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Treasure In San Francisco’s Backyard

More than 200 preserves, parks, and other protected wildlands lie within 40 miles of San Francisco, exceeding Yosemite National Park in size, biodiversity, and visitation.

While growing up in Berkeley, I thought of the Bay Area backcountry as wilderness with training wheels—a place to practice for the real thing in more remote parts of the world. Experience has taught me that those wheels existed only in my mind. Trails where I once held my father’s hand are no less worthy destinations today, especially as they have become part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the as-yet-unfinished, 400-mile green path that will eventually encircle the entire Bay and link together hundreds of preserved wildlands.

Early one Sunday morning, Jerry Dodrill, a local photographer and climber, Backpacker Executive Editor Thom Hogan, and I set out to hike the most spectacular stretch of the current Bay Area Ridge Trail. Our self-imposed assignment: to walk from civilization into the surrounding wild and bask in the stories that preserved it.

Yet almost immediately we three savvy backcountry navigators were confused in a maze of intersecting trails, despite being within the sight of landmarks we all knew well.

“How come I feel so lost when there are signs all over?” Thom asked moments after starting out.

The distinctive Bay Area Ridge Trail sign pointed down, though I was sure the trail must traverse the wildflowered heights of Wolfback Ridge, where stunning views of the Bay and the ocean depend solely on which way you’re looking.

As we headed down, I expected the trail to curve right, cross the road, and regain the ridge. Instead, it dropped 800 vertical feet into Rodeo Lagoon, where we wallowed into a wet marsh posted with yet more Ridge Trail signs. I stopped to consult the guidebook, since the signs didn’t match my memory. We had mistakenly followed the alternate route for horses and mountain bikes, rather than the far more aesthetic foot path along the ridge. After four hilly and mostly unnecessary miles, we regained the hikers’ route high over Sausalito.

On this clear morning, we were reminded of exactly how close to the multimillion Bay Area population we were. One moment we were passed by runners training for the Dipsea, the nation’s oldest annual trail race, the next by mountain bikers slaloming their way through dayhikers in ones, twos, and families with small children. Near a spot called Hawk Camp, birders seemingly oblivious to movements on the ground gated a bicycle obstacle course by standing in the trail as they peered through binoculars at the nation’s largest hawk migration. No one else was carrying overnight gear.

It would be inaccurate to consider the Bay Area Ridge Trail a route to follow for solitude. As we had just experienced, some sections are, to put it mildly, well used. But that’s true of many trails these days, even ones not so close to a major population center. Look beyond the many people using the trail and you find something remarkable: You’re walking a rich tapestry of history and conservation stories unparalleled almost anywhere else in this country. Starting with surveyor William H. Brewer in the early 1860s, a long string of famous and not-so-famous figures have been involved with preserving the small and large pieces of wildland the trail navigates.

Our route soon merged with the old Marincello Vehicle Road, graded into the Gerbode Valley in the ’60s as an access road for a planned community of 30,000 people with luxury hotels and high-rise apartments. Citizens’ groups banded together to defeat the development with the help of Martha Gerbode, who bought the valley for the Nature Conservancy to hold in trust until 1972, when it became part of the new Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the world’s largest urban national park.

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