Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County
For the fit hiker who has only one day to hike, or perhaps a first time local who wants a memorable introduction to Mt. Tamalpais State Park’s varied terrain, one can’t do much better than the loop formed by the Matt Davis, Steep Ravine, and Dipsea Trails.
There are two options for starting points for this roughly 7.5-mile loop. First, and a shorter drive for most, is to begin at the Pan Toll Ranger Station (about 1600’ elevation) on the Panoramic Highway. For those who don’t mind a longer, albeit scenic drive on winding roads, the second option is to take Highway 1 (Shoreline Highway) from Mill Valley and start from Stinson Beach.
The trailhead for the Matt Davis Trail in Stinson Beach is a little tricky to find. Upon arriving in town, there’s a small side street (Belvedere Ave.) next to the firehouse. There are homes on the left and a community center on the right. The trailhead is about a hundred yards past the center. With parking limited – it is, after all, a residential area – it’s crucial to mind the driveways and posted signs, otherwise a parking ticket, or the more expensive tow-away will await the hiker.
Starting up the Matt Davis Trail, more often than not, the hiker will be starting under overcast or foggy skies. The trail climbs steeply almost immediately, up switchbacks, through dense mixed forest, with lichen bearded and mossy trees and underbrush. The predominant trees are pine, redwood, oak and bay laurel. Depending on the season, the various creeks will be flowing with run-off, and wildflowers such as bush monkey and wild irises will be in bloom. This abundant scenery, including ocean views, is ample payoff for the 4-mile climb towards Pan Toll.
The initial two miles is the steepest part of the hike. The trail eventually leaves the forest and enters chaparral, with wild grasses and more expansive views to the north. On clear days the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline are visible. In the spring and early summer, California poppies, lupines and other wildflowers dot the hillsides. The remaining trail to the ranger station is easy compared to the first two miles as it follows the contours of the hillsides, occasionally re-entering forest. For a more detailed description of flora and terrain, Bay Area Hiker’s website is an excellent source.
Arriving at Pan Toll means the hard climbing is over. It’s a good spot to rest and perhaps sit at a picnic table to enjoy lunch in the sunshine before descending the Steep Ravine Trail back towards the coast.
Steep Ravine is aptly named as it follows Webb Creek down the ravine. The trailhead is at the west end of the parking lot. Although technically a creek, as it flows to the ocean, it’s more cascade and waterfall for the 1.8 miles until the Steep Ravine Trail meets the Dipsea Trail.
Many hikers familiar with Mt. Tamalpais consider the Steep Ravine Trail the ‘E-ticket’ of the park. Giant redwoods reach towards the sky along the trail. Lush ferns and mosses grow everywhere and the feeling is primordial. As the hiker descends further, other rivulets and tributaries add to the water flow and there is the constant sound of waterfall mixed with birdsong. A mile down the trail, there’s a 10-foot wooden ladder on an especially steep section.
At the junction of the Dipsea Trail, which comes in from the north, the terrain flattens and the flora takes on yet more changes, with broad-leaved plants and cow parsnip growing along the trail. On the Dipsea Trail, the path is exposed to more sun and again the hiker is treated to wildflowers (in season) and wild grasses. Nearing the ocean, the vegetation turns to a varied mix of coastal plain. The ocean and the town of Stinson Beach once again come into view along with views of Bolinas Bay and lagoon. The last mile or so is a gentle descent back to the starting point.