5 mile loop through chaparral and deep woods, on the northern flank of Mount
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 5 mile loop hike is moderate, with about 700 feet in
elevation change. Trailhead elevation is around 690 feet. The featured hike's
high point is around 1253 feet. The elevation change may seem minimal, but
the featured hike is not easy. There are steep sections along Rocky Ridge
and Kent Trails, and some short scrambles over fallen trees and rocks along
Alpine Lake. Rocky Ridge is indeed well-named and the trail can leave your
feet sore so wear sturdy boots. High temperatures exacerbate hiking difficulty
here. There are easier and harder hikes originating from Bon Tempe. A map
with topography (see maps below), is essential
for hike planning.
A mixture of full sun and deep shade.
Dirt trails and fire roads.
Nice year round.
From US 101 in Marin County, exit San Anselmo/Sir Francis Drake. Drive west
on Sir Francis Drake about 5 miles to the town of Fairfax. Turn left on
Pastori, make the first right onto Broadway, and then turn left on Bolinas.
Drive about 1.5 miles on (what is now signed as) Fairfax-Bolinas Road, then
turn left onto Sky Oaks Road (signed to Lake Lagunitas). Once past the entrance
kiosk, drive about 0.4 mile, and turn right (to Bon Tempe) at a signed junction
onto a gravel road. Drive about 0.3 mile, then bear left (unsigned) to the
trailhead (if you get to a second parking lot at the end of the road you've
gone too far).
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* based on Google
Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, restaurants, and stores back in Fairfax. No camping in the immediate
$8 entrance fee (self-register if entrance kiosk is unattended). Gravel
parking lot. Maps available (for a fee) at the kiosk when it is staffed.
No drinking water. There's one portable toilet near the trail entrance. No designated handicapped parking. People
in wheelchairs may be able to squeeze through the stile at the trail entrance,
but trails are not wheelchair-friendly. There's a pay phone at the Lake
Lagunitas Trailhead, at the end of Sky Oaks Road. There is no direct public
transportation to this trailhead.
Bicycles and horses permitted on a few trails (mostly fire roads). Most
trails are open to hikers only. Dogs are permitted on the hike described
below: they are allowed on leash on the water district trails but are not
allowed on the adjacent state park trails.
The Official Story:
Sky Oaks Ranger Station: 415-945-1181.
Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
map from MMWD (pdf)
Olmsted Brothers map, A Rambler's Guide to the Trails of Mount
Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands is great (order
this map from Amazon.com).
Mount Tam Trail Map, published by Tom Harrison Maps (order
from Tom Harrison Maps). Comparable to the Olmsted map.
Hiking Marin, by Don and Kay Martin has good maps and area
this book from Amazon.com).
The map and text in Barry Spitz's Tamalpais Trails (order
this book from Amazon.com) are particularly useful when you're searching
for obscure Tam trails, and it's a nice tandem to the Olmsted Brothers map.
Tempe in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured
View photos from the featured
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Tamalpais' northwestern flank provides a diverse hiking experience. Although there are always plenty of fishermen
by the lakes, and throngs of cyclists favor the wide fire roads, when
you turn onto one of the smaller trails, you'll most likely leave the
crowds behind. It's a different world of undermaintained trails that are
often narrow and overgrown with tall, dense thickets of shrubs. Minor
trails are unsigned. Huge Douglas fir and redwood trees block out the
sky, fallen limbs and trunks sometimes obstruct the trails, and dead tanoak
and madrone leaves obscure the paths. You might find yourself in dark
quiet woods, miles from another soul, with no idea which direction you're
heading, or even if you're on the correct trail. It's a little patch of
lonely wilderness very close to civilization. However, trails like this are not for everyone. Hikers with a poor sense of direction,
or folks in a hurry should look elsewhere. Students of nature, or thwarted
explorers and outdoor adventurers searching for a trek to fully engage
all the senses may want to give this hike a try. I've found that there's
nothing like the panic of being lost in the woods to quiet my busy mind.
If you're not up for a day long expedition,
the Bon Tempe trailhead offers short and easy hikes too. A 2 1/2 mile loop
around Bon Tempe Lake is a good choice for beginners, with excellent wildlife
and bird watching opportunities, and no real danger of getting lost. Hikers
seeking challenging loops have a few options. Rocky Ridge Fire Road begins
close to the trailhead, but you can also ascend on nearby
Rock Spring-Lagunitas Fire Road. Let your endurance level be your guide;
climb as far as you want, and return to the trailhead on minor trails
and/or fire roads. Bring plenty of water, particularly in warm weather.
Trails get muddy in winter and early spring, when it's best to stick to
the fire roads. Smaller trails are often blocked by fallen trees and prone
to storm damage.
Start the featured by walking uphill
on the gated fire road departing from the Bon Tempe Trailhead. After
about 40 feet, a road forks left, on the way to Bon Tempe Sunnyside. Stay
right. The trail crosses the spillway, then crests at the dam. Walk
across the flat dam, with Bon Tempe Lake on the left and Alpine Lake on
the right. Both are man-made reservoirs which hold drinking water for
Marin County residents. There's
a nice view of Tam's peaks across the water to the southeast. At 0.32
mile, you'll reach a junction. Bon Tempe
Shadyside heads left around the lake.
A few steps later at 0.35 mile, under a
canopy of valley oaks, Rocky Ridge Fire Road begins at a signed junction.
