The first rains of the season have arrived and the hills of Marin County will soon start to turn a lush green. This year I’ve been eagerly anticipating the rainy season, wanting to go on my favorite hike, through the lush canyon of Steep Ravine. This hike, on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, is beautiful at any time of year, but at its best after (or even during) a big rainstorm. The Steep Ravine Trail is a scenic adventure, with lush forests draped in thick moss, steep hillsides of swordtail and bracken ferns, and a deeply ethereal atmosphere, especially in the rain or fog.
Heavy rain at night gave way to a misty fog in the late October morning, so I set out to hike the entire length of Steep Ravine, all the way out to Rocky Point. The trail starts at Pantoll, the headquarters of Mount Tamalpais State Park, at the junction of the Panoramic Highway and Pantoll Road. The trailhead is at the end of the parking lot, with a sign for the Steep Ravine Trail. I started off down the trail, and plunged immediately into the deep canyon of Steep Ravine. The canopy of the forest was still dripping with the last night’s rain, but the moisture only enhances the experience. I’ve hiked this trail before in a heavy downpour, when this same canopy becomes a protective umbrella from most of the rain.
Walking down into the canyon, the sounds of traffic from the highway above gradually give way to bird songs and the rushing waters of Webb Creek. Once at the bottom of the canyon, the trail continues alongside Webb Creek, crisscrossing back and forth across the creek over a series of wooden footbridges. I come to a pair of large redwoods, where the trail makes its way through the narrow passageway between them. I call these redwoods “The Guardians” and it is beyond this point that Steep Ravine gets really wild. It feels like a Lost World, a primeval land that time forgot. I fully expect to see dinosaurs around the next bend in the trail. The creek is lined with small groves of redwoods, strewn with moss-covered fallen logs, and shrouded in a light mist that keeps the canyon cool all year round. Rays of sunlight filter through the trees, showing up as spotlights on the canyon floor. This is Steep Ravine at its finest.
After a little more than half a mile, I come to the wooden ladder that descends over a large boulder alongside a small, picturesque waterfall. It is always damp in this canyon, so the rungs of the ladder can be very slippery. The cautious climb down the ladder only adds to the adventure, and it is great to take it slow here. A little further down the trail I reach the junction with the Dipsea Trail. I’ve often come across runners at this point, in training for the Dipsea Race, but all is quiet on this damp and chilly day.
I’m surrounded by every shade of green as I hike through Steep Ravine. The green deepens as the winter rains wear on and develops a rich intensity by early spring. A few years ago I did this hike on St. Patrick’s Day and it felt like much more than just the wearin' of the green. I was part of the green, wrapped in it from head to toe. Springtime also brings out the delicate white Trillium blossoms, a wildflower recognizable by its sets of three leaves, three sepals, and three flower petals. Further down the canyon, the blood red blossoms of the Giant Trillium grace the trail, their massive leaves resembling the ears of elephants.
I pass the junction with the Dipsea Trail and continue on the Steep Ravine Trail, following the sign to Highway 1. The trail comes out of the forest at the highway, where the contrast is striking. The deep shady forest gives way to open coastal bluffs and towering outcrops of rock. The gurgling of Webb Creek and gentle songs of birds are replaced with waves crashing on the rocks below and the cries of circling hawks above. The smell of Douglas-fir and Bay Laurel is overtaken by the rich aroma of Artemisia that wafts across the bluffs. I cross the highway and start down the winding paved road that leads to Rocky Point and the Steep Ravine Cabins.
This small road, which is closed to traffic, starts off with a whimsical sign warning of "Newt Crossing." The rainy season brings out the newts in damp and soggy areas around Mount Tamalpais, so hikers need to watch where they step. The two kinds of newts that can be found on the mountain, the California newt (Taricha torosa) and the rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa), are both slow-moving amphibians who make their way across the trails at their own steady pace, resting along the way in muddy areas. The California newt is the more common of the two, and is dark red on top, with a bright orange underbelly. On the short walk from Highway 1 down to Rocky Point, I saw four freshly squished newts in the roadway, vivid reminders that the sign is more than just a humorous warning. Tread carefully here.
The road ends at the entrance to the Steep Ravine Cabins and Campground. The cabins are small and rustic, with no running water or electricity. Nevertheless, they are the most difficult reservation to get in the entire California State Park system, and need to be booked months in advance for most weekends. The campsites are easier to reserve, and offer spacious private camping on a cliff top location that is spectacular. Rocky Point is aptly named, with jagged rocks that jut out into the ocean around the edges of a small promontory. This is where the long ridge of Mount Tamalpais plunges into the Pacific Ocean, like the bare feet of the Sleeping Maiden dipping into the sea.
After spending most of the afternoon at Rocky Point, I begin the hike back up through Steep Ravine. I notice different things on the way back, with the changing light of late afternoon. In places, the sun revealed the underside of the ferns, which were lined with symmetrical rows of rusty brown capsules of spores. Ferns, which grow all over the world and have existed on earth for more than 200 million years, do not produce flowers or seeds, but reproduce by spores. The capsules, which are known as sporangia, can produce millions of spores each year. The spores develop during the warm months of summer, and then are released in the fall after they ripen and dry. Only a small number of them will germinate, usually over the winter months and into early spring.
The hike out to Rocky Point is approximately three miles, so a round trip of six miles. This hike description is a modified version of the "Rainy Day Hike" described in my guidebook A Visitor's Guide to Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods. The guidebook is available online, from Way Out There Press.