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.
Mt. Tamalpais jewelflower
On a bare serpentine outcrop high above the Pacific ocean is a low leafless stalk with a few small purple flowers. This is the Mt. Tamalpais jewelflower, a sub-species of Streptanthus glandulosus which is found only in Marin County. Though the plant is unassuming, when you look close the flowers have earned their name. Narrow, crinkled petals flare out above a colorful pouch that is faceted and luminous like a gem.
The jewelflower is in the same family as radish and milkmaid. The long, narrow, fleshy seed pods that are pictured below are typical of the family, though the unusual flowers are not! I saw this beauty, S. glandulosus ssp. pulchellus, near Rock Springs on Mt. Tam during the MMWD/Cal Academy Bioblitz last weekend, and owe thanks for the ID to Terry Gosliner. I wrote about secund jewelflower back in May – which is also a sub-species of S. glandulosus, and the only jewelflower in Marin that isn’t listed as either rare or endangered.
A bough of pink flowers droops down at me from the nearby tree. But I’m not looking at a blooming branch; the narrow, twining stem is tough but not woody enough to stand this high on its own. Here is a vine of pink honeysuckle, or Lonicera hispidula. The whorled cluster of flowers perches at the end of the vine, right at eye-height. They don’t always grow this way (I’ve seen them at ankle level alongside trails) but I got lucky this time with an easy view of the pretty flowers.
The upper petal is a soft, rosy pink and is dramatically rolled back. Five stamens are on prominent display, waiting for a passing bumble bee or hummingbird. Each stamen is T-shaped, with the brown bar of the anther dusted in pollen and delicately balanced on the greenish-yellow filament. This vine is often recommended for native plant gardens because it is so attractive to birds. Hummers love the sweet nectar, and other birds feast on the berries.
Honeysuckle is easy to recognize even when it isn’t blooming because the pattern of leaves is distinctive. The oval leaves are paired, and often fuse together into a disc around the stem when they are young. More mature leaves are separate, but often have a small leaflet at their base that is fused to the stem.
This twining, white-flowered plant seems unobtrusive but it is also very distinct. When I first saw it, I knew that I had never seen it before – and it turns out that isn’t surprising. White ramping fumatory (Fumaria capreolata) is a mildly invasive species that is slowly spreading throughout the state. I first saw it in Sutro Forest, and since have seen it regularly in Bolinas. Right now it’s only found in a handful of counties up and down California. The only other states it is found in are New York and Florida.
Its diminutive white blossoms are tipped with a dark brownish red, and delicate three-parted leaves are spread sparsely along twining stems. Despite somewhat pea-like flowers, fumatory is actually in the Papaveraceae family – a diverse group that also hold both poppies and bleeding hearts!
Leggy stalks sprawl at the base of an oak tree, or single plants grow scattered under some rushes. Candy flower, or Claytonia siberica, can have several different growth forms depending on where it is – and how old it is. The five petals are white or pale pink, and striped with a darker pink (I wonder if the name candy flower came from the classic uniform of the “candy stripers”?)
You can tell by looking at the fleshy leaves that this is a close relative of miner’s lettuce, though they don’t have the distinctive circular form. Instead, there is usually just one set of paired leaves, and a long stalk of flowers that rises above that. Candy flower prefers to grow in swamps or on moist slopes. Even if the ground doesn’t look wet, it’s a good indicator that there’s moisture around at least part of the time.
For one of the best hikes in Marin, take the trek past Bass Lake to Alamere Falls. All through the spring this trail offers a wildflower bonanza–but it’s a treat at any time of year. The views are any over-the-top word you’d like to use: spectacular, breath-taking, awesome. But my favorite thing is that you pass through such a diversity of landscapes. Beginning from the eucalyptus forest at the Palomarin trailhead, you follow the Coast Trail along the bluffs high above the ocean. The wide and well-maintained trail bends inland in places, so when you aren’t walking along windswept and view-ridden hillsides, you dip down into lush and sheltered gullies filled with greenery and the trickling sound of small creeks. The gentle ups and downs of the trail give you a workout but nothing particularly daunting.
After (very approximately) two miles of this, you reach the only climb of any steepness on the trail, which dog-legs away from the water and heads up a smallish ridge. You then hike in and out of a forest of Douglas fir and alder until the views give way unexpectedly to Bass Lake, a placid tree-skirted spot. Not long after this, you begin to drop down out off of the ridge, passing another little lake (Pelican) on your left and once again heading into the treeless coastal scrub. The trail down to Alamere Falls is unmaintained, but used often enough that it’s not too overgrown. The trail is somewhat eroded though, and it’s a tiny bit of a scramble to reach the falls. But very well worth it. What unusual falls these are!
