MARIN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA: Day Hiking Mt. Tamalpais State Park, the Municipal Watershed District, and a Splendid Open Space Preserve
In Galen Rowell’s beautifully photographed and narrated Bay Area Wild, he recounts the book’s inspiration. He and his wife, Barbara, a seasoned pilot, took off one day on a “frivolous mission” headed towards the “verdant facets” of Mt. Tamalpais. Flying over the north flanks of the much-beloved 2571 ft. peak, Barbara remarked how she couldn’t believe her eyes at the scene her husband was leaning out the window to capture on film: “This is incredible. It’s all unbroken forest down there. I’m seeing more continuous forest right here in the Bay Area than in all my flights over the national parks of Costa Rica.“
Galen and Barbara perished in a tragic plane crash that never should have happened near Bishop, California on August 14, 2002. (http://www.vividlight.com/Articles/1716-1.htm) Fortunately, he completed before his untimely death what has certainly become a vade mecum of the natural Bay Area world within a forty-mile radius. The result is more than a handsome coffee table book, filled with familiar yet utterly exotic photographs and vivid, resonating prose. Bay Area Wild is an enduring legacy, the story of his beloved Bay Area where, as a boy growing up in the Berkeley Hills, he realized early on how lucky he was to live in such beautiful natural surroundings, on a par with anywhere in the world, and probably unequalled, in total land area preserved or set aside for non-development, for a large urban area.
It was a wild Bay Area that inspired Rowell, after years of documenting extraordinary places around the world, to pay similar homage to his own backyard. And it is Bay Area Wild that inspires my own renewed explorations of the natural world that surrounds us, exists apart from us, and at the same time, is intertwined with us, in our sometimes glorious, always maddening megalopolis setting of seven million people, spanning wine country to Silicon Valley (nine counties).
Difficult to imagine: more unbroken forest than in Costa Rica! Just when you think you’ve seen it all, been there, done that, a thousand times -- for how could anything remain of interest or intrigue after your 300th trip to Tilden or Redwood Regional Park? -- Rowell’s book forces you to think again, “to return to the place and know it for the first time“, to delve to a deeper layer of perception and appreciation, to more fully experience God in a blade of grass and infinity in the palm of your hand, all right within a stone‘s throw from wherever you are in the Bay Area.
Who needs Mendocino, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, the High Sierra, or Costa Rica for that matter, when you’ve got Marin County in your sights, just across the perpetually in retrofit construction Richmond-San Rafael bridge, thirty minutes from Berkeley. (Or, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, fifteen minutes from San Francisco.)
Marin County: charming and quaint on the one hand -- populated by sweet little communities like Sausalito, Fairfax, San Anselmo, Woodacre, Tiburon, Inverness, Pt. Reyes Station, Stinson Beach, Bolinas -- on the other, it is a demographic powerhouse (but not so well known are its pockets of impoverishment and neglect), ranking as the fourteenth wealthiest U.S. county in median household income, at just over $71 g’s, and the land ‘o plenty comes in at numero uno among all 3,086 U.S. counties for per capita income, at just under $45,000.
Marin County is also infinitely interesting and famous -- notorious? -- for being home to San Quentin Prison, Skywalker Ranch, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, and a host of famous musicians, actors, writers, artists, political activists, rabble-rousers, hangers-on, ne’er do wells, senescent hippies, and, believe it or not, a few “normal” denizens as well. Finally, not to perpetuate the caricature, Marin County is certifiably replete with legions of Extremely Affluent / New Age / Ultra-Liberal / Hot Tubbin‘ / Nude Sun Bathin’ / Nepenthe Seekin’ / Rapidly Aging Baby Boomers. . . (Note to self: how much of this animal is me?)
But everyone knows what gives Marin County its real cachet, what drives millions of tourists there every year -- an abundance of open spaces and sacred places. Radiating out from the crown jewel of Mt. Tamalpais, from her purple mountain‘s majesty to the blue-green shining sea below, Marin County offers up a fabulous menu of scenic and natural wonders. It’s a big, big place, and not one city over 60,000!
