Hike Name: Explore Humboldt Bay Trails
Name of area/general location: Ma-Le’l Dunes Cooperative Management Area, Samoa, California
Land Acknowledgement: These lands are the ancestral lands and traditional territories of the Wiyot People.
Trail rating: Easy to moderate
Trail mileage: Multiple options available
Permissible trail uses (dogs, horses, mountain bikes, others): Dogs, bicycles, and horses are allowed on the BLM parcels but not on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands as described below.
Description of area, sights, wildlife and any key markers on the trail:
Multiple trail options explore the unique ecosystem of Humboldt Bay, the dunes around it, and the beach. The area offers many easy walks that provide year-round birding, plant (especially flower) appreciation, beachcombing, and other opportunities.
Humboldt County’s Elk River enters the Pacific Ocean via Humboldt Bay, a 25-square-mile meeting of salt and fresh water that has created an ecological wonderland. It also serves as a bustling commercial port and a home to some 80,000 people in the cities of Eureka and Arcata on its shores.
The great driver of Humboldt Bay’s ecological productivity is the meeting of salt and fresh water in a series of intertidal estuaries. Many marshes have formed around these estuaries, along with an extensive network of dunes. The dunes are an ecosystem characterized by many unique plants and animals that have evolved to deal with constantly shifting, wind-driven sands. Thanks to this great diversity and ecological productivity, the bay is home to more than 100 plant species, 300 insect and other “invertebrate” wildlife species, 100 fish species, and 200 bird species, which comprise a vast population of resident and migrating fowl.
The Wiyot Tribe are the people native to Humboldt Bay. They called the area “Wigi” and it was and remains a critical source of food, shelter, and other resources for Indigenous people. In addition, Wigi holds immense cultural importance to the Wiyot as the site of age-old ceremonies.
Despite its cultural and ecological importance and uniqueness, until fairly recently, government and industry worked hard to develop Humboldt Bay with railroads, lumber mills, marinas and docks, pulp mills, and even a nuclear power plant. Humboldt Bay was used for over a century to export the North Coast’s once majestic forests to lumber markets in the Bay Area and elsewhere. The Wiyot suffered genocide to the extent that their population plummeted and they were forcibly confined to a few places. By the 1960s, it may have appeared that Wigi was lost forever.
Today, due to the collapse of unsustainable timber markets and other significant economic changes, a new appreciation for the area’s special ecology, and the resilience and recovery of the Wiyot Nation, some healing has begun. There are now concerted efforts by governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to protect and restore Humboldt Bay. In fact, one of the primary sources of wealth today is oyster farming which depends upon clean water. Over half of all oysters farmed in California come from Humboldt Bay. The Wiyot Tribe has acquired islands in the Bay that were the site of important ceremonies, and local, state, and federal agencies and NGOs like Friends of the Dunes are working with the Wiyot to restore original place names, educate the public about the cultural importance of Wigi, and restore Humboldt Bay and its unique ecosystems. According to contacts the Wiyot not only plan to acquire more land at Wigi, but also to engage in the collaborative stewardship of the entire region with willing governmental and NGO land managers.
A great place to see this recovery of culture and ecology in action is at the Ma-Le’l Dunes Cooperative Management Area jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Arcata Field Office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Ma-‘e’l Dunes offer a range of free recreational opportunities that allow visitors to experience the diverse and dynamic coastal landscape of forests and salt marshes, sand dunes and beaches. There are over 20 trails exploring the dunes, beach, and estuary that span roughly 1,000 acres of lands managed by BLM, USFWS, local governments, and NGOs. These trails are all fairly short but can easily be combined into longer loops. While most of them are easy, walking on sand tends to be more tiring than walking on a stable surface.
The most famous path traversing the area is the California Coastal Trail (CCT) established in 1999. Still a work in progress, when completed the CCT will provide opportunities to walk and sometimes bike the length of California’s 1,230-mile-long coast. On the northern end of Humboldt Bay, one can access roughly 15 miles of the CCT that extends from the BLM’s Samoa Dunes Recreation Area north to the mouth of the Mad River. While the Samoa Dunes Recreation Area is open to off-road vehicles, the CCT is only open to non-motorized uses.
The northern portion of Ma-le’l is part of Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Trail access is limited to pedestrians only. The BLM manages the southern portion of Ma-le’ and the agency allows dog walking, cycling, and horseback riding.
To reach the Ma-Le’l Dunes Cooperative Management Area from Highway 101 in Arcata, take Exit 713 (Samoa Boulevard-State Highway 255) west towards Samoa. Drive for 3.8 miles to Young Lane. Turn right. In 300 feet you will arrive at Vera Linda Lane. To visit the southern (BLM) portion of the area, turn left and follows signs to parking area. To visit the USFWS portion, turn right and continue for 0.8 miles to the parking lot. North Ma-le’l entrance road is open to vehicles Friday through Monday, while Tuesday through Thursday it is open only for walking or biking from the Ma-le’l South Trailhead parking area. Typing “1 Young Lane, Arcata, CA” in Google Maps will get you to the trailheads.
Please note that dune vegetation is fragile and cannot tolerate trampling. Visitors must stay on designated trails, though cross-country walking is allowed in naturally open and sandy areas such as on the beach. Horses and bikes are allowed only on designated BLM trails and on the wave slope (the area covered by incoming waves) to protect the fragile dune ecosystems. Please remove any manure from the parking area.
Dogs are allowed only on BLM parcels and must be leashed in the developed recreation sites. Otherwise, dogs are allowed off-leash but must be under the owner’s control at all times. Firearms, camping, and motorized vehicles are also prohibited. To protect rare salt marsh plants, boat launching or landing is not allowed, but surfing is allowed for those willing to pack their boards down to the Pacific.
The Wiyot Tribe is planning to open a cultural center close to the water in Old Town Eureka. Friends of the Dunes, BLM, FWS, and others are working more closely with the Wiyot than ever on efforts to restore, protect, and adequately care for Wigi. To learn more about Wigi and its special ecology, check out Friends of the Dunes’ site at https://www.friendsofthedunes.org/. The Friends of the Dunes operates the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center which offers exhibits, educational trails, programs for children, and hands-on restoration activities to increase public understanding of Wigi. The Center is located on restored dune habitat just a few minutes south of Ma-le’l.
Directions: There are multiple trailheads. Please see AllTrails Hike Link above
For more information: Bureau of Land Management | 707-825-2300 | https://www.blm.gov/office/arcata-field-office
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge | (707) 822-6378 or (707) 733-5406 | www.fws.gov/humboldtbay/
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials