How not to get lost while searching for the perfect Bay Area hike
You’ve heard it many times: “This is a hiker’s paradise.” Not just Marin County, but the entire Bay Area is a geographical wonderland. We’ve got the ocean, a magnificent bay, verdant valleys, and abundant open spaces dotted with many mountains. Did you know there’s a rugged 10-mile out-and-back in Napa County that summits 1,685-foot Sugarloaf Mountain before passing by scenic Lake Marie? Or that a breathtaking East Bay trail crosses high over the Carquinez Strait between Vallejo and Crockett on the Al Zampa Memorial Bridge, and that back in Marin, the Ridge Rock Trail meanders through movie mogul George Lucas’ remote Lucas Valley ranch? All these treks and more await you (and your feet) in the following six hiking guides, each different from the next and handpicked as our go-to favorites.
Bay Area Circuit
In the 1960s, William Penn Mott Jr., who later became director of the National Park Service, envisioned a trail that would circle the entire San Francisco Bay Area. It would lace through all nine counties and pass over public and private lands and would measure more than 550 miles long. Today, 330-plus miles of the Bay Area Ridge Trail have been dedicated, and the entire concept — along with detailed maps, trail descriptions and helpful photographs — is outlined in Bay Area Ridge Trail: The Official Guide for Hikers, Mountain Bikers and Equestrians, by Jean Rusmore (third edition, Wilderness Press, $18.95). This guide’s 550-mile loop of the Bay Area starts at the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge, heads over the Marin Headlands, and stops in Samuel P. Taylor State Park before taking a northern course into Sonoma County and Jack London State Park. Here the Bay Area Ridge Trail breaks up before reaching Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Napa County. The route south is also spotty — a northern high point crosses the Carquinez Strait way up on the Al Zampa Bridge; however, an unbroken 18 miles takes you from Richmond south to Hayward while passing through Wildcat Canyon, Tilden, Redwood and Chabot regional parks. Rusmore, who has hiked the Bay Ridge Trail since its inception, has organized her guide into five sections: North Bay (Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties), East Bay, South Bay, the Peninsula and San Francisco — with a helpful index and appendices organized according to trail features, motivations for taking various trails, contact sources for transit agencies and all sorts of other types of hiking information.
All Access Around Mount Tam
Descriptions of 171 trails and fire roads in the 75 square miles surrounding mighty Mount Tamalpais — at 2,571 feet, the tallest peak within a 30-mile radius — are what you’ll find in Tamalpais Trails by Barry Spitz (expanded fifth edition, Potrero Meadows Publishing, $19.95). This meticulously researched guide has a 20-by-20-inch map tucked into a back-page pocket. Spitz divides the area — which includes four scenic lakes and is bordered and bisected by four paved highways — into 12 “trailhead” itineraries, among them Azalea Hill, Mill Valley, Pantoll, Phoenix Lake and Sky Oaks. In all, 235 miles of trail are listed, including the Vera Dunshee, a level, wheelchair-accessible loop of less than a mile around the very top of Mount Tam; Cataract Trail, a popular, nearly six-mile round trip to Alpine Lake (and back) alongside Cataract Creek and its scenic waterfalls; and the famous Dipsea Trail, a challenging seven-mile trek from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach that’s also the route of a punishing cross-country footrace each June. (Take the West Marin Stagecoach bus back to Mill Valley.) A well-organized index, listing trailheads and trail lengths, makes this guide ultra-easy to navigate. Spitz, who has lived and hiked in Marin for more than 40 years, has authored books on the history of Marin and its cities as well as the Dipsea footrace and frequently writes for the Marin Independent Journal.
Hikes With Views and History
Don and Kay Martin, the authors of Hiking Marin: 141 Great Hikes in Marin County (third edition, Marin Trails Publishing, $21.95), divide the county into eight “hiking regions” and supplement the write-ups with three-dimensional trail maps and ratings for trail difficulty and aesthetics. They also tell you the percentage of each trail that’s shaded from sun and the best time of the year to hike each one. The Martins have lived in Marin since 1965; Don is a retired College of Marin physics teacher and Kay formerly worked at the California Academy of Sciences. Now they are constantly “on the trail,” updating their guides. In the appendix to this guide they list the best view trails (among them Mount Livermore on Angel Island, the Bolinas Ridge in West Marin and Mount Burdell in north Marin); the best areas for wildflower viewing (including Chimney Rock in Point Reyes, Larkspur’s Baltimore Canyon and Tiburon Ridge/Ring Mountain); and the best historical hikes (such as China Camp Village, Tennessee Valley and the Crookedest Railroad in the World trail out of Mill Valley). Each of the 141 trails mentioned in this edition is given a full-page description, with a small aerial view on the opposite page that locates the trail and a larger map showing it in more detail. In all, it’s a very complete presentation of the county’s many hiking paths.