Finally off that nerve-racking bridge, you can breathe a sigh of relief and crank up your adrenaline meter a couple of notches! The options for a day’s outing of fun and adventure are limitless. It’s possible to not plan anything in advance, just get over there, be totally spontaneous, and you’ll find something to do outside, somewhere, anywhere, that’s guaranteed to blow your mind, or calm your soul, depending on your mood du jour.
Hikers own the place; you can go anywhere you damn well please, nearly. Simply pack a lunch, and then disappear the entire day and not see another soul. (Don’t forget map and binoculars!) Bird watchers, wild flower fanatics, the faunally obsessed, nature photographers, casual strollers, kite flyers, dog walkers, and picnicking families, all will find their own slices of paradise wherever they are in Marin County.
This is a land blessed with infinite topographical and ecological variation, making for stellar scenery and spectacular outdoor adventure options -- hiking, running, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, wind surfing, big board surfing, paragliding, rock climbing, bouldering, swimming, organized sports activities, or good ol’ bushwhacking!
You might find yourself one day in stunning coastal hill country, with big creeks tumbling down to sprawling tidal flats, and the next, kicked back beside a trail in the sun enjoying neck-wrenching views of Tam’s rugged flanks rising to over 2600 feet above the bay. You might get lost in oak and bay woodlands, marvel a day away in majestic Redwood groves, gambol about in flowery meadows, or explore rocky ridges and jumbled boulder fields to your heart‘s content. Drown quietly in your thoughts near idyllic lakes, ponds and marshes. Admire and respect -- and work to preserve - the lush riparian habitat in which a multitude of species have chosen to call home.
Yes, Marin is surely a land of great bio-diversity, fought for and preserved by generations of nature advocates. Hence, an unprecedented four State Parks (China Camp, Samuel P. Taylor, Angel Island, and Mt. Tamalpais); two National Recreation Areas (Pt. Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area); one National Monument (Muir Woods); thousands of acres of water district lands, and dozens of county and city parks that in, say, Baltimore or Houston, would qualify as flat-out wilderness settings. There is so much hiking to be done in Marin County that you could spend your remaining weekends confined to the 140,000 acres’ worth of open spaces (about 520 square miles) and never run out of new, different and exciting spots to explore.
Marin County is also famous for being the birthplace of mountain biking. I’ve done my share of rugged, kick-butt rides on most of Marin’s famous single-track and fire road courses -- Tamarancho, China Camp, Pine Mountain, Repack, Bolinas Ridge, Tennessee Valley. I could write endlessly on those adventures, as well as expound on the perpetual conflict between scofflaw, out-of-control bikers vs. play-by-the-rules trail users who tend to perceive ALL mountain bikers as assholes. When I mountain bike, I make every attempt to slow down, wave, stop even, to act as a sort of ambassador, for, truth-in-action, not all bikers are assholes. But it only takes a few renegades to give the sport a bad name.
First and foremost, I am, have been, and always will be, a foot-to-the-Earth person. Thus, the relatively mild-mannered hikes described herein. But, oh, what greater activity or pastime can there be than hiking? Paul Dudley White (physician 1886-1973) noted, “A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world.” Yes, woe unto those who have not discovered the joys, or who have forsook the joys, of hiking! Nothing cheers the heart more than walking in the woods, nothing inflates stifled joy so much as strolling through sweet-smelling meadows bursting with wildflowers, or scrambling up scree-strewn ridges to attain rarefied heights for heart-racing views. Nothing beats walking along a forested path, hand in hand with your sweetie, binoculars at the ready to spot a pretty little bird singin‘ a love song. Breathing in fresh air, sloughing off the malaise of the day, you literally feel your cares and worries melt away. These soul- and sole-connecting walks in our primal sanctuaries and primordial cathedrals are the revitalizing force in human life, the secret to staying young-hearted, fit, trim, happy and, I venture to proclaim, sane. Walt Whitman affirms that being in the open air and in touch with the earth makes for the best persons. Spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh expresses, “The real miracle is not to walk on water or in thin air, but to walk upon the earth.” So, there you have it; and while you’re at it, try shedding your leather wrap-around feet protectors once in a while to really ground yourself and feel that miracle!
