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Only about an hour’s travel southwest of Berkeley, there’s a little piece of bayside nature where you can view some seldom-seen native treasures, learn about the Bay Area’s natural environment, and appreciate the ongoing struggle to save it.
This is the Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education, on the San Mateo shoreline, south of San Francisco International Airport.
Opened in 1981, the main museum building is a low-slung, angular, structure with a richly finished wood interior.
Inside the main Environmental Hall visitors follow the path of a drop of water heading downhill from the ridgelines that that bisect the Peninsula. The ridges tend to divide and define not only the natural but the human culture and character of the land from San Francisco to Santa Cruz.
Switchback ramps lead from gallery to gallery. On the left-hand side the exhibits descend through oak woodland and chaparral to the Bay marshes.
On the right side of the room the journey runs from redwood forest to grassland to the rocky San Mateo coast and Pacific Ocean.
Freestanding displays in each gallery describe the natural environments the visitor passes through. Wall displays articulate threats to those environments, from water pollution to logging and urban sprawl.
At the lowest level there’s a windowed space with views over the Bay, and a live beehive exhibit under glass, with an access tube to the outside world.
The main exhibit area includes a life-sized marsh diorama, wooden columns that branch into stylized trees, a quarter-scale fiberglass whale suspended from the ceiling on the ocean side, and a towering “food pyramid” of grassland creatures.
Though most exhibits are engaging, the Museum has clearly been experiencing some hard financial times. Some displays are broken or worn; contents of others are dated. A small aquarium area has dark, empty, tanks.
If the Environmental Hall itself were the only thing to see at the museum, I might be tempted to suggest waiting until the displays undergo refurbishment and regeneration.
However, there are other appealing aspects of Coyote Point Museum that can suitably fill out an excursion.
Next to the main building is the “living” half of the museum, a fine, small, indigenous zoo with about 150 birds, mammals, and reptiles, most of them native or endemic to the Bay Area.
We share the region with these creatures, but never see most of them up close—except for raccoons, of course.
A coyote ambles down to sniff at visitors through a fence, while a silvery bobcat lazily grooms itself atop a rock and a river otter does underwater arabesques in a tank that can be viewed through glass walls.
There are porcupines, snakes, raptors, badgers, ravens, newts, and even banana slugs. A snowy egret peers down from a perch atop a redwood bough in an expansive outdoor aviary.
Perky, pint-sized, burrowing owls will make you instant partisans for this habitat-beleaguered, ground-dwelling, species.
A meandering tunnel provides views into dens and interior enclosures, while an exterior path circles back to take in the enclosures from the outer side.
Most of the animals and birds are once-injured “rescues” or former pets, now unable to return to the wild.
Back indoors, there’s a small traveling exhibit area currently hosting “Green Dollhouses” made out of recycled materials, on display through December. See greendollhouse.org for more details.
Outside the exhibit grounds, Coyote Point is a county park offering other attractions. Large picnic areas and a playground spread down the slopes under the eucalyptus canopy.
Coyote Point is one of the few places in the Central or South Bay where you can get right up to the water but still be some distance above it.
As a result, reasonably clear days offer impressive views over the Bay, taking in San Bruno Mountain, San Francisco’s office towers to the north, San Mateo’s shore side towers and the San Mateo Bridge to the south, as well as Mt. Diablo and the Oakland/Berkeley Hills to the east.
Coyote Point itself is a rocky, chert, outcropping rising above the flat Bay tidelands, looking rather like an Albany Hill of the Peninsula
If you’ve ever flown into San Francisco International Airport from the south, you’ve probably looked down on the eucalyptus-topped promontory just before landing. The Bayside overlook below the museum provides a first-class vantage from the other perspective, viewing up close the ceaseless stream of commercial jets descending low over the water on approach to SFO.
Once it was an island—Bay on one side, tidal flats on the other. The flats were later filled for grazing land, now a golf course.
After various commercial uses—dairies, a lumber pier, amusement parks—the Point was sold to San Mateo in 1940.
A wartime U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet School occupied the Point, which then became the first campus of the College of San Mateo. In 1963 the college moved and the current county park was established.
The San Mateo County Junior Museum opened in 1954 in a Quonset hut atop the Point, and in 1974 became the Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education, leading to the current facility.
Coyote Point Museum was in the news this summer when, after financial stresses, the Board of Trustees voted to shut it down. A published rumor had a high-powered private group maneuvering to take over the property for a global warming education center.
Fortunately, friends of the existing museum organized a quick and successful emergency fundraising campaign to cover operating expenses and the board rescinded its vote.
Coyote Point has a key place in promoting regional environmental awareness, in the same way that the Randall Museum educates San Franciscans and the Lindsay Museum serves much of the East Bay. It should be rejuvenated, not removed.
Fortunately, there is now renewed hope that, even with global warming, the Coyote Point Museum will still be there. Go see it, before the oceans rise.
Find the eastbound Peninsula Avenue overpass across Highway 101, which leads into Coyote Point Park.
There’s a $5 car admission fee to the park (seniors free on weekdays). Road signage and the entry kiosk staff can direct you past the golf course and along the winding drive to the museum.
Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday and most holidays from noon to 5 p.m.. Wheelchair accessible.
Admission: $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and students (through high school age), and $2 for children 3-12. Free the first Wednesday of the month, and always free to teachers (with school I.D.)
Call (650) 342-7755 for recorded information, or see www.coyotepointmuseum.org.
Photograph by Steven Finacom
A basking bobcat blends in against the rock background in the outdoor animal display area at the museum.