McGrath SB Trails


This page describes the "McGrath Trails", a walk through all nine ecosystems at McGrath State Beach.  The easy hike starts at the Santa Clara Estuary Natural Preserve within McGrath SB, near the overflow parking/day use just past the the entrance.  This is an "out and back" walk, taking several side trails to the river estuary and back to the main trail and finally heading down the beach to McGrath Lakes.   Much of this hike is also described in the Trail Master's write up on the State Parks website, my version has pics, a few more detours and does not go outside the park.  The route is shown as bright green on the map pictured to the right.  (Note, click any picture on this page to enlarge)

First Up, Streamside Woodland Ecosystem:
  The walk begins with the Streamside
 Woodland Boardwalk & Trail, probably one of the best known trails in the park.

"You are about to enter one of the rarest places in California" (click pic to enlarge)

Note the sign says "eight unique ecosystems".  The nineth is McGrath Lake which lies a couple miles down the beach, not shown on the map as it isn't a part of this preserve.  McGrath Lake is the only natural fresh water back dune lake in the Southern half of the state.

Streamside Woodland Boardwalk & Trail, 4/17/10

The boardwalk (beginning here) is approximately 2/10ths of a mile long.

Streamside Woodland on June 28th, 2012

A number of benches are found along the Streamside Woodland Trail. 4/17/10


The Streamside Woodland Trail boardwalk ends here and continues a short distance on a dirt path.

One thing to note, a lot of poison oak is found along the Streamside Woodland Trail.  If you stick to the trail and don't touch it won't hurt you.  "Leaves of 3, Let it Be".  In the Spring the poison oak is a lush green, by mid summer it begins to turn red and eventually loses it leaves.  In any stage (even bare stems) its itchy.  A lot of wildlife is found in this habitat in addition to a variety of birds.  You may see Turkey Vultures, swallows, hawks to name just a few.  I've seen pictures of non poisonous snakes in this habitat.  Racoons, skunks, lizards, possums, weasels, tortoise and butterflies are among the creatures found here.  Sit quietly for awhile on a trail bench and you may see some of this elusive wildlife. 

Poison Oak in the Spring, 4/30/11

Poison Oak in the Summer, 7/23/11

The dirt portion of the trail, 4/17/10

Streamside Woodland Trail (dirt section, almost to the end), 8/25/12

The Streamside Woodland Trail is well maintained, shaded and very flat.  It is wheelchair accessible, probably even on the dirt trail past the boardwalk.  The trail ends not too far past the boardwalk, in a small clearing with a number of benches (see next pic below).  Usually you will return the same way you came.  Unless the river water levels are extremely can take a second trail in that case and during the right river conditions you can walk in the riverbed, see the next section. 

Next up:  river, freshwater marsh and estuary ecosystems
At the end of the Streamside Woodland Trail you will see several "side trails" off the clearing.  The two on the left (as you face the end) will lead to the river.  From here you will see at least the river and freshwater marsh.  If the river is dry enough you can walk to the estuary, if the estuary is not very full you can walk the riverbed all the way to the beach

This clearing marks the end of the Streamside Woodland Trail, 7/23/11

First side trail just before clearing, best to see estuary (notice poison oak on the right), 7/23/11

Side trail, short, usually ends at water, 7/23/11

The "side trail" will soon emerge from the streamside woodland ecosystem and briefly pass through a marsh upland.   In this area you will see native plants typical of "uplands" or coastal sage scrub, such as Mule Fat, Coyote Bush and Sagebrush.  And then you arrive at the river.  If the river levels are low it will appear as in the middle picture below and is ok to walk thru (if not too muddy).  If the river levels are high it will appear as the last pic in the row below and from here you turn back.  Either way, you are now entering the river and fresh water marsh ecosystems. 

"Upland" coastal sage scrub, 7/23/11

Drier riverbed, good enough to walk. 7/23/11

One month later, not so dry. 8/25/11

From this point the Santa Clara River is a sandy bottom, braided river during drier seasons.  If and exactly when the river appears this way varies and is entirely up to mother nature.  The river is mostly natural, which is the reason so many ecosystems occur here.  So any modifications (such as dikes, berms, channels, breaking the sandbar unnaturally, etc) are very forbidden.  Although the nice sandy riverbed may look tempting to lounge on (as you would at the beach)--don't.  Development is still upstream and as a result pollutants are in this riverbed.  Walk, look, but best not to touch.  Bring binoculars for bird watching if you have them. 

Riverbed, often water levels prevent passage here. 7/3/11

Once you enter the riverbed (if dry) turn left toward the beach and estuary.  In the pictures below the sandbar across the "rivermouth" on the beach is seen.  This holds back the water forming the estuary.  The braided river channels merge into the salt water estuary creating brackish waters.  Many wetlands birds, shorebirds, duck species and other migratory birds are found here.  Over 245 different bird species have been documented.  The sandbar blocking in the water helps another endangered species, the Tidewater Goby.  This is a very small, almost transparent fish that only lives in brackish water found in lagoons and estuaries, often in the side channels.  When the sandbar breaks (which occurs naturally over time) the Tidewater Goby could get sucked out to sea where it might not survive long.  The goby and other estuary fish are import food sources for birds and other creatures.  The natural river and sandbar dynamics at work here are best left to mother nature. 






