3.7 mile out and back hike departs from the edge of a San Rafael residential
neighborhood and climbs to the top of San Pedro Mountain.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 3.7 mile out and back hike is moderately easy, with about
1100 feet in elevation change. Trailhead elevation is around 85 feet. The
hike's high point is about 1045 feet, and almost 1000 feet are gained in
1.5 miles. The trails are somewhat steep.
Dirt trails and fire roads.
Hot in summer. Spring is probably the best time.
From US 101 in Marin County, exit Central San Rafael. Drive east on 2nd
Street, past the busy supermarket district (2nd merges into 3rd, but you'll
hardly notice), and continue on San Pedro Road as 3rd Street ends and San
Pedro Road picks up (again, you won't notice this). After you've traveled
about 3 miles from 101, look for a sign for Knight Road. Turn left onto
Knight Road, drive about 0.4 mile, then turn left onto Rollingwood. Drive
about 0.3 mile, then turn left onto Beechwood Court. The trail begins at
the end of Beechwood, less than 0.1 mile from Rollingwood.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* based on Google
Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Lots of street parking in a residential neighborhood. Please respect neighbors
and keep your noise to a minimal level. No entrance or parking fees, maps,
restrooms, pay phone, drinking water, or designated handicapped parking
(and trails are not suitable to wheelchairs). Golden Gate Transit buses
31 and 32 stop at San Pedro and Knight, less than 1 mile from the trailhead.
Gas, food, and lodging:
Pay phones, restaurants, gas, and stores back in central San Rafael. No
camping in Barbier Park, but China Camp has a nice walk-in campground.
No rules are posted at the trailhead or on the trails, but most China Camp
trails are multi-use (you are not likely to see horses on this hike). A
few (not in this part of the park) trails are designated hiking-only. Dogs
are not permitted on every trail described below; they are permitted in
the city park but not in the state park. For day use, the China Camp is
open from 8 a.m. to sunset. Barbier Park is open from sunrise to sunset.
The Official Story:
China Camp page.
China Camp park information 415-456-0766.
Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
Trails of Northeast Marin County is the essential map for
this hike (available from Pease
China Camp map and brochure (pdf)
Don and Kay Martin's Hiking Marin has a useful map of the
preserve and the surrounding area (order
this book from Amazon.com).
Park/ in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured
View photos from
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
I drove slowly down Beechwood Court sussing out the parking situation, I sensed that this was a neighborhood unaccustomed
to visitors seeking access to China Camp State Park, Barbier Park, and
San Pedro Mountain. Walking down the street to the trail, dogs frantically
barked at me, and I could imagine invisible fingers drawing back curtains,
and many a wary eye following my progress. Neighborhood access is never
my favorite way to reach public hiking trails, but sometimes there are
no established trailheads from which you can stage a hike. San Rafael's
Barbier Park is such a place. Perched on the south slope of San Pedro
Mountain, the park abuts China Camp State Park and San Pedro Mountain
Open Space Preserve, but offers no facilities or established trailheads,
and visitors must enter via neighborhood access locations where parking
can be difficult. Although there are plenty of trailheads on San Pedro's
more remote north slope, it is a bit nonsensical that trails and fire
roads begin less than a mile from downtown San Rafael, but the city provides no facilities
to ensure practical and easy access. Despite a minimalist approach to
legitimate access points (all very clearly shown on the excellent Trails
of Northeast Marin County map), Barbier Park is a prime hunk of real
estate with the fortuitous proximity to two other (separately managed)
parks and preserves. With the combined acreage of Barbier Park, China
Camp State Park, and San Pedro Mountain Open Space Preserve, nearly the
entire mountain is now open space.
China Camp State Park has a single leg stretching
south from San Pedro Mountain into some residential San Rafael neighborhoods,
and one fire road climbing from the lowlands to the ridge. The fire road
leaves China Camp to ascend through the upper slopes of Barbier Park,
then reenters state park lands at a junction with Ridge Fire Road in the
middle of the mountain. With
the assistance of a bicycle visitors can traverse San Pedro Mountain from
east to west, but hikers, who must first confront an over 1000 foot ascent
in just 1.5 miles, probably won't venture that far. Once you get to the
main east to west series of fire roads there are some out-and-back options
to add on to an out-and-back hike, and a few loops, but keep in mind that
if you head north or east very far into China Camp, or west into San Pedro
Mountain Open Space Preserve, you'll face another long climb back to the
ridgeline on your return journey.
The difficult access from San Rafael pretty
much ensures a hike with much less trail traffic than you'll encounter
on a visit to China Camp's north slope. With a southern exposure and little
shade, the south side of the mountain gets plenty of sun, so plan a visit
in any season but summer, unless you really want
to sweat. There's a nice stretch of grassland at the start of the fire
road, a promising destination for spring wildflowers, and mixed woodland
further uphill, where you might enjoy lots of madrone and toyon berries
as well as manzanita blossoms in winter.
Start at the end of Beechwood Court,
and head uphill on a narrow and unmarked path. There will likely be
a few tree branches sprawled across the trail, and the first stretch is
steep, but the path soon eases up as it ascends through California bay,
madrone, and hazelnut. You'll leave the woods behind and squeeze through
overgrown patches of broom, with toyon and fennel just beyond. The path
is eroded and rocky in sections. At 0.16 mile, the path ends at an unsigned
junction with Bay Hills Fire Road (shown on CSP's China Camp map as Gold
Hill Fire Road). Turn right.
The wide multi-use fire road climbs at a
moderately steep grade through grassland. You might see kestrels perched
on the occasional clump of coyote brush. Although you will have barely started the ascent, on a clear day you should have sweeping
views south to San Rafael Bay and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. As you
climb look back over your shoulder for ever increasingly views to the
east bay, Bay Bridge, and the two tiny lumps of land in San Rafael Bay
that comprise the Marin Islands National Wildlife Sanctuary. The fire
road draws near a cluster of California bays: look beneath the trees for
a rocky outcrop of pinkish stone with white veins. Some shortcut paths
have been worn into the hillside, but please stay on the obvious fire
road. The grassland starts to shrink, and trees muscle their way onto
the hillside. A few buckeyes stand denuded in winter, with seed pods dangling
from bare branches, but coast live oak and California bay are dominant.
Bay Hills Fire Road levels out briefly, a rare flat spot on the relentless
climb. The grade picks up again, and invasive broom crowds the trail.
You might notice a pink car door wedged onto the branch of a coast live oak. Crashed vehicles
can be found along the sides of many old fire roads in the bay area, particularly
on roads that serviced mining operations or missile sites. The rest of
the car must be in the woods somewhere, but thick stands of madrone, coast
live oak, and California bay discourage investigation. Bay Hills Fire
Road leaves China Camp State Park and enters Barbier Park, but there is
no noticeable change on the trail and the transition is unmarked. The
fire road meets up with a high tension power tower, and the trail and
power lines continue uphill together. At 0.82 mile, you'll reach an unsigned
junction with a descending fire road departing to the left. Continue
straight uphill on Bay Hills Fire Road.
Madrone, coast live oak, California bay,
toyon, and manzanita line the fire road. An overgrown wide trail splits
off to the left, only to rejoin the fire road at the next crest. Stay
to the right as another wide trail heads straight uphill to a power tower;the
ascent is much easier on the fire road. The grade levels out as the fire
road reaches an odd flat and cleared spot. Two communication towers, familiar
landmarks to anyone who regularly drives through San Rafael along 101,
come into view straight ahead and to the left. At 1.03 miles, Bay Hills
Fire Road reaches an unsigned T junction with a paved road. Turn right.
Although unsigned, the paved road, servicing
the towers, runs north all the way to Bay Hills Drive near the Marin Civic
Center, so I'll continue with the designation of Bay Hills Fire Road.
The fire road skirts one of the communications towers, descends slightly,
and meets a paved road entering from the left. Trees, mostly coast live
oak, madrone, and California bay, block any views. After a bit of gentle
up and down rolling, the fire road reaches a flat cleared crest, and the
high point of the hike, at 1.50 miles and 1045 feet (if you are ready
to turn back, this is a logical place to do so). Bay Hills Fire Road plummets
downhill to the north, and at 1.63 miles, you'll reach the first signed
junction of the hike,as
you reenter China Camp State Park. Ridge Fire Road heads east (right),
but stay to the left on Bay Hills Fire Road.
A closed trail is ominously signed as illegal
and off limits on the left. The fire road, still paved, winds through
the trees at an easy pace, then climbs a hill and levels out again. Mount
Tamalpais is visible to the south (weather permitting), and traffic noise
from US 101 drifts uphill to the ridge. At 1.83 miles (look for a guardrail
on the left), turn right into a cleared picnic area. A former Nike
radar site perches between the picnic area and the fire road, and from
there you'll have the best views in every direction, including the hills
and shoreline of China Camp, San Pablo Bay, and Mount Burdell to the north.
If you'd like to keep hiking, continue west on Bay Hills Fire Road, then
take San Pedro Mountain Fire Road into San Pedro Mountain Open Space Preserve
(this was my intended route, but as soon as I reached the Nike site, it
started to pour). Otherwise, retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
Total distance: 3.66 miles
Last hiked: Tuesday, November 13, 2001