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Archived Trail of the Month: Pomo Canyon to Shell Beach

This sample trail listing for this month is from: The Hiker's hip pocket Guide to Sonoma County

from redwood forest to coastal views

5-½ miles round trip (6-½ miles if road to Pomo Campground is closed).
Three or four hours.
From creek canyon climb through forest, over a ridge and through grasslands, then descend to marine terraces and the beach.
720 feet+/720 feet- each way
Spring for wildflowers.
Do not block gate at trailhead. Watch for poison oak. Carry water on this arduous hike.
Turn east off Highway at M.19.79 onto Willow Creek Road. Go 2.6 miles to where Pomo Campground Road forks right. From December to March, park here (do not block gate). From April to November, the campground is open, so you can drive ½ mile to the trailhead. Western trailhead is at M.18.22 on Highway 1.
Day use: $3/vehicle when campground open. Environmental camps: $6/night.
POMO CAMPGROUND offers walk-in camping in a beautiful spot near the trailhead. WILLOW CREEK offers more walk-in sites near the Russian River. Both open April-November.
Sonoma Coast State Beaches (707) 875 3483

Willow Creek has carved a broad, deep canyon similar to that of the nearby Russian River. The creek's grasslands, rimmed by dense forest, are a favorite hunting ground for red-tailed hawks and black-shouldered kites. If the road is closed to Pomo Campground, you must walk the level ½ mile to the trailhead, adding one mile to total hike.

From the parking lot at the end of the road, a trail heads southwest toward the Environmental Camps and into the redwood forest. In 50 feet, turn right on the unmarked Pomo Canyon Trail, passing to the right of two toilets beside a bay laurel. The trail climbs gradually, heading north through redwood forest. You quickly pass two trails branching left, but stay on the main trail, passing picnic tables overlooking the meadow along Willow Creek.

Soon your trail veers left, starting a steady climb up a ridge forested with young redwoods, tanoaks and gracefully arched bay laurels. Shift into low gear for the steady climb ahead. At 1/8 mile a trail sign confirms that you are on the right path. Soon your climb eases briefly in a clearing where huckleberries thrive. You quickly return to the forest, continuing to climb the ridge.

Your ascent slackens around 1/4 mile. In 250 feet you leave the broad skid road you have been following for a footpath that veers right. You pass a Douglas fir eight feet in diameter. California hazel grows nearby. This native relative of the filbert has velvety oval leaves. Its nuts are a favorite of squirrels.

Your trail narrows at 3/8 mile, passing ancient Douglas firs, bent and forked by the powerful coastal winds they have endured over their several-hundred-year lives. A break in the forest offers views north to the grassy ridges near the Russian River. You leave the forest for a brushy clearing where gooseberry bushes tangle with hazels and ferns. The brush here occasionally obscures the trail.

Before l/2 mile you are again under a forest canopy of arching bays and wind-topped firs. The trail ducks under a horizontal bay trunk and resumes a steady climb.

At 5/8 mile you leave the forest, breaking into grasslands. Your trail turns left and climbs south along the grassy ridge. In spring and summer these meadows are filled with poppies, lupines and other wildflowers. Even in fall the pink to purple blooms of godetias and the yellow flowers of tarweed grace the trail. Look northwest for a vista of the mouth of the Russian River.

Your trail levels at the top of a small gully. At 3/4 mile you approach a saddle between two rock outcrops. Your path soon veers right and wraps around the rock outcrop on your right. You might detour for an easy scramble to its rocky top, where the fine view extends up the coast beyond the river mouth all the way to Northwest Cape at Fort Ross. You will find coast buckwheat, hen and chicks, poppy, sticky monkeyflower and leather ferns growing on the rock's north and west faces.

Returning to the trail, duck under a bushy bay tree and begin a gradual descent. An old, single-line telephone pole marks the 7/8-mile-point. Join an old road and descend through grasslands scattered with coyote brush. A spring on the left is a favorite animal watering spot.

At one mile you descend gradually, heading west with forest on your left and vintage Sonoma coast and hills everywhere else. Coffeeberry mingles with the coyote brush. You swing left and climb a short hill into redwood forest to cross a murmuring stream. Another short climb tops out at 1-1/8 miles. Then you descend, redwood/fir forest on your left. dense scrub of coffeeberry and California blackberry on your right

You cross another brook at the edge of a beautiful forest. then descend north, then west around a big bend. You climb a small hill and pass under the old phone line. At 1-1/4 miles the town of Jenner appears to the northwest. You cross two more creeks in the next 1/8 mile as you head west through grasslands. Then descend along a fence line where poison oak grows.

At 1-1/2 miles the view west opens up to the ocean and horizon. Soon you can see Highway 1 winding far below. Continue along the fence on a gradual descent nearly to 1-3/4 miles. You finally turn left to climb a hiker's ladder over the fence. Now you wind south, descending to cross a small creek at the top of its canyon, then joining another road to climb the ridge to your south. At 1-7/8 miles you pass a side trail on the right and continue your climb.

Beyond 2 miles you tend southwest on a series of short ups and downs through wildflower-studded meadows with views north to Jenner and the Russian River. At 2-1/8 miles you ascend the last hill between you and Shell Beach. Another old road enters from the left at 2-1/4 miles. Then you climb quickly to a summit. From this ridge you overlook the entire southern Sonoma Coast. On a clear day you see Bodega Head to the south, with Point Reyes jutting seaward beyond it.

If you want a shorter, easier round trip hike than the full excursion described here, this is your ideal turnaround point. By turning back now, you will save one mile and nearly 1000 feet in elevation gain and loss. (Or you may have a shuttle car waiting at the west end.) If you have most of the day left, you can make it to Shell Beach, rest, then trudge back over the ridge to Pomo Canyon.

Near the summit you pick up an old paved road and follow it on a steepening descent. As the road swings gradually left, you have views of large on- and offshore sea stacks below. At 2-1/2 miles a large boulder stands on your left. You pass under a power line.

At 2-5/8 miles you switchback left as your descent eases. You quickly come to a gate and the western trailhead at 2-3/4 miles. Just across Highway 1 (at M.18.2), the road to the Shell Beach parking area descends west. Use caution crossing the highway. It is l/8 mile from the trailhead to the parking area, another l/8 mile to the beach (The Coastal Trail heads north from the northwest corner of Shell Beach parking lot. It heads south from the southwest corner.)

If you plan to return to the Pomo Canyon Trailhead today, be sure to leave at least two hours of daylight and carry a flashlight.