(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on July 6, 2014)
Ah, summer. The weather beckons us outdoors — where we run into swarms of others with the same objective. A few Bay Area residents might enjoy congested hiking trails that are like holiday shopping at the mall, but most of us seek solitude along with the usual hiking highlights: views, abundant nature and exertion levels that don’t precipitate a paramedic call.
There is all this and more on three extra-special hikes around the Bay Area that were selected by local hiking experts Ann Marie Brown, Steve Richard and Brad Day. They share their knowledge and love of the outdoors via books, blogs and websites that all weave a common theme: we live in hiking heaven.
“There’s nothing that compares to the Bay Area in terms of open space. It’s endless,” says Richard, an East Bay hiking blogger. “I’ve never lived in or seen a place with so much hiking around an urban area.”
He tries to avoid the bumper-cars experience of the region’s more gridlocked trails. However, even those trails can become enjoyable by following two simple guidelines, explains author Ann Marie Brown, who always gets asked how to dodge the crowds.
“It’s so easy,” Brown insists. “Hike on weekdays, not weekends.” If this doesn’t fit with a demanding work schedule, “Get to the trailhead as soon as the gates open,” she advises. That’s what she does, “and I usually don’t see anyone for two hours.”
Here are the favorite hikes in three regions of the Bay Area from these three passionate hikers who have turned their obsession into an avocation.
Ann Marie Brown – Coastal, Cataract and Old Mine Loop, Mount Tamalpais State Park (North Bay )
About 25 years ago, then desk-bound Brown started spending her weekends exploring the Bay Area’s many outdoor regions. More than 13 published books later, she has grown into a well-known author helping others revel in California’s gorgeous countryside through her guidebooks and articles in such magazines as Sunset, Backpacker and Outside.
After all this time, she’s still wowed by the region. Even with the Bay Area’s population of seven million, “It’s the wildest metropolitan area in the United States, by far,” she says. Abundant nature, wild animals — all that and more, notes Brown.
During her 200 days a year marching down trails around the golden state, Brown makes a point of hiking in Marin County, where she used to live. “People there have it really good,” she says, pointing out all the protected open space and swooping green hills.
Favorite hike: Brown loves a particular loop that connects the Coastal, Cataract and Old Mine trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. “It offers great views every step of the way,” she reports, including secluded forests, streams, wide grasslands and eye-popping vistas of the city and sea. Plus, it’s “surprisingly level,” she says. (See sidebar for directions.)
For more hikes: Pick up Brown’s book, “101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area” (Avalon Travel Publishing) or visit her website: www.annmariebrown.com.
Brad Day – Mill Ox Loop, Butano State Park (Peninsula/South Bay)
“People always talk about making your passion a job,” explains Day, founder of the popular website Weekend Sherpa. That’s precisely what he started doing eight years ago, building his site and newsletter to an audience of more than 100,000 today by delivering enticing tips on great outdoor activities.
“When you’re outdoors, there is no bad day,” he insists, regardless of weather or any other encumberment. His publications focus on hikes, bike rides and other excursions not too far from home, with the Peninsula and South Bay being one of his favorite areas.
“If you pull up a map of the Bay Area and look at all the green areas designated as open space, there are a ton down there,” Day says. For example, he points out Big Basin above Saratoga, “the very first state park in California.”
Favorite hike: Rather than much-visited Big Basin, Day’s preferred hiking spot is what he calls “the insider’s Big Basin,” Butano State Park. His favorite hike — which has some ocean views — links three trails and takes visitors through misty forest groves and past indigenous wildlife like the rusty orange, bug-eyed newt. Notes Day: “You’re almost guaranteed to see one of those guys.” Plus, the “cool” nearby town of Pescadero is a good place for aprés-hike snacking, he says. (See sidebar for directions.)
For more hikes: Visit www.weekendsherpa.com or listen to Day describe weekend excursions each Saturday morning on KGO radio.
Steve Richard –French Trail Loop, Redwood Regional Park (East Bay)
“Most places in the Bay Area have the spots where everybody goes,” says Richard about the region’s hiking magnets. “Writing my blog was an attempt to say, ‘there’s a lot more.'”
His focus is what East Bay-ers call Lamorinda — Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda — and its “beautiful hikes where there’s virtually nobody there,” notes the Lafayette resident, who hits the trail at least three times weekly and has been hiking in the Bay Area since childhood.
Richard launched his popular blog in 2012 “after running into friend after friend who didn’t realize what was around them,” he says. He believes the East Bay is particularly rich territory for hikers, starting with 65 parks and 1,200 miles of trails. He posts a hike a month on his blog, including calorie counts.
Favorite hike: On hot East Bay days, Richard loves Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland hills west of Moraga. A peaceful, hidden bowl of coastal redwoods with a creek at the bottom, this park isn’t widely known, he says. Richard’s favorite summer hike, which he has dubbed the French Trail Loop, takes in the best parts of the park while avoiding hot climbs up the exposed flanks. “It’s a great Redwood Park sampler,” he says. (See sidebar for directions.)
For more hikes: Visit Richard’s blog, “The Undiscovered Hikes of Lamorinda” at www.lamorindahikes.com.
Redwood Park is a big bowl with a creek in the bottom, says Richard.
Notes on Hikes
Coastal, Cataract and Old Mine Loop – Mount Tamalpais State Park
6.8-mile moderate hike with great vistas of city and sea
- Follow published directions to the park, whose address is 3801 Panoramic Highway in Mill Valley. Look for the Pantoll Ranger Station and park in the lot ($8 fee).
- Start on the Matt Davis/Coastal Trail near the ranger station. After 1.6 miles, take an unmarked spur trail on the left just before the Coastal Trail/Matt Davis Trail forks and make a short climb up to a knoll to see the best views of the day. Return to the main trail.
- Take the right fork (the Coastal Trail) and continue gently uphill. After 1.7 miles, the trail meets Willow Creek Fire Road. Turn right and climb steeply uphill for ¼ mile.
- When you reach paved Ridgecrest Boulevard, cross the road and join Laurel Dell Fire Road at a wide metal gate. You’ll make a gentle descent for ¼ mile on the fire road. Watch for a right turn-off on Cataract Trail, signed for Ray Murphy Bridge. Hike alongside Cataract Creek for the next mile.
- Cataract Trail opens up to a meadow near Rock Spring, where there is a parking lot. Cross Ridgecrest Boulevard again and veer left, picking up the Mountain Theater Fire Road.
- After a brief, steep climb, turn right on Old Mine Trail, noting the magnificent views. Follow this trail back downhill for one mile to paved Old Stage Road.
- Turn right on Old Stage Road, which will bring you back to the ranger station.
Mill Ox Loop – Butano State Park
5-mile moderate hike through forests and fern groves with great ocean views
- Follow published directions to the park, whose address is 1500 Cloverdale Road in Pescadero.
- After the park entrance, look to the left for the Mill Ox Trail sign—it’s easy to miss and the parking lot holds only a few cars.
- Follow the Mill Ox Trail up to Butano Fire Road and turn right. Follow this to Jackson Flats Trail and turn right, which takes you back to the Mill Ox Trail. No dogs.
French Trail Loop – Redwood Regional Park
5.8-mile moderate hike that hits the highlights of this shaded park
- Follow published directions to the park, whose address is 7867 Redwood Road in Oakland.
- After entering the park ($5 on weekends), park in the first parking lot on the left after the “Fishway” interpretive site.
- Walk back to the “Fishway” area and grab a trail map. Cross the creek and take a right on Bridle Trail.
- Stay on the Bridle Trail for a little over a mile until it merges into the Stream Trail. After following the Stream Trail along Redwood Creek for about a mile, you will reach Tres Sendas Trail. This intersection is one of the most scenic points.
- Go left on Tres Sendas Trail. Take another left when you reach Starflower Trail.
- Go left again at the French Trail and stay on it for about 2.7 miles until reaching the Orchard Trail. Go left and descend back down to the Bridle Trail.
- Go right and walk ¼ mile back to the “Fishway” area. This loop can be done in either direction.