Consider it nature’s ultimate treasure hunt — a fun, free, family-friendly way to spend time outside on the Sonoma Coast.
If you prefer, you can call tide pooling a crash course in marine biology field work, without the Ph.D.
The activity revolves around the tiny pools of water left behind in the rocks when the ocean recedes during low tide. And with some of the lowest tides of the year coming up over the next few weeks, now is the perfect time to get out and explore.
You don’t need much to do tide pooling right — sunscreen and hard-soled footwear are about the only essentials. The rewards, however, can be spectacular. Ochre, purple and fuchsia sea stars! Sea anemones! Hermit crabs! Sea snails! Gooseneck barnacles! Colorful nudibranchs! On a particularly good day, you might spot an octopus, a sea lion or a feeding whale.
Kristina Stanton, park program supervisor for Sonoma County Regional Parks, said tide pooling offers a window to another world.
“We have such great diversity of life here in Sonoma County,” said Stanton, who is based out of the Parks office in the Sebastopol Community & Cultural Center. “Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than when you’re peering down into a tide pool.”
All about the where
The most important part of any tide pool excursion is also the most obvious: Where to go.
Lucky for us, the Sonoma Coast is loaded with beaches and coves that reveal another world when the tide goes out.
Perhaps the best spot: Pinnacle beach, a tiny sliver of beach just south of Bodega Bay. The beach is accessible by the Pinnacle Gulch Coastal Access Trail, a 1-mile trail that begins in a residential neighborhood near the golf course. The reward for the hike: A half-mile stretch of beach that is essentially one giant tide pool during the lowest of low tides.
Even if the beach is crowded (there are about a dozen spots in the parking lot at the trailhead), sea stars outnumber humans by a magnitude of about 15 to 1. In recent weeks, a marine mammal-obsessed reporter and his daughters have spotted humpback whales feeding on schooling fish just offshore.
Another epic spot: Salt Point State Park, which has an entire section of rocky shoreline that is exposed during low tides.
This is where Healdsburg resident Chris Herrod has taken his two teenage sons to go tide pooling.
During a 2020 visit, Herrod and his boys scrambled across some of the rocks south of Horseshoe Bay Cove to find tide pools with crabs, urchins, anemones and scores of sea stars in a variety of different sizes and colors.
“Salt Point is full of miracles, and the boys were very grateful for the trip out there,” Herrod said. “We will undoubtedly return again and again.”
Additional options for local tide pooling include Miwok Beach (which is accessible from North Salmon Creek) and Schoolhouse Beach. Shell Beach has good tide pools as well, though Stanton said that beach tends to get overcrowded since it is so easily accessible.
When to go
Generally speaking, you can go tide pooling during just about any low tide.
The best tides, however, are the lowest of the low tides in any given month. At this time of year, those are known as “negative” tides, and the tide level is negative or minus relative to the mean sea level for a particular region.
In the next few weeks, negative tides are extreme; there will be negative tides around Bodega Bay in the early morning hours on May 26-29.
In June and July, the negative tides are even more dramatic.
The best way to prepare for low tides is to check a tide chart; these are available online for free, and most marine services stores sell localized versions for cheap. Tide charts look like mountain ranges — when you look for the low tides, the deepest valleys are the ones that generally yield the best tide pooling.
Stanton advises that tide poolers arrive at their desired location about an hour before low tide for the region, since the tide will be ebbing anyway. She said the best tide pooling usually lasts until about an hour after the designated low tide, at which point the tide begins to flow.