Into the Open Space
The most specialized of the guides we perused, Open Spaces: Lands of the Marin County Open Space District by Barry Spitz (Marin Open Space District, 2000, $17.95), zeroes in on trails within the 15,500 acres of the Marin Open Space District. It might also be the most needed of the six guides, because the MCOSD’s acreage includes 34 different preserves scattered mostly throughout populated central and eastern Marin, with little or no trailhead parking, no water fountains and no restrooms. And although this guide is out of print — available only through used booksellers, both brick-and-mortar and online — it’s worth tracking down. Want to hike through George Lucas’ Big Rock Ranch? That’s on the Big Rock Ridge trail directly off Lucas Valley Road, at the summit just beyond the developed communities. How about some lovely redwoods? The Roy’s Redwoods Nature Trail, off Nicasio Valley Road, quickly leads to “the tallest, most massive redwoods in Marin.” Does the idea of a hidden lake entice you? The two-mile-long Middle Mount Burdell Fire Road takes you to, surprise, Hidden Lake. Note: In some instances, this guide lacks clear-cut directions as to where a particular preserve is located, so a Marin road map may be needed. However, again, that’s worth the effort.
Hiking the Coast
Many will say the 100-square-mile Point Reyes National Seashore, signed into existence by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, is the county’s most often forgotten resource (by Marinites, that is). The colorful Point Reyes: The Complete Guide to the National Seashore & Surrounding Area by Jessica Lage (Wilderness Press, 2004, $19.95), brings it front and center. It contains not only a complete and concise description of every conceivable hiking trail (there are 140 miles of them), but also a brief history of the wilderness area that draws half a million visitors every year. (Sir Francis Drake landed here in 1579; the remote, dramatically sited Point Reyes Lighthouse was constructed in 1870; the area was the epicenter of San Francisco’s disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire; in 1995, the Mount Vision fire almost wiped out all the peninsula’s residences.) Other highlights: beach walks where you can go for miles and hours without seeing a single soul; a challenging coastal hike that circles two pristine lakes; and places to sample locally grown cheeses, produce and oysters. Thirty-two topographical maps accompany the text, and you’ll also find details on where to rent kayaks, view tule elk, find colorful wildflowers and dine on a desolate ocean beach. (It’s at the one-of-a-kind Drakes Beach Cafe.) Thankfully, the author never overlooks the wonder of having such wide-open wilderness so close to the urban centers of San Rafael (only 30 minutes away) and San Francisco (only 45 minutes).
60 Bay Area Hikes
One of many in the “60 Hikes” series — others cover locales like New York City, Atlanta and Washington, D.C — 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Francisco, Including North Bay, East Bay, Peninsula and South Bay by Jane Huber (second edition, Menasha Ridge Press, 2007, $16.95) details, as the title suggests, 60 Bay Area hikes, each with its own map and elevation graph. While it describes many of the hikes mentioned in the Bay Area Ridge Trail guide, this book also covers some hiking areas not addressed there: Angel Island, Point Reyes and China Camp, the East Bay’s Mount Diablo State Park, and the Loch Lomond Recreation Area on the Peninsula. In turn, many of Marin’s more popular trails — the Coastal Trail, the Dipsea and Tiburon Ridge — are not mentioned. (Hiking Marin, however, covers those.) A distinguishing plus for 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles appears early on, with its lists of recommended outings, among them Easy Hikes, Hard Hikes, Bird-Watching Hikes, Hikes for Runners, Hikes for Dogs and Hikes for Kids — each including at least six different routes. Huber, a compulsive Bay Area hiker, is also a fine writer (and photographer) who puts just the right amount of detail into her descriptions. “Consider yourself warned,” she says in her preface. “Hiking in the Bay Area can be an intense and addictive experience.”
Should you choose to get hooked, buy one or more of these books, lace up your hiking shoes, get out on the trail and enjoy the stunning beauty that surrounds us.