A Guide to Low Impact Boat Camping

Contact US Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay on VHF CHANNEL 16 or PHONE 911 (Marin County Dispatch).

Learn about the area and what to expect. Check local tide tables and maps. Download the Tomales Bay Boat-in Campsites map. (249 KB PDF) Bring adequate liquids and food, as well as portable animal-resistant food storage containers. Check all equipment to ensure that everything is in good condition before you get on the water. Carry extra dry clothing. Know first-aid and be alert for signs and symptoms of hypothermia, sunstroke, heat exhaustion, etc. Know how to re-enter your kayak or canoe from the water. Check at park visitor centers and/or via the park web site for current weather forecasts and wildlife sightings. PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICES MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES. Personal water craft (PWC), such as a JetSkis or Waverunners, are not permitted on Tomales Bay.

With increasing visitor use, both day and overnight, it is important to minimize our impacts and Leave No Trace of our visits to wilderness, parks, and other special places. Trips that include awareness and the use of minimum impact practices conserve natural conditions of the outdoors which make the adventure enjoyable and allow others the same experience. Your backcountry permit is a signed contract between you and the National Park Service. It's an agreement to treat these public lands with respect by practicing Leave No Trace (LNT) techniques. Keep in mind that Leave No Trace camping goes beyond following the rules; it requires thoughtful judgement for each situation that comes up.

Disposing of human waste in the bay or onto park beaches is prohibited. On Tomales Bay, there are vault toilets at Marshall Beach and Tomales Beach. If camping on other beaches, you are required to pack out all human waste using a portable toilet or similar commercially designed waste disposal containers that can be emptied into an RV dump station or pit toilet, or a GO anywhere toilet kit® (formerly sold as WAG® Bags). While there are restrooms at Hearts Desire Beach, Lawsons Landing, and Miller Boat Launch, a pit toilet at Indian Beach, and portable toilets at Chicken Ranch Beach, camping is prohibited at all of these locations.

NEVER pump boat holding tanks into the bay or outhouses. Lawson's Landing at Dillon Beach (707-878-2443) is the closest place to pump out your tanks. (You cannot pump from the water but if you pull your boat out at this launch site, there is a dump station). A dump station is also available at Olema Campground (415-663-8106) along Highway 1 at Olema.

Move gently through the water so that you do not disturb wildlife. For safety, paddle in groups if possible. Ensure that you are close enough to reach fellow paddlers quickly if trouble arises. Paddle close to shore or, if an open-water crossing is necessary, choose the most direct route. Always wear your personal flotation device.

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Carry water with you, as there are few water sources emptying into the bay on the west side. Boil, treat, or filter any water obtained from the park. If you wash dishes, be aware that all soaps can adversely affect water. Use biodegradable soap when possible. Do not dump wash/graywater in the bay; dispose of all dirty water 30 meters (100 feet) at least from any source source of water.

Raccoons, coyotes, and other animals can be very aggressive and will tear into backpacks, duffle bags, dry bags, tents, and kayaks to get at food and other scented items. Therefore, all food, all trash, all toiletries, and all other scented items should be stored in portable animal-resistant food storage containers unless in immediate use. This includes, but is not limited to, all sealed or packaged food, sunscreen, soap, mosquito repellent, toothpaste, lip balm, deodorant, first aid kits, medications, and feminine products. As a general rule, if you put it in your mouth or on your skin, it should probably be stored in an animal-resistant food storage container.

The container only works if it's closed and locked! Be sure to keep it closed and locked, even while you're around your campsite. Place the container on the ground in a flat, level area or in a depression in the sand to make it more difficult for animals to roll it away. Do not hang or attach anything to the container—ropes attached to the container may enable an animal to carry it away.

Store garbage in a portable animal-resistant container, such as your food storage containers. Pack out all trash, food scraps, and packaging. Food scraps tempt wildlife into camping areas and may endanger them and you.

Please leave glass containers at home or in your vehicles. Broken glass from bottles or other containers pose a hazard to visitors who walk barefoot on the beaches of Tomales Bay or who go swimming.

Gas camp stoves are the preferred means for cooking.

  • If you wish to build a fire, obtain a free fire permit at one of the National Seashore's visitor centers.
  • The collection of driftwood for fires is prohibited on Tomales Bay. You must bring firewood from outside of the park, but wait until you are in West Marin before purchasing firewood. Don't Move Firewood: Buy it where you burn it. Please do not bring oak, madrone, tanoak, or other species that are susceptible to Phytophthora ramorum unless the wood has been certified to be free of this organism that causes sudden oak death.
  • Build the fire below the high tide line and not near any large driftwood logs or vegetation nor under overhanging tree limbs. If all campers builds their fires below the high tide line, there will be a lot more clean, non-ashy beach above the high tide line on which to set up tents and other camping gear. If you have one, bring and use a fire pan and dispose of the ash into the bay, not on the beach or in the vegetation.
  • Plastic and aluminum foil do not burn, so please do not put them in your fire.
  • Completely extinguish the fire using water before leaving it unattended.
  • Fires are prohibited on state park beaches.

