Spring has sprung, and at Audubon Canyon Ranch near Stinson Beach, that means the 100 pairs of great egrets and great blue herons which nest there are starting to mate and lay eggs. It also means the wildlife preserve is opening to the public for their visiting season, March 20 - July 11.
With more than eight miles of trails through the redwood forests of Picher Canyon beside Bolinas Lagoon -- and just a 30-minute drive from both our Marin Headlands and Point Reyes hostels (or 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco) -- it's a perfect spring day trip.
It's even free to get in. (Donations are encouraged.)
The preserve, which was established in the 1960s to save egret and heron nesting grounds from development, is closed to the public for most of the year to minimize human impact on the habitat of California's largest wading birds. This year, their gates open March 20 to allow visitors a look at the birds courting, laying eggs, and raising chicks.
If you're up for a hike, you can even get a literal bird's-eye view of them: The Griffin Loop Trail, a moderate hike 2-3 hours long, takes you to the top of the canyon, where you can overlook egrets and herons nesting in the tops of the redwoods. If you're not up for the 800-foot elevation change, shorter walks (some of which are wheelchair accessible) take you to a bird-watching hide and newt ponds.
Though all the trails are self-guided, knowledgeable ranch guides are posted throughout the park to answer questions and teach about the park and its wildlife. According to the guidebook 101 Hikes in Northern California (Wilderness Press), they make Audubon Canyon Ranch one of the best places in California to learn about birds.
If you don't want to hike, or can only stop for a quick visit in between trips to nearby Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Muir Woods National Monument, and Point Reyes National Seashore, the Audubon Canyon Ranch yard hosts a bird-watching hide and a picnic area. All four parks are located within a 25-mile section of scenic Highway 1, just north of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge.