The Perfect Bay Area Hike?
The Bay Area is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Facebook. Car Stickers. Craigslist roommate ads. It seems like everyone in the Bay area boasts of being an “avid hiker” who “works hard and plays hard.” And yes, I am no different, identifying completely with this group. I do night hikes, day hikes, trail runs, backpacking, and urban hikes. If I can climb it, walk it, run it, then I’m in. So where does one start? With the Marin Headlands only a 10 minute drive across Golden Gate Bridge, coastal hike that pass through Baker Beach in my backyard, and then of course every mountain biker’s second home, Mt Tam, just a short hop away, it can be a bit daunting to select an outdoor excursion or the “perfect hike”. Of all the options though, the Pantoll/Steep Ravine/Matt Davis trail is by far my favorite. It is a 7.3 mile loop, with a 1600 foot elevation change, so you can be sure that while you are getting your “oohs and aahs” you will also be getting a good workout. You can even sample an oyster or two, and if you’re of age, or have a decent fake ID, you can have a mid-hike Bloody Mary.
First things first – how do I get to Pantoll Ranger station (I recommend starting here. You can also do it in reverse starting from Stinson beach but I like the thought of coming over the bluffs into Stinson much better).
Driving directions to Pantoll:
From US 101 in Marin County, exit CA 1/Mill Valley/Stinson Beach and drive on Shoreline Highway to the junction with Almonte, about 1 mile. Turn left, remaining on Shoreline, and drive about 2.5 miles to the junction with Panoramic Highway. Turn right on Panoramic and drive about 1 mile to the junction with Muir Woods Road; stay straight on Panoramic (right lane). You will continue on this for about another 7-10 minutes and pass the Bootjack hike on your right. Shortly thereafter you’ll come up above a hill and the Pantoll ranger station (look for the sign) will be on your left. Park here and pay the $8 parking fee. Also, there are cabins and camping options but they typically book up months in advance. You can pick up a free map from the ranger station where you pay for parking.
What about people? How many hikers can you expect to see on a typical day? This really depends on the season and also weather. The trail has become popular over the past couple years and is busiest in summer, when the number of visitors to Stinson and Marin in general sky rockets. The trail can at times be overrun with campers or larger groups of hikers but the day we went, foot traffic was more manageable.
Before we talk about the hike, which takes about 3-4 hours exclusive of a lunch break in Stinson, one should know it is a decently moderate to difficult hike requiring a good amount of uphill. If you workout or hike a decent amount you will be more than equipped. I’ve done this hike with friends of all levels (college athletes, the occasional hiker, runners, first-time hikers, etc). Most people should be fine doing it, just go at your own pace, bring water and a snack, and STRETCH before and after! I’ve had a few friends call me groaning two days later because their muscles are sore and they have not moved from bed except to eat and go to the bathroom. But all have recovered and returned for a second trip – it’s really worth any chance of sore muscles. Beware, with the recent cut of California State Park funds (join the cause to stop this!) trail maintenance has suffered with many trees falling in recent storms and vegetation starting to cross into the trail path so watch your footing.
Let’s get started. Head to the back end of the Pantoll parking lot. The Steep Ravine trail begins in a shaded, narrow path that descends deep into a Redwood canyon into a Redwood canyon with streams, ferns, moss, passing waterfalls and even climbing down a 10 foot wooden ladder. Bubbling Webb Creek keeps you company as you hike along the path, which is lined with Douglas firs, redwoods and abundant mosses. When you get to the 10 foot ladder (um AWESOME), I recommend descending backward, making sure to hold each rung since it can get slippery. You will continue down the path, ducking under fallen Redwood logs and sooner or later will pass an old dam/reservoir that for most of the year is full. Continue uphill on a larger path that resembles a fire road and head left when you hit a fork in the road (going off the main fire road). You will be on the Dip Sea trail for a short bit as you cross onto spectacular bluffs that overlook Stinson Beach, part of the infamous Red Triangle, home to many sharks. I’ve done the trail when you see clear blue skies, and not a cloud overhanging the ocean, with the sun beating down your back. The dirt path descends down a long hill and in the distance you can see where it starts to rise up again in elevation. I always like to run down this part with quick, light-footed steps, just watch those ankles and beware of any loose rocks. The last time I did this hike it was not as sunny, but there was a low-hanging misty fog that covered the bluffs, making it perfect for a spritely stroll down the dirt path to our oyster destination.
Stinson Beach is a sleepy beach town with colorful thatched cottages, small town shops and a few different spots to grab a tasty bite. My usual stop is the Sand Dollar Café, which serves up amazing oysters – on the half shell with a mignonette or grilled with barbeque sauce, one of my favorite ways to eat an oyster. The fried fish tacos offer a tasty option, as does the tofu sandwich with mango chutney for all you vegetarians out there. For the drinkers, Sand Dollar makes a spicy Bloody Mary; just keep in mind that you’ll be hiking uphill for 4 miles shortly after you digest so maybe keep the number of pepperoncinis to a minimum. If you are in the mood for something sweet, head down the main drag of Stinson beach and you’ll spot a soft serve/hot dog/hamburger stand with a line on a hot day.
Once you’ve toured through Stinson enough, it’s time to make your way back to the uphill portion of the loop – the Matt Davis trail that is off Belvedere Ave. You will know you are on the right street because there is a cozy looking bed and breakfast, that generally has one or two vacant rooms, and as you go down the path you will pass the fire station on your right. Head to the end of Belvedere Ave and you should see the trailhead for the Matt Davis start. From here it is up, up, up for a good while. Although you will be ascending, the trail luckily starts from low elevation (sea level), continuing up through a damp, temperate climate. There are spots of sunshine that also afford a spectacular view of Stinson and the ocean. On the way you’ll pass an abundance of different shrubbery. Poison Oak lines the trail at many points so be careful, particularly if those leaves are red in color – remembering the adage “Leaves of three, let them be.” The trail weaves back into a canopy of shade, with Maple and Buckeye trees lining the sides of the path, many of their branches growing outward in the direction of the sun.
The trail continues the ascent and a series of steps remind your butt of those fried calamari you may have opted for at the Sand Dollar. You will hug tightly around a large boulder, known as Table Rock. Watch your head as you slip under a low hanging tree branch, and perch at the top of Table Rock providing both a quick breaker and an expansive view of the Pacific. Be careful near the edge though as there is a large 20-30 foot drop. After you’ve taken a sufficient break, continue on uphill through a series of switchbacks. You will be thankful when you emerge out of the temperate forest and the trail starts to flatten out a bit, introducing you to a grassland/chaparral climate. Keep your camera out as you can see far-off views from the city and even a deer hopping along the ridge from time to time. The pace will have slowed, which is a blessing since sun exposure is at its highest here. In April/May timeframe wildflowers bloom in abundance. Some that I was lucky to see are iris, morning glory, California poppy, wild orchids and forget-me-nots. You will have a short 20 minute return through wooded area, passing small creeks and waterfalls, before hiking back alongside Panoramic and then crossing the highway to back to the start at the Pantoll parking lot.
Final Take: Pao Wow?
I’ve done this hike at least 10 times. I love it. I love taking friends here. I love going here on my own. It’s great if you want to be really “PaoFit” and do a tough trail run with considerable climbing and downhill running, or if you’re up for a longer all-day hike excursion. Between the views, the change in landscape, the fact that it’s a loop with a new perspective around every turn, and of course taking a break in Stinson beach; all these factors make it a 100% Pao Wow.