Expedition Planner: Golden Gate National Recreation Area
You can duplicate the trip Galen, Jerry, and I took by starting at the Golden Gate Bridge and heading north. In the spring, fields of wildflowers alternate with cool strands of trees and open ridgelines on this spectacular stretch of trail. One friend of mine likes to do this hike north to south to avoid some serious uphill portions-most notably in the area where the rigorous Dipsea Trail race is held each year-but I prefer hiking away from civilization, not toward it.
To start: Walk across the bridge from San Francisco, or get dropped off at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge (parking is somewhat limited and best avoided, if possible). Take the SCA Trail (not the Coastal Trail, as we did) and climb to the ridgetop. The closest Golden Gate Transit bus dropoff is at Spencer Road, where you can take the short Morning Sun Connector Trail to reach the Bay Area Ridge Trail.
Trails: Follow the Bay Area Ridge Trail signs (distinctive blue and white) and you’ll do fine, even if you end up on a side loop or two as we did. Otherwise, you’ll simply get confused by the numerous other trail names, many of which overlap. But if you must know: take SCA to Bobcat to Marincello to Miwok to Deer Park (Dipsea) to Old Mine to Matt Davis to Coastal to Bolinas Ridge (got all that?).
Elevation: Lots of ups and downs, especially if you take advantage of the many side spurs to explore. Ranges from 100 feet to as high as 2,571 feet (Mt. Tamalpais).
Can’t miss: Sunset on Mt. Tamalpais.
Crowd control: On weekends and holidays, the initial parts of the trail are packed with multiuse practitioners. During the week, and especially as you move farther north, you run into few people (we saw none past the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais on a soggy Monday). Campgrounds are often full in spring and summer on weekends. Pantoll is walk-in only, while Pt. Reyes and Samuel P. Taylor require reservations.
Pit stop: Plenty of places to drop down off the ridgeline to civilization. At a normal pace, you can detour off the Ridge Trail .75 mile down to the Muir Woods National Monument headquarters for lunch the first day.
Walk softly: Stay on the trail, even if it means walking through mud; the trail is plenty wide as it is. Also, make sure to close any gates you come to, like the ones in Audubon Canyon Ranch.
Maps and guides: The Bay Area Ridge Trail, by Jean Rusmore (1998; Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227; $14.95) is the official guidebook to the trail and includes excellent historical information in addition to detailing the hiking route. Pt. Reyes, 3rd edition, by Dorothy L. Whitnah (also Wilderness Press).
More information: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, (415) 331-1540. Mt. Tamalpais State Park, (415) 388-2070. Samuel P. Taylor State Park, (415) 488-9887 (campground reservations through Mistix, 800-444-7275). Pt. Reyes National Seashore, (415) 663-1092. Pt. Reyes Hostel, (415) 663-8811 (note office hours: 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. only).