Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What This Is

Exploration and adventure in nature has been integral in shaping my identity. I drew inspiration for this project from my own experience in nature, in the awe-stricken humility I feel in the face of its sublimity, and from American Earth readings. One piece that has been particularly inspirational in my life and to this project was Why We Need Wilderness by Wallace Stegner. Stegner touches on the issue of liberty when he says that if we continue with our detached and consumptive practices unabated, “never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste.” Today we exalt freedom and individual liberties, but we rarely think of how our freedom would be hindered if we simply did not have the ability to do something or go somewhere because we had destroyed it. And Stegner proposes just that: that if we are not careful we will rob ourselves of our right as natural beings to be part of nature.

Hopefully my project emphasizes the importance of nature in our local community and to our identity as human beings. I believe that we humans need forces greater than ourselves to keep us in check. Laws, natural disasters, and nature itself above all are the powers necessary to remind us, in Stegner’s words, of “our sanity as creatures.” Nature is sublime. Nature, with its complex interactions and intricate ecosystems, is greater and more powerful than we can understand, and we need the presence of this higher power to remind us that we are simply creatures in a greater natural community. 

The driving force behind my project is my desire to make the outdoors accessible to everyone. This guide to “Seven Wonders of Marin” will hopefully encourage and inspire others in the community to spend time in nature as I have. And by providing directions to these places by public transportation, the natural world can be more accessible to those who may not have cars or easy ways to access these places. Hopefully this guide will inspire and facilitate access so that everyone can find joy and inspiration in these places, not just those who can afford to drive there.

And although I've provided ways to get to trailheads and various places, I haven't detailed specific hikes. This is because I believe in exploration. Once you are in a beautiful place, I think it is best to walk, wander, and see where you end up. The Seven Wonders I've chosen have beauty at every turn. Let yourself enjoy.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009


This website is FANTASTIC and has hundreds of hikes all over the Bay Area with directions, difficulty, photographs, and detailed hike descriptions. You MUST CHECK IT OUT!

Marin Headlands

The Marin Headlands are the Southernmost point in Marin County, just across the San Francisco Bay from the city of San Francisco. Going South on Highway 101 they are on your right. They are rolling green hills dotted with wildflowers, they are towering cliffs, crashing waves, sea spray, beaches, and, most fascinatingly, the location of dozens of concrete bunkers, obsolete weapons, old barracks and an army hospital that has now been converted into a youth hostel. The Marin Headlands are teeming with energy and beauty, both natural and man made.

Like everywhere in Marin, the Headlands were once home to Miwok Indians. Then Spanish and Mexican ranchers controlled the land before American pioneers overrode everyone.

During the Gold Rush in 1849, as thousands of ships sailed into San Francisco Bay, the need for a lighthouse system became apparent. During the Gold Rush years alone there were over 300 shipwrecks. After the lighthouses on Alcatraz and at Fort Barry in the Presidio, Point Bonita lighthouse was constructed in the Marin Headlands in 1855. It was the 3rd lighthouse ever on the West Coast. Originally it was placed too high on the cliff, so its light was obscured by the thick fog and crashes continued. In 1877 the lighthouse was moved lower, to about 300 feet above the water, where it proved to be much more effective as it still operates today. It is an active lighthouse maintained by the US Coast Guard. In 1979 it was the last manned lighthouse before it was automated in 1980. Point Bonita lighthouse is one of the oldest structures in what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and it claims unparalleled views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the coastline. You can explore around it any time, but the lighthouse itself is only open during visiting hours on Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 12:30 to 3:30pm.

The first military installations in the Marin Headlands were built in 1890's to keep enemy ships from entering San Francisco Bay. Battery Mendell and the batteries (which are fortified emplacements for weapons and personnel) at Kirby Cove and south of Rodeo Beach are examples of pre-World War I fortifications. 

During World War II dozens more batteries, bunkers and camps were built. Batteries Wallace, Townsley, and 129 on Hawk Hill (which provides the MOST stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and an awe-inspiring sunset) were built into the hills, mostly hidden, to protect them from aerial bombardment.

Fort Cronkite is a WWII "mobilization post" at Rodeo Beach that has been restored. Its barracks, mess halls, and supply rooms still stand and are now home to the Marine Mammal Center, the Headlands Institute, and the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. Fort Cronkite is the last stop on the bus route, and it provides easy access to hikes up and down the coastline.

During the Cold War the gun batteries were shut down, but antiaircraft missile sites were built around Rodeo Lagoon. The SF-88 Nike missile silo opened in 1954 as the last line of defense against Soviet bombers. It was closed in 1979 when the technology became obsolete. The Nike missile site is now a museum and the only restored Nike missile site in the country. Radar sites were also installed around the Headlands during the Cold War, and several shelters were built into the hillsides to protect military personnel from the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

In 1960 about 2,000 acres of the Headlands were sold to a private developer. He had plans to build a city called Marincello that would house 30,000 people in 50 apartment towers and hundreds of single family homes. A hotel was even planned to be built along the pristine shoreline. Fortunately, local conservationists and concerned citizens fought back. In 1970 the developer lost a lawsuit claiming the land was illegally zoned, and the thousands of acres were sold to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where they remain public land for all of us to enjoy!

Why I Love It
I spent the night out in the Headlands with a friend, and we spent the day and the greater part of the night exploring around the beaches, cliffs, and, of course, the scattered bunkers, batteries, mysterious concrete outcroppings and iron doors leading straight in to the mountainside. Every time I saw a bunker or concrete something, I'd exclaim and point excitedly at it. He said, "Have you not spent much time here? It all seems so foreign to you." In that moment I didn't really know what to say. But now I'll try to explain it.

I am absolutely in love with the Marin Headlands for its amazing beauty, its pure existence (because it could have been developed beyond recognition), and most importantly, because its purpose now is so different from its history. Hiking around, you practically trip over all these strange concrete things. And when I do, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia for a time and a place I was never in; I imagine soldiers trotting around the batteries, eagerly looking out to sea, wanting to be the one to alert the country of an enemy ship. All the abandoned posts were used everyday for something that seemed so important, but here they are now, rusting and spray-painted, looking forlornly out on the most gorgeous land on the West Coast. When I am in the Headlands, I see majestic beauty, and I see the shadows of soldiers waiting for an enemy that never came.

This place takes a little more time to get to, but it is WORTH IT! I promise!
From the San Rafael Transit Center:
Golden Gate Transit Route 70/80 Southbound
Get off at the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza
Catch Muni Route 76 (it runs hourly ON SUNDAYS AND HOLIDAYS between downtown San Francisco and the Headlands)

When on Muni Route 76 going through the Headlands, get off anywhere that interests you. I recommend the last stop, Fort Cronkite, because from there it's easy to walk along Rodeo Beach or hike up along the coastline to explore old batteries that look like alien landing pads.


Big Rock Ridge

The trailhead to hike Big Rock Ridge is in Lucas Valley, which is in Northern Marin just before Novato. This hike really reminds me of how my idea of where things are is dictated by roads and where towns are in relation to the highway. But once you're up on the ridge, it seems like everything has rearranged itself. Big Rock Ridge is the second highest point in Marin after Mt. Tam, and its views prove it. On a clear day you can see Mount St. Helena and Montara Mountain to the south, east to Mount Diablo and west beyond Mount Wittenberg to the Pacific Ocean. And there are stunning views of closer beauty like Mount Tamalpais, Deer Island, Loma Alta, and Mount Burdell.

For decades Lucas Valley was comprised of various cattle ranches, some of which still exist today. In the 1950's and 60's development began, and many tracts of single family homes were built. The developers of Lucas Valley, however, kept the hillsides in mind. Today there are still no telephone poles or satellite dishes on any of the roofs; everything is underground in order to preserve as well as possible the views of the surrounding hillsides.

Lucas Valley is a prime example of residents coming together to fight development and preserve the pristine open space. In 1970, two large ranches to the west of Lucas Valley were slated for development. 750 single family homes were ready to be built. Fortunately, the homeowners association stepped in and reduced the number of homes being built to 472.

A similar story happened in the mid-70s: the California Coastal Commission suggested widening Lucas Valley Road from two lanes to four lanes in order to facilitate access to Point Reyes National Seashore. And at the same time there was a proposal to build a four lane parkway over an undeveloped ridge from Lucas Valley to San Rafael. These roadways would have improved access to the relatively untouched valley, and they'd have increased traffic, noise, and population. But yet again, the residents formed a coalition and stopped the plans dead in their tracks.

With so many threats to the unspoiled open space, the residents of Lucas Valley decided to be proactive rather than fight each battle as it came. So the Marin County Service District proposed buying the land for designated, protected open space. When it went to vote in 1973, an overwhelming 93% voted yes.

Since 1973 Big Rock Ridge and the greater Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve has been privately owned by the homeowners association, managed by the Marin County Open Space District, and open for public enjoyment.

In 2003 the Big Rock Ridge trail became part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a 500-mile long trail that circles the Bay Area.

Look at this map of the Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve and its surroundings:

Why I Love It
Big Rock Ridge is almost just-another-breathtaking-panorama story. Note the almost. It's true that Big Rock Ridge's signature pull is that, as it is the second-highest summit in Marin, it has spectacular views of everywhere around. And like all other high peaks, I love situating myself and finding familiar places to look at from yet another vantage point. 

But what makes Big Rock Ridge truly special to me is its mystery and the effort necessary to achieve the reward. I say mystery because the first time I hiked it, it was a foggy day. I couldn't see anything. I said, "whoop dee doo" as I trudged along in the wind, unable to see any sort of vista besides blinding white and grey sky. So even though I knew, intellectually, what Big Rock Ridge had to offer, I couldn't really know it. And I think that is mysterious: knowing something is there but being unable to see it or recognize it. Then I went on a clear day and spent a good half hour with my jaw dropped, staring as far as I could see. And the effort: it's steep at times. It's a straight uphill walk to get to the crest. But it is worth it, and the beauty is that much more staggering when you are also staggering. Literally.

From the San Rafael Transit Center:
Take Golden Gate Transit Route 44 Northbound
Get off at Lucas Valley Estates (at Bay Laurel & Lucas Valley Road)
Walk East on Bay Laurel Lane, take a left on Westgate, right on Creekside Drive (don't worry this is only a few blocks!)
Begin your hike at the Luiz Fire Road on the left side of Creekside Drive


The Inkwells

The Inkwells are small, deep, dark pools beside Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Lagunitas, West Marin. They aren't marked, but they're easy to find. When driving along Drake Boulevard, the Inkwells are just beyond where the houses stop and Samuel P. Taylor State Park begins. As you cross a bridge called Shafter Bridge, the Inkwells are directly on your right, underneath a reddish-colored bridge called the Inkwells Bridge. You walk down a crumbly path to the right of Inkwells Bridge to get to the beautiful, swimmable pools along Lagunitas Creek. There are two of them, one bigger than the other. There are rocks to jump off of and sun to bask in. It is the perfect place for a summer afternoon!

The San Geronimo Valley, including Lagunitas and Lagunitas creek where the Inkwells are, was largely uninhabited and untouched until the 19th century. In the 19th century railroad transportation made it easy to bring goods and passengers through the valley, thereby popularizing the gorgeous area.

From 1875 to 1935 the North Pacific Coast Railroad, then the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, operated trains from Sausalito to Pt. Reyes Station and then farther north to Cazadero in Sonoma. Originally the railroad transported lumber, dairy products, oysters, and other goods from the fertile lands of West Marin. Later the railroad began transporting passengers. The tracks went directly alongside the Lagunitas Creek, and the old railroad right-of-way can be found on the other side of the red-colored Inkwells Bridge from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. 

During the 1870's and 80's, tourists rode this train from San Francisco to a hotel resort and campgrounds in what is now Samuel P. Taylor State Park. 

In 1974 the county purchased the rail line from Lagunitas to Tocaloma for trail use. There are extensive trails all over the area, and the 2004 construction of the Inkwells Bridge provided a missing link in the Bay Area Ridge Trail. The Bay Area Ridge Trail is a 500-mile continuing trail that circles the Bay Area (sections already exist in the Headlands and on Big Rock Ridge). The bridge connects Kent Lake trails with the old railroad grade pathway that runs 8 miles through Samuel P. Taylor to Tocaloma Bridge Road. The Inkwells bridge provides hikers and bicyclists a safe way to explore the beautiful San Geronimo Valley away from street traffic.

The bridge also serves an important infrastructural purpose: it has two 36" water pipes that carry water from Kent Lake and the Nicasio Reservoir to the water treatment plant providing drinking water to north-central Marin.

Why I Love It
The Inkwells are the perfect compromise when it's a warm, sunny day and you NEED to go swimming and be outside, but you just can't bring yourself to schlep all the way to the beach. They are much closer and just as beautiful. To me, it's a joy that a rock formation and flowing stream can create such a beautiful and fun place. I spread my towel on the rocks, I watch other people laughing and screaming as they jump into the black water. Finally I muster up the courage to jump, too; I feel the refreshing chill of the water and hurry to climb out so I can feel the warm sun drying the beads of water that lace my skin. Sometimes there's a daredevil who jumps off the bridge overhead. It's about a twenty foot jump. I am shocked by their brazenness every time and think to myself how I could never do that! Maybe one day I will, but for now, the Inkwells are a sunlit chamber where people jump, swim, eat, laugh, play, and explore the creeks above and below the two deep pockets of midnight water.

From the San Rafael Transit Center:
Pick up the West Marin Stagecoach North Route 68
Stagecoach Schedule:
Get off at Lagunitas Road and walk West (the same direction you were going) along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard until you reach Shafter Bridge
There is a little dirt path to the right of the bridge; follow it to the beautiful Inkwells!


Cascade Canyon

Less than one mile from downtown Fairfax, Cascade Canyon is very easy to get to. But its accessibility does not infringe upon the wildness you feel there. Cascade Canyon is bordered on the North by White Hill Open Space Preserve and to the west by the Marin Municipal Water District lands, and these three properties create a quilt of hills, canyons, streams and waterfalls with a network of trails and fire roads throughout. 

Like most of the Open Space in Marin County, the Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve was once privately owned and on the brink of development before environmental activists stepped in and protected it for future generations. 

For decades Floyd Elliot, the former mayor of Fairfax, owned the acreage. In 1971 he was ready to sell, and the land was zoned for over 100 high-density condominium units. Coincidentally, Karen Urquhart, a woman who had grown up near the Cascades and remembers hiding from Elliot while on hikes so she wouldn't be kicked off his land, moved back to Marin that same year. When she heard of the development of her beloved Canyon, she vowed to stop it.

Urquhart organized People for the Fairfax Cascades and worked closely with government officials, activist organizations, and concerned individuals to save Cascade Canyon. 

Her environmental activism paid off, and Cascade Canyon became the first major land acquisition by the newly founded Marin County Open Space District. The county government paid for two thirds of the land and one third (about 176 acres) was purchased and donated by Debbie Ettinger. The Ettingers were a Marin County pioneer family, and a prominent feature of Cascade Canyon, Pam's Blue Ridge, was named as a memorial for Debbie's sister Pamela. Interesting fun facts, eh?

Today, the Cascade Canyon Open Space preserve comprises about 500 acres of incredible bio- and habitat diversity. From the serpentine outcroppings of Pam's Blue Ridge to the riparian corridor along the San Anselmo Creek, from the abundance of aquatic life when the cascades rage in winter to the few water skeeters present when the waters trickle in summer, Cascade Canyon is one of the most diverse open spaces in Marin.

Why I Love It
I still can't figure out which I like better: going to new places or revisiting the familiar to see what's changed. For me, Cascade Canyon is the epitome of the latter. I've been hiking around Cascade Canyon for years with my parents, brother, dog, and friends, since we first moved to Marin when I was 3 years old. The slopes, trees, bends in the creek, and bridges are all known. In many ways, Cascade Canyon is the exact same as it's always been. And yet, as the old paradox goes, it is constantly changing. The time of day changes how the light illuminates the colors in the trees. The season dictates the wildflowers and flow of the stream. If it's been hot and dry, there won't be as much moss on the rocks. If it's Thanksgiving, get ready to dodge mountain bikers! Cascade Canyon is the familiar place in my mind that proves to me, every time I go, how much it deserves a permanent place in my heart.