For more detailed information and instructions, check out our Beach Fires page.

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One of the joys of Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero is the frequent sightings of harbor seals, tule elk, and the many birds, but please respect the needs of wild animals and birds. Wildlife are sensitive to our presence and may change their behavior just by seeing humans. Disturbing wildlife when they are resting or feeding may be life threatening to them.

On the water or beach, follow Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations: stay 100 meters (300 feet) away from whales, seals, and sea lions. Harbor seals are most sensitive during their pupping season, which is approximately March 1 through June 30, and as they molt in July and August. You may see apparently abandoned pups (e.g., baby seals), but do not disturb them. Usually, a parent is feeding nearby and has only left the pup for a brief period. The parent may abandon the pup if they sense humans nearby. If you are concerned about a marine mammal, contact the park dispatch office at 415-464-5170 or park visitor centers and leave a message about the location and condition of the animal.

To protect harbor seals from disturbance during the most crucial part of the pupping season, from March 1 through June 30 the National Park Service has closed the following areas to the public: Drakes Estero, Limantour Estero, Double Point, and the western most end of Limantour Spit. Pelican Point, Duck Island and the east side of Hog Island are closed to the public year round.
Map of Estero closures (258 KB PDF)
Map of Hog Island closure (42 KB PDF)
Map of Limantour Spit closure (104 KB PDF)

During summer and fall, brown pelicans—which, up until 2009, was a federally listed endangered species—roost on islands and floats in the bay. Many other seabirds make their home on the bay as well. Keep at least 30 meters (100 feet) away.

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Tule elk generally do not come down onto the Tomales Bay beaches, but they may be seen from the water. Always keep your distance. If you encounter an elk, do not come between a cow and a calf, a bull and a group of cows, or between two bulls challenging each other. The rut season--when males are jockeying for position and attempting to gather females for breeding--occurs from late August through September. The elk are most active during that period.

Park biologists have noted elk calving and nursing in areas near Avalis Beach and White Gulch. To reduce the chance of disturbing the elk, stay on beaches and do not climb up onto the ridge. And if you plan to land at Avalis Beach, camp or use the extreme northern or southern ends of the beach.
Map of Sensitive Elk Habitat at Avalis Beach (41 KB JPG)
Map of Sensitive Elk Habitat at White Gulch (52 KB JPG)

On May 1, 2010, a number of Marine Protected Areas went into effect within and adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore, in part to better protect nesting birds. Per the Marine Life Protection Act (MPLA), the Point Reyes Headlands is closed to all vessels within 305 meters (1000 feet) of shore from Chimney Rock west to Longitude 123° 01.00'. Per the Superintendent's Compendium, from Longitude 123° 01.00' west to the Point Reyes Lighthouse the headlands is closed to all vessels within 91 meters (100 yards) of shore. There are also 91-meter (300-foot) special closures around Point Resistance and Double Point/Stormy Stack, per the MLPA.

Pets are not allowed on beaches within the Tule Elk Reserve or on state park beaches on the west side of Tomales Bay. Pets on leash are permitted within the National Seashore on Tomales Bay beaches south of the elk fence and north of the Tomales Bay State Park boundary.
Map showing locations where pets are permitted along Tomales Bay (263 KB PDF)

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IN EMERGENCY: Contact US Coast Guard Station Bodega Bay on VHF CHANNEL 16 or PHONE 911 (Marin County Dispatch).

Water temperatures in Tomales Bay may be as low as 10°C (50°F). Symptoms include uncontrollable fits of shivering, slurred speech, frequent stumbling. Cold water can be more dangerous than cold air since body temperature can be drained away much more quickly. Wear a wet suit.

There were two white shark attacks at the mouth of Tomales Bay in 1996. In general, white sharks may be found near seal resting areas. The most likely place for a shark encounter in Tomales Bay is the area north of Tom's Point.

Weather can change rapidly at Point Reyes. Tomales Bay can act as a wind tunnel. Be aware of afternoon wind forecasts. Weather radio stations give the most useful information for boaters.

The change between high and low tide can create strong currents, especially at the mouth of Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero. Check the tide charts. Low tides also expose mudflats at the south end of Tomales Bay and you may become stuck at Millerton Point or White House Pool access points.

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Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956


(415) 464-5100
This number will initially be answered by an automated attendant, from which one can opt to access a name directory, listen to recorded information about the park (i.e., directions to the park; visitor center hours of operation; weather forecast; fire danger information; shuttle bus system status; wildlife updates; ranger-led programs; seasonal events; etc.), or speak with a ranger. Please note that if you are calling between 4:30 pm and 10 am, park staff may not be available to answer your call.

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