In the riverbed at the edge of the estuary, plant on the left is bulrush, a wetland plant. 7/23/11

Next up:  Salt marsh, freshwater marsh and estuary ecosystems.  Exiting back out the streamside woodland trail turn to your right and head down the trail toward the beach (shown in first pic below).  (In wet years this section of trail may be under water even in the beginning of summer.)  A short distance away you will see trails on the right leading on top of a low berm.  Take either trail toward the river estuary.  The salt marsh will be on the left, freshwater marsh on the right.  A number of interpretive signs are posted along the path. 

Trail to the beach and next estuary side trail. 4/17/10

Side trail to the estuary, 8/25/11

Side trail to the estuary, 7/3/11

Trail to the estuary, 7/3/11

2nd pic from left below, shown is a side channel off the estuary.  In wet months this fills with water and slowly fills the shallow channels running along the outer perimeter of the campgrounds.  Eventually the campsites close to the river flood.  By summer most of the water resides leaving behind vibrant green campground meadows and sometimes shallow ponds filled with frogs, which most likely you will clearly hear from your campsite at night.  Continue down this short trail ending at the estuary.  You may have a clear view of many birds and sometimes swallows will be swarming overhead.  Return the way you came, back on the main trail turn right continuing toward the beach.  (note, click any pic to enlarge)

Estuary trail, 7/3/11

Side channel off the main estuary, 7/3/11

Looking over the salt marsh--dunes, estuary, rivermouth/sandbar, ocean in the distance. 7/3/11

Trail ends at the estuary

Next up:  Coastal dune and salt marsh ecosystems.  Next the beach trail passes through the final stretch of salt marsh, turning along the dunes for a short distance before cutting through the dunes to the ocean.  Notice the dunes are roped off around the designated path thru. The endangered birds Western Snowy Plover and California Least Tern nest only in sand dune habitats, laying their eggs directly on the sand--and they blend!  So to prevent accidental crushing...  But sometimes the birds nest outside the roped areas.  Should you see a bird running across the sand looking like it has a broken wing you are nearby a nest, use caution--this is a tactic the parents use trying to lure predators away from a nearby nest.   

Beach trail, walking toward dunes, salt marsh on the right. 7/3/11

Looking back (inland) on the beach trail. 7/3/11

Beach Trail, 7/3/11

Below, typical salt marsh flora.  These plants have adapted to high saline conditions, excreting salt from their leaves.  Pickleweed sometimes turns red on the ends due to this process.  Running your fingers on a blade of salt grass will often leave behind a fine layer of salt.  But don't eat it (things I have to say).  Click here for more McGrath SB plant info including pics

Salt Marsh, native wetland plants include salt grasses and spiney rushes. 4/17/10

Pickleweed, a native salt marsh plant. 4/17/10

Trail curves left running between the dunes & campgrounds. 7/3/11

Ahead opposite the trees & bushes on the left, trail turns thru the dunes to the beach. 7/3/11

The trail thru the dunes (inland view back toward main trail/campgrounds) 9/6/11

Up to the turn into the dunes the trail is wide, flat and solid.  Besides endangered birds, a reptile that is only lives in sand dune habitats is found here at McGrath, a type of legless lizard.  A number of sand dune plants are also found here including beach bur, abronia (a type of verbena), purple & red verbena, dodder, beach morning glory and beach primrose to name a few.   Most of these are flowering plants, they usually bloom most intense in the Spring.

Looking back on the beach trail (just before turning into the dunes) 8/25/11

Native dune plants, beach primrose (yellow) and dodder (orange stringy plant). 4/17/10

Native dune plants, beach primrose (yellow) & verbena (purple). 4/17/10

Beach dunes in bloom, 4/17/2010

Last:  Sandy beach, ocean and back dune lake ecosystems. From the beach you may see dolphins in the waves or sometimes a sea lion.  Heading down the sandy beach toward McGrath Lakes you may see unexpected wildlife.  Picture below shows coyote tracks on the beach, this was near the lakes. (You can tell a coyote track from a dog as coyotes run in a straight line, one foot in front of the other.  Dogs tracks feet run side by side.)  This same day I saw a bobcat near the dunes and lake.  Most of the area around McGrath Lake is fenced off, no trails exist.  Only a small finger of the lake is sometimes visible outside the roped off or fenced areas.  This concludes all nine ecosystems at McGrath.  For McGrath wildlife pics click here to view the wildlife FB gallery (no Facebook login required). 

McGrath Lake is located down the beach near the power plant

McGrath Lake, a natural freshwater back dune lake. 6/4/11

McGrath Lake 6/4/11

Fresh coyote tracks on the beach near McGrath Lake (click pic to enlarge). 6/4/11


Links & more info

McGrath Lake, a restoration document (after the 1993 oil spill) which contains good info on the natural resources of McGrath SB, includes ariel pic of the lake--of which the above McGrath Lake pics are only a tiny part

Weekend Sherpa, McGrath State Beach & nature walk article:

Google Book "Top Trails:California Central Coast:Must do Hikes for Everyone"  Trail 43, Santa Clara River Estuary Natural Preserve

CalFlora website, picture survey of McGrath includes both native & non-native plants (2 pages)
page one:
page two:

Birding blog writeup, this is just one afternoon bird watching on the trails & beach at McGrath:

Tidewater Goby (endangered lagoon fish):

California Wetlands Information System (CWIS, part of the CERES info system) info on Santa Clara River Estuary: