Hiking with Kids: Bear Valley Trail
One of our favorite places for a family hike in Marin is the Bear Valley Trail. Located at the Point Reyes National Seashore's Bear Valley Visitor Center near Point Reyes Station and Olema, this trail is for many reasons one of the most popular in Marin, and a great spot for novice hikers and families with children. It's flat, wide, and sheltered from the wind and sun. While it has some slight uphill sections, it's not too challenging. It's ideal for use with an off-road stroller, too.
Starting at the end of the parking lot, Bear Valley Trail follows Bear Valley Creek all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The entire out-and-back hike on the Bear Valley Trail is approximately 8.2 miles, which can be a bit much for families with kids in tow. We find that a more manageable destination for those hiking with children is Divide Meadow, which lies at about 1.6 miles into the trail.
There you'll find a picturesque wide meadow ringed by Douglas firs. Benches cut out of fallen logs are scattered around the meadow, and it's a great place to stop for a picnic and fuel up for the return leg of your hike. You can usually count on seeing some wildlife here, usually deer and a variety of birds, but on at least one occasion we've encountered bobcats. The trip to Divide Meadow and back is 3.2 miles total.
If you choose to continue on the Bear Valley Trail, you can continue all the way to the Pacific. Note that the portion of the trail leading to Arch Rock is closed indefinitely after a tragic incident in 2015 when an unstable portion of the cliff gave way.
There are plenty of things to keep kids occupied on the way, from throwing rocks in the creek to looking for animals. The trail is in fact the old access road for the ranch that once occupied this spot, and is perfect for a sturdy jogging stroller. It's also ideal for bikes, although they're only allowed on the trail to a certain point.
Bear Valley Trail is popular and can get quite busy, although we've never found it to be unpleasantly so. It will definitely be more crowded on weekends, and expect to share the trail with mountain bikes and horses. The Park Service runs a training facility for Morgan horses here, and often we've encountered friendly rangers on horseback who were happy to introduce children to the horses and let them get up close and personal.
If You Go
Bear Valley Visitor Center and the trail are located off of Bear Valley Road near Olema. From Point Reyes Station, head south on Highway 1 and then turn right after the bridge onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Take your next left onto Bear Valley Road and follow it until you get to the visitor center. The trailhead is located on the far end of the big parking lot past the visitor center building. From the south, via Sir Francis Drake Boulevard or Highway 1, go north on 1 and turn left on Bear Valley Road just north of Olema. Follow Bear Valley Road to the visitor center.
At any time of year in West Marin, the weather can change drastically in a short time. Dress in layers: a sweater or fleece jacket is ideal along with a shell or windbreaker that you can stash in your backpack just in case. Drinking water is available at the visitor center and the adjacent picnic area, so you can fill your water bottles if you need to. Obviously take the usual necessities like sunscreen and hats, and bring your lunch if you plan to picnic.
There's not food available at the visitor center, but you can pick up good deli sandwiches and snacks at the Palace Market or Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station or at the Inverness Park Market or the Inverness Store. Restrooms are available at the visitor center, picnic area, and at Divide Meadow.
As in much of Northern California, you'll find poison oak, stinging nettles, and ticks out among the trees and brush, so make sure everyone stays on the trail. There have also been a few mountain lion sightings out there, although not in places commonly visited by hikers; you're extremely unlikely to encounter one when the trail is busy—they really like to avoid people.
Check the information sign at the visitor center before you go for up-to-date information, trail conditions, and warnings.