Ramble downhill through a wonderland of ferns and old-growth redwoods. Huge old trunks tower over your head, and beams of sunlight filter down along with birdsong and the sweet smell of the branches. This is the Steep Ravine trail, and it’s aptly named. The ravine that it follows is steep, with towering canyon walls rising up on both sides from a narrow boulder-strewn creek below. In places, giant redwoods have fallen and wedged between the banks, like rustic bridges or a giant game of pick-up sticks. The trail itself is also steep, dropping precipitously down the flanks of Mt. Tam. A little over half-way from the Pantoll Parking Lot, there’s a sturdy 10-foot wooden ladder to help hikers down a particularly steep spot.
The uphill leg of the loop is a chunk of the Dipsea trail, which Steep Ravine merges in to after nearly two miles. At this junction you can either keep heading downhill to Stinson Beach, or you can turn left to head up the Dipsea (I like to do the loop hike in this direction since this part of the Dipsea has a LOT of steep stairs, which can get slippery when it’s wet. But in any weather I’d rather go up these stairs than down them).
The Dipsea leg is as beautiful as the Steep Ravine leg – the first section of the climb is so steep that it feels like you’re in a tree fort. The crowns of big old Doug firs are at eye level when you look out over the canyon. Later in the hike you pass through huckleberry stands, dense groves of skinny (young?) redwoods, gnarled oaks and bays, and then out into the high Tamalpais grassland with sweeping views of the Pacific ocean. The trail heads south for a ways before meeting up with the Coastal Fire Road that leads you back to Pantoll.
This loop is a great spot to see a lot of different kinds of plants. The microclimate changes sharply as you move up and down the mountain, from the narrow moist ravine into the open high-elevation grassland. There are many species of shade-loving ferns and lots of wildflowers. At this time of year, a lot of plants were in fruit but I still saw lots of blooms as well.
If you’re coming from Stinson Beach, you can also start this hike at the bottom end of the loop instead of at Pantoll. Park in the large turnout near a metal access gate, right before the big metal “Mt. Tamalpais State Park” sign. Then you can head uphill on the Dipsea for half a mile, until you come to the Steep Ravine junction. Veer left across a aged wooden footbridge to do the uphill leg of the loop on the Dipsea.
The views are amazing on this high rocky ridge, and so are the plants. Dense stands of chaparral suddenly open onto stony serpentine outcrops supporting those hardy plants that can survive on such nutrient-poor soils. Right now ceanothus and manzanita are in bloom, and there are scattered meadows filled with wildflowers – goldfields, poppies, lupine, falselupine, and many more.
Get to Pine Mountain by driving up Bolinas-Fairfax road. The ridge runs northwest from a big turnout – you can walk all the way in to the San Geronimo Valley from here, on a wonderful network of trails and through a lovely rare forest of dwarfed Sargent cypress. There are no roads or houses in this area, and so as you walk often all you see is a tangle of forested ridges and valleys. And when you turn around and head home, you get sweeping views of the bay, the Richmond bridge, and Mt. Tam!
If you’re an outdoorsy type who somehow has not been up on the Marin Municipal Water District lands yet, I can’t recommend it enough. If you’ve been to Phoenix Lake or the back side of Mt. Tam, you’ve been on part of their 18,000 acres of watershed land without realizing it. I like to go in the Sky Oaks entrance, where you have the choice of walking by one of the many reservoir lakes, heading down a sociable fire road, or cutting off onto one of the many small trails to be (mostly) alone with some spectacular nature. There are 130 miles of trails and fire roads on MMWD land, so you can spend a LOT of time there. Today I went out the Pumpkin Ridge Trail, which passes in and out of live oak forest that is interspersed with meadows. The forest is in sad shape these days because of Sudden Oak Death, so dead branches litter the
ground. But the understory was still vibrant, with lots of iris and houndstongue. And the meadows are lovely – filled with wildflowers at this time of year. Along the way I embarrassed myself by not being able to remember the Latin names of miniature lupine, blue-eyed grass, or California poppy (which I even wrote about yesterday!). Those are Lupinus bicolor, Sisyrinchium bellum, and Eschscholtzia californica, by the way.
I took my dogsitting charges and headed out into the hottest day of the year so far, out onto the Cascade Canyon Open Space preserve in Fairfax. There were lots of flowers in bloom, most of them very common. My list that I came home with had 34 plants on it, and I could only provide full Latin names for three – three! Pepperwood (Umbellularia californica), madrone (Arbutus mensiezii) and Douglas iris (Iris douglasii). It’s true that for many others I could at least come up with the genus name – but still, this is worse than I thought it would be.
There was one plant that I couldn’t identify at all until I keyed it out, and so that is my plant of the day. It turned out to be Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla). Read all about it in the next post.