The broad multi-use trail starts to climb
immediately. In mid-spring, the bright yellow flowers of false lupine
nicely frame a view down to Alpine Lake. Madrone, California bay, coast
live oak, and Douglas fir shade the trail. Rocky Ridge's harsh grades
persists as the trail steps out into chaparral. The trail is lined with
chamise, manzanita, toyon, ceanothus, shrubby oaks, and a spattering of
Douglas fir. There are a few azaleas on the right. The shrub, normally
found in the damp woods, blossoms
in spring. Nice views unfold to the north, west, and east. To the north,
Pine Mountain blocks any long views at this relatively low elevation.
Bolinas Ridge is visible to the west, and to the east you should be able
to see Pilot Knob, the bay, and Mount Diablo. Thankfully, the trail levels
out, and there are even a few short descents. Perhaps to compensate for
this kinder, gentler grade, the trail becomes increasingly rocky. Douglas
fir pull back to the edges of the ridge, leaving trailside vegetation
dominated by shrubby plants preferring serpentine soil, such as yerba
santa, chamise, ceanothus, and manzanita. The eastern segment of Stocking
Trail feeds into Rocky Ridge Fire Road from the left at an unmarked junction at about 1.59 miles. This portion of Stocking appears on old maps, but a water district sign proclaims it closed.
Just down a short hill the other section of Stocking Trail breaks off
to the right at a signed junction at about 1.63 miles (Stocking Trail
is marked on the south side of the post; the side facing the junction
points the way to the continuation of Rocky Ridge Fire Road, to the left).
If you'd like to extend your hike, you could continue on Rocky Ridge
Fire Road to Rock Spring- Lagunitas Fire Road, climb another 500 feet
to Lagoon Trail, then pick up Kent Trail and continue the featured hike.
This will add about 2 miles to your day. Turn right onto Stocking
Narrow Stocking Trail is signed as hiking-only. For a few steps the path remains out in the open, but Stocking Trail
quickly is engulfed by tall shrubs of chamise, ceanothus, and toyon, as
small Douglas fir. This stretch seems to have been carved out for woodland
elves; even hikers under 6 feet will be ducking the branches that arch
over the cramped trail. Gradually woods overtake the chaparral, as Douglas
fir and redwood are mixed through California bay and tanoak. Madrones
are here too, and in early spring they contribute tiny aromatic white
flowers to the trail litter. Stocking Trail crosses Van Wyck Creek on
a bridge. A rough trail runs along the creek all the way to Alpine Lake,
but it is not maintained or signed. Huckleberry shrubs are plentiful.
Stocking keeps a mostly gentle downhill course, but there are a few very
short ascents. Some giant redwoods loom in fairy circles along the trail,
and old fallen giants still retain their majesty on the ground. Very large giant chain
ferns thrive in this part of the woods. Stocking Trail skirts the shore
of Hidden Lake, and then, at 2.03 miles, ends at a signed junction with
Kent Trail. Turn right.
Hiking-only Kent Trail initially descends
at a moderate pace. Redwoods, tanoaks, and Douglas fir dominate, and there
are few plants in the deeply-shaded understory. Dead leaves on the ground
hide the trail in places. Look for fallen tree limbs arranged as trail
borders, for guidance. The sound of running water becomes louder as you
near the East Fork of Swede George Creek. Kent Trail steps past the tiny
body of water known as Foul Pool, and then runs along a surprisingly deep
gorge formed by landslides and water flow. Although trees block good views,
the creek is somewhat visible downhill to the left. You'll want to pay
attention to the narrow trail as it barely clings to the side of the ravine.
A metal pipe emerges from the ground, running parallel to the trail. This
pipeline makes occasional appearances on the remaining miles of Kent Trail.
Look for shrubby California nutmeg nestled among the Douglas fir and redwoods.
Kent Trail turns away
from the creek, and squeezes through a dense stand of huckleberry, manzanita,
chinquapin, and Douglas fir. This sunny stretch is short-lived, for the
trail soon returns to the forest. The grade steepens. You will probably
see white and purple iris in spring. Suddenly, the blue sheen of Alpine
Lake filters through the trees. Kent Trail meets Helen Markt Trail at
a signed junction at 2.83 miles (a second spur joins Kent Trail a few
steps later, and is marked by a sign affixed to a tree). Turn right,
toward Bon Tempe Lake.
This portion of Kent Trail is prone to storm
damage. The water district has made improvements in the last few years,
including bridges that eliminate scrambles across the two major creekbeds.
Still, there are very short sections (a few feet at a time) that are steep,
and fallen trees sometimes block the trail. Except for a few rerouted
areas, the trail follows at a mostly level grade, very close to the lake.
Redwoods and Douglas firs (including a few really large specimens) are
common, with ferns, Indian warrior, and huckleberry in the understory.
Look for coralroot in spring. You may hear or see fishermen, but most likely your
only company will be the ducks floating along the lake. At the second
bridge, Van Wyck Creek empties into Alpine Lake at a particularly scenic
spot. This shaded location is a good place for a lunch break. Water spills
downhill, over a few large boulders and cascades into the lake, practically
begging a sweaty hiker to take a dip on a hot day (unfortunately, "water
contact" is forbidden). Kent Trail continues, hugging the shoreline,
but offers a break from the woods on a foray through rocky grassland.
You might see clarkia, mariposa tulips, and false lupine in mid spring.
Although the dam comes into view and seems a stone's throw away, the trail
veers back into the woods one last time. At 4.19 miles, the path ends
at a broad gravel road, and a signed junction. Bear right.
In Tamalpais Trails, Barry Spitz
refers to this stretch as Alpine-Bon Tempe Fire Road, but it's unnamed
on the signpost. Douglas fir and coast live oak block Alpine Lake from
view as the flat fire road winds back to the previously encountered junction
with Rocky Ridge Fire Road at 4.68 miles. Bear left and retrace your
steps back to the trailhead.
Total distance: 5.05 miles
Last hiked: Friday, May 4, 2001