As you approach them, you’re not even sure what you’re seeing. You’re walking toward the ocean but high above it on a bluff, headed the same direction as the stream. As you get closer, you realize that the creek stair-steps down low crumbled cliffs, streams across the level surface of the bluff, and then disappears over the cliff to crash onto the beach about 50 feet below.
Pack a lunch if you go since the total distance is just over eight miles, round trip. And if you’re not a people-person, be warned that this trail can be jam-packed by midmorning on weekends. It’s on the popular Coast Trail, which links up with many other trails on the Point Reyes Peninsula, and also connects to various campgrounds. Check here for more info, directions and so on.
There are so many clovers around that they can be daunting to identify. But this little one has long caught my eye—partly because of the pretty pink color of its petals, combined with the many long green teeth of the calyx. But mostly I just like how it invariably has one little leaf coming directly off the flower. It may be strange but I find that adorable. Of course it turns out that botanically speaking the leaf isn’t actually part of the flower, it just appears to be so. In science-speak, the “heads are sessile above the uppermost leaves and stipules”. But that is good enough for me.
Rose clover (Trifolium hirtum) is native to Europe, not California. But it is now so ubiquitous as to be described by the authorities as “one of the most common” of the European species that have naturalized here.
You can pretty much tell rose clover from other species of clover because it has all of the following features: (a) It is hairy but doesn’t get cottony when it goes to seed; (b) Its showy, rosy flowers; (c) It’s an annual not a perennial; (e) That cute little leaf.
Milk maids are a ubiquitous sight in the spring, with their flowers of four simple white petals alternating sparsely up a stalk. They are one of the first of the year to start blooming, and they can last through May. Wikipedia says the name derives from a hat often worn by milkmaids, but that seems like a stretch since there is nothing bonnet-like about these blooms. Cardamine californica has flowers that are about half an inch across, and grow in most habitat types in the county except the driest. The four petals mark it as a brassica, the same family that houses wild mustard and radish. Many cultivated edibles, like broccoli and kale, are also in the Brassicaceae. Because of the “cross shaped” petals, this family once was called the cruciferae.
This pretty little flower is one of the earliest to bloom, and all parts of the plant (leaves, flowers, and roots) are edible, with a peppery radishlike flavor–they are tastiest before the flowers bloom, according to Judith Larner Lowry’s wonderful book, California Foraging (I admit I haven’t done a careful comparison myself).
I remember when I was a kid, and first learned that the pretty yellow-flowered bushes I saw all over were bad for the environment. It was probably my first ecological lesson, and I was heartbroken. Their sunny color had always made me happy when I looked out the window on family drives. How could I have been so wrong?
Since then, Genista monspessulana has only become more common. You can see it filling the understory of forests on Mt. Tam, or spilling over the cement retaining walls along roadsides. This highly invasive plant is native to the Mediterranean and the Azores, and was brought to California in the 1800s — probably as an ornamental for gardens. It really is quite pretty. But it also is what scientists call an “ecosystem disruptor” because it wreaks havoc on the native plant communities. It forms dense stands up to 16 feet tall, under which nothing else can survive. All the delicate flowers, grasses and even hardier shrubs perish in its shadow. Livestock don’t even like to eat it. Broom is like an ecological bulldozer, taking diverse habitats and leaving a barren landscape in which it is the only survivor. A single plant has been found to produce over 30,000 seeds — and the seeds live for decades in the soil, waiting for a disturbance like digging (or pulling a grown plant out by the roots) before they sprout. It also is a fire danger, growing tall and tinder dry. Can you tell how I feel about this plant? It’s a nightmare. If you have it on your land or in your neighborhood, get rid of it!! Quick, before it spreads!
This plant most often presents itself as shiny, three-lobed leaves that grow close to the ground. What is that plant? It is unobtrusive yet distinctive. In the spring it sends up a tall spindly stalk, which splits into branches, each topped with a small head of greenish-yellow flowers. It is Sanicula crassicaulis, also known as Pacific blacksnakeroot, Pacific sanicle, or gamble weed.
A similar species, Coast blacksnakeroot is also common in Marin, but it has yellower flowers and some subtle differences in the fruit.