San Francisco Area Hikes

Mount Tamalpais State Park: Matt Davis and Steep Ravine Loop
By Jane Huber
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Key Info
Length : 7.3 miles
Configuration : Loop
Difficulty : Moderate
Scenery : Grassland, woods, and waterfalls
Exposure : Equal parts sun and shade
Traffic : Moderate, heavy on the trails near Pantoll Ranger Station
Trail Surface : Dirt fire road and trails
Hiking Time : 4 hours
Season : Good any time; late winter (for waterfalls) and spring (for flowers) are best.
Access : Pay $4 fee at ranger station.
Maps : The official park map is available at the ranger station (when open). Another choice is A Rambler's Guide to the Trails of Mount Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands , published by The Olmsted & Bros. Map Co.
Facilities : Rest rooms and drinking water at trailhead
Special Comments : This trailhead packs 'em in, particularly during the summer tourist season, so arrive early. If you don't want to tote a lot of stuff with you, plan for a lunch break in Stinson Beach, where you can either eat in a cafe or pick up lunch supplies. Dogs are not permitted.

In Brief
This loop really showcases the best the Bay Area offers to hikers. While there are many other parks with more of a wilderness vibe, Mount Tamalpais is a short drive from many parts of the north and east bay, and San Francisco residents flock to the mountain, particularly on sunny weekends in spring.

Leave San Francisco on northbound US 101 and use the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza as the mileage starting point. Drive north on US 101 about 5.5 miles, then exit at CA 1/Mill Valley/Stinson Beach and drive on Shoreline Highway to the junction with Almonte (look for the CA 1 sign) for about 1 mile. Turn left on CA 1 and drive about 2.5 miles to the junction with Panoramic Highway. Turn right on Panoramic and drive about 5.5 miles to the junction with Pantoll Road. With caution, turn left into the parking lot.

In the heart of summer weekends there are so many visitors on the trails around Mount Tamalpais, Pantoll area that you might feel like a pint of blood trying to squeeze through a clogged artery. Travel is sluggish, particularly on the Steep Ravine Trail, a narrow route that doesn't tolerate crowds well. Try to plan this hike for a weekday or early in the day during off-season. The best possible time may be the thin overlap between late winter and early spring, particularly if it's been a wet winter. During that window wildflowers bloom everywhere, and the waterfalls are plump with runoff.

The Steep Ravine Trail departs from a signed trailhead at the southern edge of the parking lot. The sign warns of a 10-foot ladder, an unusual trail element, but if you are up for a 7-mile hike, descending on a little ladder shouldn't scare you.

Without any prelude, the narrow trail begins to drop into a canyon. After a few switchbacks across a steep hillside, the Steep Ravine Trail hooks up with Webb Creek and follows the stream as it makes its way through a lush forest of redwood, California bay, ferns, tanoak, and Douglas fir. Little bridges channel hikers back and forth across the creek a few times along the route.

Spring wildflowers here include plants that adore moist environments, like trillium, coast fairy bells, and stream violets. At 0.8 miles, you'll reach the ladder. The wood can be slippery, so take it slow—I prefer descending it facing the ladder, rather than facing out. The little waterfall running beside the ladder, one of a couple along the trail, burbles with a soothing sound. Below the ladder, trailside vegetation seems to become even more lush. Redwoods uprooted or snapped off by winter storms lie across the trail and in the streambed in places; one tree is notched for passage. At 1.7 miles, the first of two junctions with the Dipsea Trail departs on the left. Continue straight another 0.1 mile, then bear right, following the sign toward Stinson Beach. As the Dipsea Trail begins a slight climb, a connector back to Steep Ravine veers to the left, but you keep going straight. The narrow trail climbs through some young Douglas fir and toyon, then reaches a junction where you'll continue straight and emerge at the edge of a meadow and another junction with a fire road. Cross the fire road, remaining on Dipsea and watch as incredible views unfold to the north! On a clear day you'll see Stinson Beach, Bolinas Lagoon, and the forested hills of the Point Reyes peninsula.

