Bay Nature magazineSummer 2001


Car Free on Mount Tam

July 1, 2001

The forest is dim. Traces of sunlight sift through the shifting canopy and flutter along the leaf-littered trail. On one side, the land rises up, pushing the tall trees higher. On the other, it falls into a steep ravine cut through by a rocky stream. This could be a scene from a typical summer day hike on Mount Tamalpais, and it is, except for one important detail—I came here from Berkeley without a car, via BART and Golden Gate Transit.

Instead of fighting traffic, I’m crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a bus, free to watch the sailboats glide across the Bay between wind-blown swells. The Marin Headlands loom before me, and my eyes follow the cliffs down to the waves that wash over their feet.

After changing buses at Marin City, we climb on Highway 1 through groves of bay, eucalyptus, and pine trees offset by dry, scrub-covered hillsides. The bus veers onto Panoramic Highway, where coyote brush scrub dominates on either side. Stretches of this road afford spectacular views of evergreen slopes and hazy glimpses of the ocean. Past Mountain Home Inn, the road snakes around numerous tight turns, between mature redwoods, tanbark oaks, and Douglas-firs. The bus stops across from the fee parking lot at Pantoll Ranger Station, where I disembark and stroll past the “Lot Full” sign toward the trailhead and the two-and-a-half mile descent to Stinson Beach.

As I leave the sun-baked asphalt and set off down the Steep Ravine Trail, the world cools noticeably in the shade of this evergreen forest. I breathe deeply. Douglas-fir and bay laurel season the air. Tanbark oak and huckleberry stretch out beneath them. The huckleberry is beginning to fruit, but that sweet, deep blue of ripeness is still a few weeks away.

Intermittent birdcalls pull my gaze up into the high, silent canopy. Below, along the darkened forest floor, a garden of ferns, with broad, finely-divided leaves, catches all available sunlight. Fountains of jagged sword ferns and much larger giant chain ferns—with their “chain stitches” of spore clusters—grip the steep banks. Peering closer, I can make out the triangular fronds of delicate gold-back ferns. Further down the trail, I spot the finger-like pinnae (frond divisions) of polypodies that seem to be growing right out of the rocks.

It’s early July, too late in the year for many forest flowers along this narrow, rocky, root-riddled trail, leading down into the heart of a coastal redwood forest. In late winter and early spring I would find fetid adder’s tongue—with its tiny, delicately-curved, brown petals—huddled beneath the Douglas-firs, and patches of fragrant white trillium further down along the trail. By summer, any sign of the mottled leaves of these lily family members is elusive.

As the trail descends and approaches Webb Creek, redwoods begin to appear, displacing the Douglas-firs. It’s not hard to differentiate these two conifers: redwoods have red-brown, spongy bark and tiny, hard seed cones with diamond shaped scales; Douglas-firs have gray-brown, hard, scaly bark and papery cones with tail-like bracts. With their unique adaptations for survival in constant dampness and periodic flooding, redwoods thrive in this environment, out-competing other conifers. They create their own climate, as the evergreen needles channel condensation from the opulent summer fogs, allowing it to drip down to the earth, compensating for lack of rain in the dry season. The dense canopy shades the forest floor, slowing evaporation and making this a haven for Pacific giant salamanders, banana slugs, and hikers on a hot summer day.

Further along the trail I come upon a “redwood cave”; a blackened scar in the lower trunk opens like an arched doorway into a whimsical refuge. Fire has hollowed out the trunk, but left enough living sapwood to allow nutrients to keep flowing up to the branches.

Photo by Alan Justice

Soon the trickle of Webb Creek becomes a rushing stream, pushing its way through rock falls and around fallen trees, plunging over drops in the terrain. Here the trail closely follows the creek; when the stream quickly tumbles ten feet, the trail turns in to a ladder with a sturdy handrail. Further down, several tiers of little waterfalls slide off the edges of rock outcrops into shallow pools, rivulets streaming like hair over the face of carved stone.

The path winds down through the redwoods until, half a mile from Highway 1, the Dipsea Trail crosses a bridge over Webb Creek and briefly converges with the Steep Ravine Trail. Steep Ravine continues along the creek until it emerges at Highway 1 across from Rocky Point. There’s no bus stop there, so instead I follow the Dipsea as it veers northward and emerges into dry, rolling scrub and grassland, peaking twice for panoramic views of Stinson Beach and the Pacific. A red-tailed hawk rides a thermal over the golden brown hills. A tree swallow darts out over the meadow, snatching insects in midair. From the tall dry stalks bristling across the field comes a strange and familiar song; it’s a red-winged blackbird flashing his scarlet shoulder patch in the early afternoon sun.

Just as I begin to feel the heat, the trail enters a fragment of riparian woodland. Here, a small stream nurtures a thicket of willows, bay trees, bracken fern, and horsetail, and sustains a gathering of California buckeyes. The last short stretch of trail crosses Panoramic Highway and brings me to Highway 1, which I follow down to Arenal Avenue for a shortcut to Stinson Beach Park. While cars cruise the crowded parking lot, I slip off my boots and walk the edge of the sunlit surf, where the shifting sand massages my liberated feet.

When it is finally time to meet the bus, I gather my things and my thoughts and head to the stop on Highway 1 near Calle del Mar. On the ride back up Panoramic Highway, I lean back and watch the fog rolling in to shroud the beach. Lulled by the low hum of the engine and memories of a lush green world, I drift into dreamy semiconsciousness, as the bus winds its way along the ridge and back toward home.

Getting There:

Golden Gate Transit #63 bus to Pantoll runs between Marin City and Stinson Beach on weekends. The #10, 20 and 50 bus lines run from San Francisco to Marin City. Board them across the street from the TransBay Terminal (Mission & 1st St.) or at Polk & McAllister (near Civic Center BART). For schedule and route information, call 817-1717 from anywhere in the Bay Area, or go to

Additional resources:

Mount Tam Interpretive Association

About the Author

Heather Evergreen is the Interpretive Student Aide at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Regional Park, as well as a freelance writer and editor. A graduate in English from the University of Washington, she is currently studying to be a naturalist.