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.

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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.

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.

The public, driving on this scenic highway past pristine forests and meadows with their windows rolled up, tends to think that parks and trails just happen. First, some sort of democratic majority votes them in; then come the impersonal signs that say “Park Entrance” or “Trail Crossing.”

We know different because we discovered the individuals who made a difference to our own personal experience. We came across their names on trails and monuments. We read their stories from books we brought with us on the trail, and from displays in places like Muir Woods. We sensed how their adventures in rugged wildlands created a strong bond with the natural world, one that led them toward stewardship. They, too, must have emerged from the deep coastal forest soaking wet and muddy, only to get strange looks in the restaurants of nearby Stinson Beach.

As we drove back through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in heavy rain, I wondered aloud how long it would take the people of the Bay Area to care enough to build the dozens of uncompleted links needed to create the Ridge Trail. Would it be a year, 10, or never? Neither Thom nor Jerry answered. Their eyes and hearts were still outside of our warm vehicle, following the misty ridges and valleys where we had so recently moved under our own power, generating our own warmth and world view.

I thought about how a landscape, once you’ve walked through it, is never the same again. When the Ridge Trail is completed, I hope I’m still able to shoulder a pack and experience the whole 400 miles.

Galen Rowell is an adventure photographer and writer. His 1977 book, Bay Area Wild, expands on his conservationist views. Signed copies are available from his Web site,

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).

-Thom Hogan

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