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Hiking with Kids in Marin: Turtle Back Nature Trail in China Camp State Park

Turtle Back Nature Trail at China Camp State ParkFamilies looking for an easy, fun, and educational hike in Marin need look no further than Turtle Back Nature Trail in San Rafael's China Camp State Park. This 3/4-mile hike along a well-maintained and accessible loop trail offers sweeping vistas of San Pablo Bay, wildlife viewing, and the opportunity to learn a little bit about the natural communities that you'll find here.

Turtle Back Nature Trail winds its way around a small hill that resembles a turtle shell (hence the name). The path takes hikers through a variety of different natural environments, including open grasslands, salt marsh, and through a shady oak and bay laurel forest.

Look for birds like herons and egrets and other wildlife as you make your way along the trail.

Wildflowers, including large stands of bright orange Sticky Monkey Flower, abound here.

Turtle Back Nature Trail at China Camp State ParkTurtle Back Nature Trail at China Camp State Park

Along the way, you'll find five educational panels describing what you're seeing and giving you and your family an in-depth look into the area's ecosystem. Three of the panels include touchable tactile elements that allow you to explore the environment through touch as well as sight. To enhance your visit even more, you can download an mp3 interpretive audio tour from the California State Parks website that you can load onto your smartphone or iPod and take along with you.

Start at the orientation panel near the trailhead, then head to the right and follow the trail around the hill. The trail is flat, wide, and smooth, with only a 50-foot elevation gain, so it's a perfect hike for little ones. The trail is designed to be accessible to wheelchairs, so it's easily manageable with a sturdy jogging-style stroller. Unlike many of the trails at China Camp State Park, no bicycles are allowed here—it's hiking only.

Turtle Back Nature Trail at China Camp State ParkTurtle Back Nature Trail at China Camp State Park

If You Go

Turtle Back Nature Trail is located off San Pedro Road at the north end of China Camp State Park near San Rafael. China Camp is a fantastic place to visit, so while you're here make sure you check out some of the other sights and attractions including the beach and the historic Chinese fishing settlement in China Camp Village.

Turtle Back Nature Trail at China Camp State ParkParking is available near the trailhead along the road. If you head to any of the day-use areas, like China Camp Village or Back Ranch Campground, you'll need to pay a $5 fee, which is a bargain, considering how much there is to do here.

About half the trail is shaded, so make sure you bring hats and sunscreen for the parts that aren't. Temperatures can get into the 90s here in the summer, so bring plenty of water.

Water and restrooms are not available at the Turtle Back trailhead, but can be found nearby at Back Ranch Campground and China at Camp Village. There are plenty of picnic tables, some with charcoal grills, throughout the park, so you can bring your lunch and picnic after your hike. You can also get sandwiches, sodas, ice cream bars, and other treats at the Quan Brothers snack bar, open weekends only, down in China Camp Village.

To get there, take Highway 101 to the North San Pedro Road/Marin Civic Center exit in San Rafael. Head east on North San Pedro Road and follow it through the Santa Venetia neighborhood until you see the sign for China Camp State Park. Turtle Back Nature Trail will be on your left about a half mile up the road.

For more information on Turtle Back Nature Trail and China Camp State Park, visit

Help Save China Camp

Help save this amazing and irreplaceable Marin resource from closing! Due to the dismal situation with the California state budget, China Camp is one of 70 state parks slated for closure on July 1, 2012.

Fortunately, the local support group Friends of China Camp State Park has stepped forward to raise money to keep the park open. Nearly $200,000 of their $250,000 goal has been raised so far, so if you and your family love Marin and China Camp, please consider making a donation to help keep this invaluable resource available to all of us. Visit them online and make a donation of any amount at

2020 Marin Summer Camp Guide