Nature and Outdoor Fun at Audubon Canyon Ranch's Martin Griffin Preserve

March 26, 2013

Martin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon RanchThis spring and summer, experience some of Marin's natural wonders at the spectacular Martin Griffin Preserve. Run by Audubon Canyon Ranch, Martin Griffin Preserve is a 1,000-acre preserve near Stinson Beach and Bolinas that's home to one of the West Coast's most important nesting sites for Great Egrets. These large and majestic wading birds nest in the redwood trees that surround the preserve, and can be observed every year from mid-March through mid-July.

While on our last visit the birds still hadn't arrived yet (they're due there any day now), there's still plenty for families to do. It's a fun place to spend a Saturday or Sunday, and you'll find hiking trails, scenic overlooks and observation points, ponds, a display hall, a bird hide, a picnic area, and plenty of enthusiastic and knowledgable volunteers who are happy to help children and parents and answer questions.

When you arrive, a volunteer will greet you and help get you oriented. Maps and brochures are available at the information table, where you can also leave a donation. The preserve used to be a dairy ranch, and remnants of its past role, like a Victorian farmhouse and the "Sick Cow Barn" (now an education center) are visible all around.

Martin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon RanchMartin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon Ranch

We headed first for Monday and Tuesday Ponds, which can be found near the preserve entrance. Access to the ponds is via boardwalk, and a volunteer was stationed there to help kids look for the California newts—bug-eyed little amphibians that resemble lizards or salamanders—who live in the pond. Nets are available to use, and if you're fast and lucky, you could even catch a newt or two, and release them back to the pond. Kids are even allowed to gently hold the newts, although the newts' skins secrete a toxin, so it's important to thoroughly wash your hands afterwards.

After visiting the ponds we ate lunch in the preserve's peaceful and spacious picnic area. Make sure you check out the nearby Bird Hide, a small shelter that allows you to sit in hiding and observe birds that live in the area.

Martin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon RanchMartin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon Ranch

Hiking trails criss-cross the preserve. Several trails, like Nature Trail and the Skip Schwartz Trail, offer easy hikes for families. There are a few short uphill sections involved, but enough bridges, ponds, planks, wildflowers, and creeks along the way to keep everyone occupied and interested during your hike.

The Clem Miller Lookout, located close to the preserve entrance, affords wonderful views of Bolinas Lagoon, and offers a great vantage point from which to look for shorebirds, ducks, and even seals. You'll find a number of spotting scopes set up here, and loaner binoculars are available in case you forgot to bring yours.

Martin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon RanchMartin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon Ranch

To get to the Henderson Overlook, the main observation platform for the heron and egret nesting area, take the Alice Kent Trail or the Griffin Loop trail up to the overlook. The Kent trail is uphill all the way, but it's definitely worth the grind once you get to the top. (And, of course, it's all downhill on the return trip.) Like the Clem Miller Lookout, the Henderson Overlook is equipped with spotting scopes and other optical equipment to help you see the wildlife up close.

While we didn't see any nesting herons, the volunteer stationed up at the overlook did show us a pretty impressive wood rat nest as well as explain a little about what we would see when we came back later on in the season.

We'll definitely be back in a week or two—it's an amazing place and a valuable resource that's literally right in our backyard. For more information on the Marin Griffin Preserve and Audubon Canyon Ranch, visit www.egret.org or call (415) 868-9244.

If You Go

The Martin Griffin Preserve is open Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays only from 10 am–4 pm, mid-March through mid-July (this year it's March 16 through July 14). Admission is free, but a donation of $15 is appreciated. If you really want to make sure you see nesting birds, call the preserve first at (415) 868-9244 to see if they've arrived.

The preserve is located at 4900 Highway One, just north of Stinson Beach. To get there, take Highway 101 to the Highway 1 north/Stinson Beach exit in Mill Valley, and follow Highway 1 west to Stinson Beach. Follow Highway 1 north for about 3.5 miles; the Martin Griffin Preserve will be on your right opposite Bolinas Lagoon.

Martin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon RanchMartin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon Ranch

Drinking fountains provide water, but no food is available at the preserve; food is allowed only in the picnic area. If you don't bring a picnic, there are plenty of restaurants and markets nearby in Stinson Beach. There's a small but well-stocked gift shop at the preserve that sells a wide array of books, T-shirts, caps, souvenirs, and eductional toys and games.

When you enter the grounds, you'll see a photo of poison oak leaves on a easel. It's there for good reason, as this plant abounds along the trails here. Keep an eye out for it to avoid the itch!