enough not get blown backwards. By the time we reached the beach and hopped out, the wind made it so cold that we hopped back in to tell the others not to bother. That was as far north as we got in the bay, and we missed out on a campsite past White Gulch that the Blue Waters staff recommended to us.

We ate sandwiches for lunch on Elk Fence North Beach, in a slightly sheltered bay south of Pelican Point. Once we warmed up a bit in the sun, we continued south with the current to scope out more campsites.

Melissa relaxing while Alex was probably doing all the paddling.
Melissa relaxing while Alex was probably doing all the paddling in the back.

I stopped at Marshall Beach and found a sweet campsite, but through a series of miscommunications and slow kayaking, Melissa, Alex, and I got left behind. The others didn’t realize and forged on ahead, where they eventually set up camp further south at Kilkenny Beach. Thanks to Dominic, a very nice Boy Scout Leader with a motor boat, we found the missing half of our group and kayaked down to join them (ceding the awesome campsite I’d found — but we came back for it!).

Camp set up for the night.
Camp set up for the night at Kilkenny.
Alex doing his stay-warm dance, aka the Dirdo Shuffle
Alex doing his stay-warm dance, aka the Dirdo Shuffle.

After an excellent dinner of mashed potatoes, mac n cheese, Clif bars, and pretzel crisps supplemented with caipirinhas (aka “insta-warm”), we did some stay-warm dances and eyed the high tide line before burrowing into the tent and going to bed… almost.

Turns out the seaweed wasn’t the greatest way to judge the high tide line. With some very weak cell reception, we managed to look up the high tide time — supposedly 8:36PM — and determined that the tide was not at its high yet, and we might wake up with the entire tent floating in the bay. After much debating and complaining about leaving the warmth of the tent, the sound of the waves near Steve’s head got a little too close for comfort, and we all bailed out of the tent to shift it ten feet up the beach to high ground.

Satisfied, we settled in with the intention of playing cards by headlamp-light but promptly passed out instead. Even on the hard sand, we all slept soundly (except for Brian, who didn’t bring a sleeping bag and had to bro-cuddle with Steve to stay warm).

Day 2

Upon waking up, we learned that the high tide stopped two feet short of our original tent location and we would’ve been totally fine. Oh well!

Stunning morning at Kilkenny Beach
Morning at Kilkenny Beach

While we had hoped that the morning sun would dry all our clothes, we woke up early enough to find that all our stuff was just soaked in dew. Luckily, after some coffee, oatmeal, and Clif bars for breakfast, everything was drying in the sun.

The water on the bay stilled to a meditative calm in the morning. We decided to head back to Marshall Beach and claim the campsite I’d scoped out the day before, so once our stuff was moderately dry, we packed up camp, re-dry bagged everything we could, and set out north. We made pretty good time to Marshall Beach, though we got passed by a canoe hauling ass up the bay with two fishermen blasting the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack as they paddled.

The campsite was unclaimed, so we declared it as our own by dumping all our gear into this awesome clearing at the top of the hill.

View from high up at our campsite
View from high up at our campsite

I’d originally picked the spot for the view and the availability of trees, because we’d packed three hammocks!

Melissa and Alex hammocking it up
Melissa and Alex hammocking it up

Though we debated kayaking to one of the oyster bars on Tomales Bay, we didn’t have a good map or an estimate of how long it would take to get there. Deciding to play it safe, we instead spent the rest of the day lounging on the beach. We did a lot of sitting in the sun, reapplying sunblock, talking about good/bad managers, rearranging drying clothes, and napping. TiffHu and I kayaked out into the bay and went for a short swim — the water wasn’t too cold, though we were back in the kayaks heading for shore about five minutes later. Melissa, Alex, and Steve took a little hike over the ridge where they could see the ocean. Brian nursed his sunburned feet from the day before and napped in his hammock.

