Kayak Camping in Tomales Bay

I’m always blown away by California’s beauty, and kayak camping in Tomales Bay provided yet another opportunity to astound.

The Route

After reading Adam’s kayak camping piece, we were sold on also using the Intex Challenger K2 Kayak (normally these retail for ~$99 on Amazon, but because everyone had the sudden desire to go outdoors, the price had spiked, and we ended up getting them on Craigslist for $240 each). We were a little nervous paddling across the open bay in them with all our gear, so we opted to launch from Inverness and paddle the 5 miles up the coast along the shoreline. We departed from Tomales Bay Resort where there was a lovely sandy beach to inflate our kayaks and launch from. As the resort was closed due to COVID, we parked there overnight. It seems that this is also an option during non-COVID times, but for a fee. Parking on the streets by Chicken Ranch Beach also seemed like an option.

It took us almost 5 hours to paddle the 5.4 miles up the coast. This included a 30 min lunch break and another short rest about halfway up. We had a bit of wind at the beginning which made paddling slow at first. On the return trip, we had the wind at our backs, and we were now seasoned kayakers, so it only took us 2.5 hours.

The Campsite

You’ll need a reservation to camp on the beach in Tomales Bay. These can be reserved on recreation.gov. There’s two main beaches for camping — Tomales Beach and Marshall Beach and both of these have pit toilets with toilet paper. With the limited permit availability, it’s challenging to find availability on the weekend, so I wrote a scraper to hit the website every 10 minutes and email me if a site opened up. Even though we were supposedly one of two groups that had a permit to camp on Marshall Beach, much of the beach was already taken by the time we got there at 7pm. We were still able to secure a gorgeous spot though :)

I’d also recommend walking a bit up the trail from the campsite — it takes you quickly up the hill and there’s some really gorgeous views of the bay!

The Gear

  • Inflatable Kayaks — We were incredibly impressed with the Intex Challenger K2 Inflatable Kayaks. They’re definitely wider than a normal kayak, and felt a little scarier in wind gusts, but the portability and price is unmatched. With the three of us, we were able to fit ourselves and all our gear in the two inflatable kayaks. The two seater one felt a little like the log ride at Disneyland where the person in front of you is basically seated in your lap, but this was likely because we had to place the seats abnormally close to squeeze in the gear. This also meant that you had to paddle extremely in-sync because otherwise your paddles would clash. In order to inflate the kayaks to the proper size, they come with a handy measuring tape and markers on the boat to ensure that you don’t overinflated. I’d recommend using these as we had initially overinflated our boats! The first half of the trip felt a bit like paddling a bathtub — I thought I just wasn’t used to the inflatable kayak, but it turns out the bottom of my seat had deflated as I didn’t close the valve well. Reinflating and adding a little extra air to the other compartments made a huge difference! So make sure everything is properly inflated :)
  • Renting Kayaks — We briefly considered renting kayaks for this trip, but cost and inconvenience turned us away from this option. It looks like there are three options for renting: (1) Tomales Bay Expeditions — location is right on the water at Tomales Bay Resort (where we launched) but it costs ~150/person (2) Blue Waters Kayaking — located in Inverness, it looks like they have options to pick the kayaks up there and drive them yourself to the water or have them drive them up to Miller Boat Launch. This also costs ~150/person, more if you wanted it delivered (3) Outback Adventures — definitely the thriftiest option at ~$100/person, but it is located in San Rafael, so you’d need a car that can accommodate them. We also checked Sports Basement, but they don’t rent any kayaks, only Inflatable Stand Up Paddle Boards.
  • Trash bags — in order to ensure that everything stayed dry, we put every item in a 13-gallon kitchen trash bag. With 7 large bags total (one for each backpack, sleeping bag, and air mattress), we looked a little like a trash barge, but everything stayed pretty dry!

