Loma Alta Open Space Preserve,
Marin County Open Space District,

Marin County
In brief:
4.5 mile partial loop departing from edge of Fairfax neighborhood, climbing to just below the summit of Loma Alta. Hosts a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment.

Distance, category, and difficulty
There are a few short steep stretches, but this is a moderately easy 4.5 mile loop hike, with about 900 feet in elevation change. Trailhead elevation is about 250 feet. The preserve's highest point is about 1450 feet. The featured hike climbs to 1150 feet, then descends back to the trailhead.

Mostly exposed.

Trail traffic

Trail surfaces
Dirt trails and fire roads.

Hiking time
2 1/2 hours.

Best in late winter for wildflowers and waterfall.

Getting there
From US 101 in Marin County, exit Sir Francis Drake/San Anselmo. Drive west on Sir Francis Drake through Fairfax, and just before the road climbs out of town (about 6.5 miles from 101), turn right onto Glen Drive (look for the White Hill School sign). Proceed about 0.4 mile to the open space gate at the end of the road.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 38 0'19.54"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, stores, restaurants, and pay phones back in Fairfax. No camping.

Trailhead details
There is substantial side-of-the-road parking at the edge of a residential neighborhood. No entrance or parking fees. No maps, drinking water, or toilet facilities are available. No designated handicapped parking, and trails are not well-suited to wheelchairs. Golden Gate Transit's #23 and 65 buses travel along Sir Francis Drake, and you can walk into the preserve from the road: visit the Transit Info website for more details. A second entry point is a preserve gate on Sir Francis Drake a little more than a mile west of Glen Drive. Look for the gate on the right just before the crest of the hill. 

Trails are multi-use. Dogs are permitted on leash on trails; off leash under voice command on fire roads. Dog owners must have a leash for each dog.

The Official Story:
MCOSD's Loma Alta page.
MCOSD field office 415-499-6405

Map Choices:
• Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
• Download the pdf map from the MCOSD website.
Trails of Northeast Marin County (map) is my favorite map (available from Pease Press).
The Bay Area Ridge Trail, by Jean Rusmore (order this book from Amazon.com), has a decent map and descriptions of the Ridge Trail segment though the preserve.
• Barry Spitz's Open Spaces has a simple map and preserve description (order this book from Amazon.com).
• Don and Kay Martin's Hiking Marin has a decent map and preserve description (order this book from Amazon.com).

View photos from this hike.

