Great Dog Parks: Point Isabel, CA

Richmond, California’s Point Isabel, once toxic landfill, is one of the nation’s biggest and best off-leash parks
By Mary Barnsdale, October 2014, Updated February 2015
Point Isabel Dog Park, Richmond CA

I had just let Annie and Patch out of the car at Point Isabel when a white sedan screeched up and a plump, middle-aged passenger tumbled out. She plunged toward us, beaming. “Perros o perras?” she demanded. Boy dogs or girl dogs?

Then she seized Annie’s big head in both hands and, bending low over my inscrutable, fearsome-looking Akita mix, crooned, “Que linda, que linda.What a beautiful girl. Annie was delighted, thank dog.

Often called “the Point Isabel dog park,” Point Isabel Regional Shoreline (PI) is actually a unique multi-use park on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. With camera-ready views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais, it is beloved by walkers with and without dogs, joggers, birdwatchers, windsurfers, and the occasional fisherman or kayaker. Recently, a Japanese tour group even stopped to marvel (and be marveled at).

Many people, like my white-sedan lady, are there for a dog fix. Berkeley resident Katie Triest, who doesn’t have a dog, delights in watching them cavort. “It’s amazing how well they all get along,” she says.

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People of all ages and abilities relish PI, according to Jerry Yukic, a pastpresident of Point Isabel Dog Owners and Friends (PIDO). Yukic, who is 89, brings Dusty, a Brittany Spaniel rescue, to PI twice a day. “It’s a very safe place for senior citizens,” she says.

For decades, though, PI was a wasteland. Like much of the open space along the East Bay shoreline, the park is built on fill. In fact, Battery Point (part of North Point Isabel) was once a dumping ground for battery casings that leaked lead and zinc. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that tons of contaminated waste were hauled away from North PI or buried under a clay cap. People with dogs had been roaming the area for many years, however.

In 1985, PIDO began negotiating permanent off-leash status with the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). Two years later, the park district agreed that dogs could be off-leash everywhere except the mudflats at low tide (when shorebirds are feeding) and the nearby marsh. Dogs are welcome in all open space, picnic areas, even the Sit & Stay Café. Better yet, people can kick back at the café while their canines are spruced up a few feet away at Mudpuppy’s Tub & Scrub.

Most people don’t just kick back, though. At PI, the typical companion human is getting some exercise. The roughly 50-acre park, with its 3.2 miles of pathways, is divided by a channel that drains Hoffman Marsh. Visitors can circle both halves of the park—the 23 acres of PI proper and North PI, which is slightly bigger—using loop trails. A footbridge connects the two areas.

How all this good stuff came about depends on whom you ask.

The acclaimed EBRPD, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, is known for its refreshingly progressive off-leash polices that allow dogs on much of its vast trail system. Even so, it may not have anticipated PI’s popularity with dog walkers. One legend at the park district has it that Point Isabel used to be just a desolate, windy place where no one went. Then people started walking dogs there, and by the time the district realized what was happening, it was too late to stop it.

The story told by the founders of PIDO is more romantic. They say that PI was wild, weedy and frequented by drug dealers dodging the Richmond police. After PIDO organized in 1985, “the number of dogs increased, and the drug dealers, frightened by the dogs and the growing presence of dog owners, disappeared,” according to an article by the late Sylvia Schild, PIDO’s first president. Then the usual suspects started complaining about dogs being allowed to run free.

PIDO fought that battle and others for years, during which it developed a close partnership with the EBRPD, became a 501(c)3 nonprofit and grew from 75 to 5,200 members.

from 75 to 5,200 members. Today, Point Isabel is a runaway success and a huge boon for the East Bay’s dense urban population. It is by far EBRPD’s single most popular recreation spot, with well over 1.3 million visitors every year—and no doubt that many dogs, making it one of the top off-leash areas in the United States.

Not bad for an old dump.

Mary Barnsdale is co-founder of the Albany Landfill Dog Owners Group and Friends, a project of PIDO and and Paw Fund board member.

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