Chillin on a log on the beach
Chillin on a log on the beach

Late in the afternoon, we witnessed a water rescue across the bay — something about a seizure — and watched the Sonoma County Sheriff lower a rescuer in scuba gear from a helicopter into the water at the other end of the bay. They carried three people over to our end of the bay, and it seemed like everyone was okay (no medivac out required), though I didn’t get a chance to gather the whole story. It did make me nostalgic for my EMT days, but realistically, all I could have done was kayak over with some other helpful campers only to have the helicopter and scuba man show us up.

We ate couscous, Clif bars, and melted marshmallows for dinner on the beach, then headed up to camp where Steve and Brian decided my thigh and ankle apparently make great pillows while we burrowed in sleeping bags and talked. We ended up going to bed right as it was getting dark (because obviously lounging on a beach all day is very tiring).

About half an hour after everyone else went to bed, Alex had just finished setting up the mosquito netting on his hammock and was settling in, only to be disturbed by some rummaging on our tarp. He shined a light at the tarp and saw our toilet paper scooting off into the woods. With much commotion, he managed to extricate himself from his carefully draped mosquito netting, found his pocketknife, ran after the now-identified possum intruder that had given up on the toilet paper and was taking our bag of oatmeal, and yelled at everyone, “We’re getting jacked! Guys! We’re getting jacked!” By the time he rescued the bag of oatmeal, he brought it back with a nice little stream of oatmeal leaving a trail through the woods straight to our camp. Luckily he and TiffHu had the presence of mind to move all our food into the tent (“Here, have some possum bait.”), and he opted to sleep in the tent to avoid the trouble of getting back into his mosquito netting. (I slept through all of this, as did Melissa. Steve says he just remembers the tent opening three times, and he was confused as to who the third person joining our tent was.)

Day 3

I woke up on Monday to bright sky and birdsong. It was beautiful.

Morning from the tent
Morning from the tent

Upon realizing that Alex was in the tent along with half the stuff we’d left outside the night before, those of us who slept through it all got the recap of the possum-chasing adventure. Considering the oatmeal was a scratched up mess of leaking oats and everything else had probably been touched by a possum, we opted for Clif bars for breakfast and getting an early start.

Loading up to head home
Loading up to head home
Still morning on Marshall Beach
Still morning on Marshall Beach

The water was calm again in the morning. A short kayak across the bay later, we arrived back at Blue Waters, unloaded and returned the kayaks, and headed home! (Just in time to fight a never-ending battle against the ants in our house…)

Want to see all the photos? Check out Melissa’s Flickr.

Cost Breakdown and Some Advice
Campsite reservations (6 people, 2 nights): $40.00 (booked online)
Kayak rentals (4 singles & 1 double, 48 hours): $810.00 (booked through Blue Waters Kayaking)
Food (add-water type food for 6 people but BYO snacks): ~$100
Gas/tolls (3 people per car): $38/$56
Total: ~$170 per person

Suggestions for a good boat-in camping trip:

  • Dry bagging gear is a must. Wet things are no fun and will make you miserable. Use trash compactor bags if you need, or rent dry bags from REI or the boat rental place.
  • Bring a tent (or hammock) with a rain fly. No matter how warm it gets, there will be dew overnight when you’re that close to a body of water.
  • Be sure to stay warm. Pack warm, non-cotton clothes that will dry fast and keep you warm. Bring a good sleeping bag (or suffer and not get any sleep).
  • Make conservative estimates of time when planning the paddling parts of your trip. Depending on the wind, current, and your strength/fitness, you may find yourself struggling to make your destination.
  • At Tomales Bay in particular, plan to kayak mostly in the morning before the wind picks up. It’s still plenty nice on the beach in the afternoon; the waves just make it difficult to paddle.
  • Look up the tide chart and keep an eye on the high tide line when setting up camp. We were at least aware of it and moved our tent just in case; it’s totally possible we wouldn’t have noticed until our tent was flooding.
  • Blue Waters Kayaking was great, and all the people were super friendly! They give a cash discount as well 😉

Happy paddling!

2 thoughts on “Tomales Bay Boat-in Camping! (5/24-5/26)”

  1. Solid recap! Lots of Clif bars mentioned, of which I got none =(

    Give a shout to Chris at Blue Water, he was super helpful and awesome when I called and asked ALL of the questions earlier this week!

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