The Final Packing List

Sleeping:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad (we brought an air mattress, but you could get away with less if you want to sleep less like a princess)
  • Tent (we only have an amazing 8-person Coleman, so that’s what we brought. It weighs a lot and takes up a fair amount of space, but was a nice way to add weight to the double kayak with only one person in it. Placing this weight towards the front of the kayak added to the stability)

Dining:

  • Water (we brought 25 liters total for the three of us, and, even with it being a hot day and with us trying to be good about drinking water, we had ~10 liters left over. All the water also made a nice way to add additional weight to the kayak)
  • Snacks and Meals (we brought three meals — lunch, dinner, and breakfast and also brought some protein bars to snack on)

Clothing:

  • Towel (when paddling, it’s impossible to avoid getting some water in the boat, so it was nice to have a towel to dry off. The water was also warm enough for swimming!)
  • Shorts and t-shirt for kayaking (it was warm enough to just wear this!)
  • Pants, clean underwear, long-sleeve shirt, and jacket to change into once we got there (our shorts were all sopping, so it was really nice to have dry clothes)

Various:

  • Toiletries
  • Sunscreen
  • Dim red light for kayak (eg, bike light) if you want to go out at night for bioluminescence
  • Trash bags to bag every item
  • Rope to tie down items to ensure they don’t blow into the bay

Things we didn’t need:

  • Bug spray (we had no mosquitos, but this could be time-of-year dependent)
  • Hairbrush (your hair will be too salt-infused to do anything with)

The Critters

The trip was made even more fun by all the critters we saw:

  • Moon jelly — there were hundreds, most the size of a dinner plate, and they were really beautiful to see as we were paddling. We read that they’re mainly harmless and many people were swimming at the beaches, but they definitely dissuaded any desires of our own to go swimming.
  • Small sea critters that would nip at our feet — they were present at a few of the beaches, about the size of a small nailhead, and would nip your skin if they got on you. Not super pleasant, but easy to brush off. Also hard to avoid while pushing the kayak into the water.
  • Seals — we saw three while paddling, and they were super cute :)
  • Bioluminescence — we were so exhausted from paddling that we didn’t even make it out of the tent after pitch dark to have a chance to see the bioluminescence. However, we did overhear some people who had gone out on the water to view them saying phrases like “hrmm, I guess those faint specks were the bioluminescence”, so I guess we didn’t miss much. We were there in late August during a New Moon, so it should have been near optimal time to see them. But, if you do want to go out on the water at night to see them, do bring a faint light to affix to your kayak for safety.
Moon Jelly. Photo by Jonathan Diemel.

The Weather

We were extremely fortunate that the old adage “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” was not true during our trip. San Francisco was having a rare heat wave so shorts and t-shirts were the optimal kayaking wear.

However, this odd heat did mean that we got an impressive thunderstorm. While we had previously been plenty warm in our tent with the rain fly off to enjoy the stars, we were quickly awoken by the 4am lightning and had to scramble to drag the rain fly on before the downpour began.

Not my photo, but the 4am lightning show over Tomales Bay was as remarkable. Photo by Johannes Plenio.

We were also extremely fortunate that the storm passed at night and that we only had to delay our return trip in the morning by a few hours. The winds and lightning that accompany a thunderstorm can make for extremely dangerous paddling conditions (people die every year on the water due to lightning strikes), so we had begun to explore other options to return home. These included jogging the 7 miles back to the car or paddling halfway back and getting an Uber, but, in the end, the weather cooperated enough to make it all the way back and there wasn’t even enough cell coverage to request an Uber along the way.

It’s also essential to check the expected wind conditions. We read that the wind is typically stronger in the afternoon, and we noticed that we were much slower paddling against the wind on the way there than with the wind on the way back. The wind was a little gusty at one point and we were glad we had well-loaded kayaks to keep from blowing much in our inflatables. Additionally, we tried to time our trip with the rising and falling tides, hoping that this would help, but it didn’t seem to have any effect.

The Trip

Overall, this trip was incredible and I would do it again, though maybe only after our arms and legs recover a bit. And huge thanks to my two best friends for making the trip with me :)

Data Scientist at Twitter | Previously Grad Student at MIT Media Lab www.laurenfratamico.com

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