From the San Rafael Transit Center:
Take Golden Gate Transit Route 23 Westbound
Here's the bus schedule:
Get off at Fairfax
Walk down Bolinas Road about .4 miles and make a right on Cascade Drive
Continue on Cascade Drive about .5 miles until the road dead ends in the preserve gate marking the beginning of your hike


Tortoise Rock on Ring Mountain

Ring Mountain is in Tiburon and the trailhead is located directly on the side of Paradise Drive, a main exit from Highway 101. Start your hike at the trailhead and take the Phyllis Ellman trail up the hill. To get to Tortoise Rock, the star of this hike, stay left. Explore. Take little trails, always bearing left, and you will see it. Honestly, it looks EXACTLY like a turtle! Stacks of rock make its front legs, and a tower of rock with a quasi-triangular one on top are its head. Wind sculpted bay trees form its shell. It's fun to clamber around on top of it. Sitting on its head, you look out over grassland and wildflowers to San Rafael and Mt. Tam. If you continue up on a paved path to your left, you get to the summit of Ring Mountain which provides even more stunning views than from Tortoise Rock. You see the Richmond Bridge stretching to the East Bay, the Belvedere Peninsula, San Francisco, the top of one spire of the Golden Gate Bridge, and vast expanses of water painted yellow by the sun's reflection. Sit on a rock. Bask in the sun. It's incredible.
**There is a well-known landmark on Ring Mountain called Turtle Rock, not to be confused with the Tortoise Rock I described. Tortoise Rock looks way more like a turtle and so therefore is way cooler than the actual Turtle Rock!**

There are conflicting histories of how Ring Mountain got its name. One says that it was named after George E. Ring, the Marin County Supervisor from 1895-1903. The much cooler version: Ring Mountain is named after the ancient Miwok Native American petroglyph rings etched on the rocks scattered around the mountain. 

Ring Mountain is a geological and botanical gem. Its soil, mostly composed of the green California state rock Serpentine, is toxic to most plants. Because of this, the species adapted to the soil thrive in the absence of competition. Ring Mountain is home to an unusual number of rare and endangered plant species, including a plant that literally grows no where else on earth: the Tiburon Mariposa Lily. 

A place with 360ยบ views of Mt. Tam, San Quentin, San Rafael, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Berkeley, Belvedere, Angel Island, San Francisco, and even the tippy top of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ring Mountain is absolutely one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world. Its protection is a testament to how a few determined individuals can come together and save its natural beauty from pavement and privatization. 

In 1976 a developer named Robert Goetz purchased 435 acres and unveiled grand plans for housing development. Fortunately, the counter reaction was strong. Conservation efforts of the ridge lands and open space commenced with private purchase and development negotiations. Phyllis Ellman, the conservationist for whom the trail is named, led the preservation efforts. The next year the Nature Conservancy, a nationwide organization whose mission is "to preserve the plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive" purchased some acres on Ring Mountain.

It wasn't until six years later in 1982 that the Nature Conservancy finally had enough money from generous donors and members to purchase the land poised for development. In 1995, the land was deeded over to the Open Space District and officially became a public place for all to enjoy.

Why I Love It
It seemed like whenever I talked about this project, whoever I was talking to unfailingly said, "Oh, have you been to Ring Mountain?" Until this project, I hadn't. Similar to the field in Fairfax, it blows my mind that such beauty and sublimity can exist right next to me while I continue to be oblivious. Ring Mountain highlights and underlines for me the importance of exploration and adventure. Because without those things, I'd have never gotten there. I'd have never scampered around on Tortoise Rock, looking out over the hills of native grass to Mt. Tam and San Rafael. I'd have never continued wandering up to the top of the Mountain to sit on a flat, shiny and flaking rock in the sunshine, eating tangerines. I'd have never seen the water currents making patterns on the surface of the water, glittering and white from the sun's reflection. From Ring Mountain, you have the most incredible 360 view all around you. I love trying to figure out where I am, locating landmarks and familiar features. Go try it.


From the San Rafael Transit Center:
Take Golden Gate Transit Route 17 Southbound
Here's the schedule:
Get off at the Paradise Drive Bus Pad
Walk South on Paradise Drive, away from the Village Shopping Center, for a few blocks
Begin your hike at the trailhead on the righthand side of Paradise Drive just past Westward Drive