Carson Falls Loop: Liberty Trail to Oat Hill Road To Old Vee Road to Little Carson Creek Trail and Back
In springtime, the hills are transformed by rain falling to soak the earth, to fill the ravines with gushing water. When this happens, there is a month or two window when no place on earth is more magical. One of the more spectacular sights is Carson Falls, where the Little Carson Creek tumbles through a magnificent gorge to eventually drain into the lower reaches of the reservoir called Kent Lake. The five or six mile loop to the falls through this watershed north of the main summits of Mt. Tam is a joy at any time of the year, but really try to visit at high water flow -- you might think you’re in Hawaii or somewhere. Catch Liberty Trail off Bolinas Fairfax Road, climb up to the ridge through an enchanted forested gully, and loop around and down on the big fire road providing splendid views all the way east to Mt. Diablo. After a slight descent, Little Carson Creek trail takes you up and up along a series of small cascades and pools to the base of Carson Falls -- a truly impressive sight and eminently rewarding destination to plop down, eat a sandwich, and enjoy its multifarious splendors.
Steep Ravine Loop: Matt Davis Trail to Steep Ravine Trail and Back to Pantoll Ranger Station
This blockbuster of a hike takes you through riparian gullies thick with giant Western Ferns, Redwoods and mixed conifer, before opening up in a sprawling meadow overlooking the Pacific Ocean. You could linger, explore, meditate at this place all day long, gaping at tremendous sweeping views reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. But, picking yourself up, you continue hiking down Matt Davis Trail to the Bohemian town of Stinson Beach, and then on back up Steep Ravine trail. When the water’s flowing, expect magic and miracles around every bend. Sunlit dappled pools, raging cascades, swirling water through carved chutes, towering Redwoods. Even in deep summer, it is a cool hike, a place you can expect to find solitude, peace, and a pool here and there to soak your feet in and while away a lazy day.
Kent Trail to Alpine Lake to Cataract Falls and Back
Ah, yes, this beguilingly difficult 8 mile round trip hike begins at the dam / confluence of Bon Tempe and Alpine Lakes, where the MMWD attendant, on taking my $7 entry fee and giving me a map, said, “Well, have fun and get lost.” Great suggestion, so off we go on a hike in Marin Municipal Watershed District lands, comprising some of the most rugged acreage of all of Marin County. Series of impressive ridges (Big Carson, Bolinas) create dramatic ravines capturing intense water run-off that collects in the reservoirs. This watershed, according to the MMWD web site, is “held in trust as a natural wildland of great biological diversity.” In other words, it’s classically representative of Bay Area Wild. You do, in fact, get lost. . .or at least, you lose yourself. . .amid thick patches of forest and exposed high ridges; off on exploratory forays up inaccessible ravines; at the edge of a shimmering lake, down that deer trail to who knows where. Back at the car, slightly limping, you’re damn glad, because this little “nothing of a hike” just kicked your butt.
Gary Giacomini Preserve
I’d noticed this open, green space on the map many times, but never deigned -- or allotted time -- to visit the place, situated above the San Geronimo valley on the way to Pt. Reyes. Well, one day a few weeks ago, I finally convinced myself to check it out, and was pleasantly surprised! It’s a preserved swathe of land encompassing the big Carson Ridge, a typical ecosystem of allergy-inducing grassy meadows and rocky ridges after an 800 foot climb through lower forests. Atop the ridge is a special place where dwarf Sargent Cypress grow. The only cypress native to Marin County, mature specimens grow only a few gnarled, twisty feet tall. They remind one of Bristlecone Pines or stunted Junipers of the western Sierra Nevada. Just a lovely, lovely place to pass a day doing nothing more, nothing less, than hiking beautiful terrain, enjoying breathtaking views, seeking, and finding, an abundance of serenity, solitude, and earthly sanity.