While it's hard to top the enchantment of Steep Ravine, a spring hike through here boasts verdant grass and pockets of California poppy, checkerblooms, and blue and white lupine. The Dipsea Trail descends steadily, through a little coastal scrub and then a pocket of woods stretching along a creek. Gnarled moss-covered buckeyes are the star here, although California bays are more common. At 2.9 miles Dipsea reaches Panoramic Highway. Carefully cross the road and pick up the trail on the other side.

Descending toward the town of Stinson Beach, traffic and neighborhood noise is abundant. At 3 miles, where the Dipsea Trail meets CA 1, you can add an optional out-and-back to this hike by continuing across the highway, and walking on city streets to the Dipsea Trail's terminus at the beach. Otherwise, carefully turn right and walk along the side of CA 1 (the other side of the street may be a better alternative, but you'll have to cross the road twice—if you're looking for lunch or a store to buy water, walk past the fire house to Stinson's commercial district). After less than 0.1 mile, turn right, at the fire house, onto Belvedere Avenue. Walk up this street and, just past the "wrong way" sign, turn right onto the signed Matt Davis Trail.

Back in the woods, this narrow trail winds uphill. When you reach an unsigned T junction, turn left, then cross a creek and at a second junction, bear right. This is the last junction for the next 2.3 miles. Sounds of town life fade away as the trail rises through a forest of buckeye and California bay. A bridge crosses a descending stream with less gush than Webb Creek, but the setting is incredibly pretty, year-round.

After a set of steps and a switchback, the Matt Davis Trail bisects a patch of chaparral. Glancing over purple-flowered lupine bushes, already there are views to the ocean. The sunny interlude is short, and soon you'll ascend through a shaded woodland. The trail climbs relentlessly, but at a moderate pace. Just past another bridge a long series of steps may be the toughest stretch of the trail, especially if you have short legs.

With Table Rock Creek tumbling downhill on the left, the trail skirts a huge boulder. California bays mix through a forest of massive Douglas firs, and ferns are a perennial star of the understory, with trilliums, iris, forget-me-nots, and milkmaids making special appearances in spring. Still ascending, negotiate a few broad switchbacks and then step out of the woods into grassland. The transition is startling, particularly in late winter, when the grass is so green it practically throbs with life.

The Matt Davis Trail ascends gently downslope from the ridgeline, through grassland and little pockets of trees that linger in hillside creases. Framed by tall Douglas firs, views west take in the ocean. In late winter and spring, peruse the sides of the trail for blue-eyed grass, California buttercups, California poppy, and bluedicks. At 5.7 miles, the Coastal Trail swings off to the left, from a signed junction. Bear right to remain on the Matt Davis Trail.

With the worst of the climbing behind you, this next segment is a pleasurable stroll at a gentle incline across the sloping grassy hillside. Bypass two quick junctions, the first with an ascending trail and the second with a descending trail, and continue straight, following the symbols for the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Prepare for some more sweeping views, this time south, extending past the Headlands to San Francisco and the San Mateo County coast. You may also be able to spot Northern harriers hunting from overhead.

Follow the Matt Davis Trail, leaving the grassland for woods once more. Dense stands of California bay, redwood, Douglas fir, and live oaks filter the sun, creating shade that sustains a little flower favored by native plant enthusiasts, the Calypso orchid. I saw dozens of the delicate purple flower along the trail on one late March hike, along with red larkspur, hound's tongue, and milkmaids.

The trail's elevation remains nearly level through here and, although trees block any views, they fail to screen the sound of traffic on Pantoll Road, just uphill to the left. You probably will cross paths with a steady flow of hikers on this part of the trail, a signal that the trailhead is growing closer with each step. Pass through an open rocky area marked with soaring Douglas firs, where ceanothus and chamise line the trail. The Matt Davis Trail breaks off to the left, continuing toward Mountain Home Inn. Here, bear right, descend a few steps, and carefully cross the street to the Pantoll parking lot.

Published: 25 May 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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