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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.

Unless one knows this history, the berm for the development’s planned aqueduct goes unrecognized beneath grass and forest. The broad trail seems to be just a pleasantly wide path above the major trailhead at Tennessee Valley, one of the most accessible places to hike in Marin County, virtually on the outskirts of the town of Mill Valley.

Beyond the trailhead, the multiuse carnival we had been winding through ended abruptly. The Ridge Trail now climbed out of the valley on a narrow footpath upon which everyone we met greeted us. With each step north, the land turned wilder and the people fewer. Deer grazed nonchalantly by the trail while hawks circled overhead. By late morning, the metropolis behind us was temporarily forgotten. From what other major city can you take a morning stroll and find yourself fully engulfed in nature’s wonders?

Some zoologists consider the flanks of Tennessee Valley to be the best place in the world to observe wild bobcats. A few months earlier, I had photographed one beside this very trail with my son, who spotted its grayish brown form slinking across the grayish brown of a winter clearing. Bobcats are far easier to see against the green grass of spring. Larger cats are also present, but rarely seen. With three eager sets of trained photographers’ eyes, we scanned the trail and surrounding area for signs of wild cat, even though it was unlikely to see them midday. Although we didn’t see a bobcat, we were rewarded by a rare glimpse of the endangered Mission Blue butterfly.

Many of the interweaving trails we now followed on the flanks of Mt. Tamalpais were built by dedicated hikers who wanted to share their favorite places with others of like mind. An alternate route from Muir Woods to Pantoll Ranger Station follows the Ben Johnson Trail, named for a hiker who worked for William Kent, the Marin land baron who donated Muir Woods to President Roosevelt for a national monument. Once the site of an old tollhouse for the privately owned road now called the Panoramic Highway, Pantoll is now a walk-in campground.

After a tentless night culminating in a light drizzle, we resumed hiking my favorite section of the trail on a quiet Monday morning. Here, the Bay Area Ridge Trail follows the older, better-known Coastal Trail. The slender ribbon of the Coastal Trail is etched into a meadowy hillside so steep that it would rate an experts-only black diamond at a ski area. No supervised government trail crew would have chosen to traverse such exhilarating terrain without dynamite and handrails. Instead, the purple lupines and gold California poppies of the lush green slopes edge over onto the hand-hewn path, creating a sense of being immersed in wildness rather than merely passing beside it, as on a fenced trail or road.

Here, too, the preservation stories continue unabated, each a necessary piece of the web that is now knit into the Bay Area wilds. Around a corner at a rare wide spot on the trail, we stopped at the Cook Memorial Bench, a stone monument dedicated to Bob Cook, who built this part of the trail for an Eagle Scout project before dying young in a Forest Service plane crash in 1979. Other sections of the Coastal Trail were built by volunteers of the Tamalpais Conservation Club, the Sierra Club, the Lions Club, as well as by other Boy Scouts. The Matt Davis Trail, spurring off toward Stinson Beach 1,700 feet below, was named for yet another trail builder, who lived in a cabin on Mt. Tamalpais until he died in 1938.

This part of the Coastal Trail, two-thirds of the way up the mountain above the sea, is both the visual and physical culmination of the Ridge Trail concept. Glimpses of the granite spires of the Farallon Islands, 25 miles out to sea, alternate with views back toward San Francisco over the golden tips of bridge towers floating in between green hillsides.

Drizzle turned to a constant rain as we entered the last stretch of our hike in the deeply shaded woods of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Instead of washing away our mood, the wet seemed only to emphasize the remote, wild nature of the trail. The intensity of the glistening greenery overhead brought back vivid memories of hiking in places such as Washington’s Olympic rainforest and New Zealand’s Milford trek. Reluctantly, we dropped down from the ridge to our cached vehicle on Highway 1.

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