Loma Alta is a spectacular preserve, but it's no secret. Gate at end of Glen DrivePopular with mountain bikers and local residents out for a stroll with their kids and/or dogs, Loma Alta lures visitors with fabulous views and some challenging climbs that provide great exercise for man and beast. Once you climb out of the canyon to the ridge though, the traffic thins out and it's pretty quiet.
     A network of fire roads winds through the preserve's grassland and California bay woods on Loma Alta's south slope. Surrounding lands to the north are still privately held, although in 2002 the Skywalker Easement opened, extending the Bay Area Ridge Trail out of Loma Alta, all the way to Lucas Valley Road. There's one loop, and an option to add on an out-and-back climb to the preserve's highest point. If you visit in winterGlen Fire Road or early spring, you may see early wildflowers and a surprising waterfall, but prepare yourself for muddy conditions.
     Start at the Open Space gate and begin climbing on Glen Fire Road. The broad multi-use trail ascends out of grassland through a mixture of white and coast live oaks, California bay, poison oak, and coyote brush. Glen Fire Road crests, then takes a short dip, marked by an old buckeye on the right. Here, at 0.15 mile, you'll reach an unsigned two-part junction. The first path doubles back toward the trailhead, and the second, more obvious trail, heads left into the canyon. Continue straight on Glen Fire Road.
     Within steps the views open up and encourage more climbing. Ignore any spur paths and just keep hiking uphill on Glen Fire Road, a wide trail that reminds you that you're climbing, but never really rubs your face in it.Smith Fire Road in summer Coast live oak are common, and you may also see willow, toyon, and sagebrush. When I was here once in September the golden light on the grassy hills made me think of Tuscany. To the east the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge and San Pedro Mountain may be visible if it's not too hazy. Across the valley to the south is lovely Pam's Blue Ridge, White Hill, and the dramatic profile of Mount Tamalpais. If it's really clear you may be able to see the San Francisco skyline. The trail snakes uphill at a stiff pace that's still manageable. You'll reach two large water tanks and an unmarked two-part junction at 0.45 mile; Glen Fire Road ends here, so stay to the left onto Smith Fire Road (a second dead-end road veers right just after; stay to the left there). 
      TheView east from Smith Fire Road view north sweeps past the houses of Sleepy Hollow to the hills of Lucas Valley. Smith Fire Road, open to equestrians, hikers, and cyclists, continues the climb, skirting the back side of the tanks. You'll cross through (or over) a gate/stile, and run along the preserve boundary to the right, marked by a fenceline. At 0.77 mile a spur trail heads out to the right from an unmarked junction. This faint path climbs northwest to the preserve's high point and border (the high point, Loma Alta, is on private property), but it's steep going. Continue on Smith Fire Road.
The terrain is mostly grassland, and you'll likely spot vultures sweeping the hillsides looking for a meal. Deer must spend a lot of time on this trail, considering the amount of droppings they've left behind. There's very little shade here, but it's often deliciously breezy. In spring, look for annual wildflowers such as checkerbloom, California poppy, and lupine. A massive and beautiful coast live oak sits on the left side of the trail. You'll climb at a steady pace, and with every step more stellar broad views unfold. Gunshot Fire RoadAlthough grass cloaks most of the hillside, buckeye and California bay thrive along seasonal creeks, where you might hear water cascading downhill in wet months. The trees hides some small waterfalls, but the soothing sound of water is nice, and drowns out noises from civilization. Smith Fire Road continues to climb, reaching an unmarked junction with Gunshot Fire Road at 1.74 miles. From here you have the option to continue straight to the preserve's northwest boundary and then return to this junction (a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment), or turn left and descend.
        Your knees may not be happy with this rocky and steep trail. Descending, you'll have the opportunity to take in views that weren't visible from the ridge. To the east and downhill, you'll get a glimpse of Old Railroad Grade. One of the water tanks back on Glen Fire Road peeks through a notch in the hill back to the left. Seasonal waterfallSir Francis Drake sweeps uphill past the preserve gate to the west, and traffic noise washes uphill. Toyon and coast live oak line the trail in places, but grassland still dominates. The fire road takes a sharp turn right and continues downhill. During late winter you may see hound's tongue in a shaded stretch At 2.50 miles, Gunshot Fire Road ends at a gate. Turn left onto Old Railroad Grade.
     The broad multi-use fire road is nearly level. Invasive broom is mixed through toyon, monkeyflower, California bay, buckeye, and coast live oak. At 2.63, a trail veers right at an unmarked junction. Continue straight on Old Railroad Grade. On an early January 2002 hike I was surprised to find a sprinkling of white milkmaids on the sides of the trail, the first wildflowers of the year. At 2.86 miles, a fire road joins Old Railroad Grade from the right. Continue straight on Old Railroad Grade. The trail takes a sudden dip. If it's winter or spring you may hear a seasonal waterfall before you see it. Look to the left for this very pretty series of cascades, with a few charming buckeyes at the base of the falls. A small rough Madrones on the side of Old Railroad Gradebench is provided, and this is a great place for a lunch break when the falls are running. The trail is once again nearly level, but only about half as wide. Broom, coyote brush, toyon, and coast live oak are common. At 3.22 miles, a path breaks off to the right, heading into private property almost immediately. Houses are visible through the trees in places. Continue straight on Old Railroad Grade. Abruptly the trail takes a sharp dive down into a dark California bay canyon and creekbed, then immediately climbs steeply back out. Look for ferns, hazelnut, and madrone in the shade. Once again on level ground, the trail wanders through a stretch very prone to mud and standing water in winter. At 3.34 miles, you'll reach an unmarked T junction. Turn left to continue on Old Railroad Grade.
      Broom and coyote brush backed by coast live oak keep the views to a minimum, but soon the trail pops out into grassland, Junction near the end of Old Railroad Gradeand an unsigned junction at 3.71 miles. The fire road to the right descends to White School. Continue straight (left) on Old Railroad Grade. The trail drops down into coast live oak and California bay woods for a short distance, then emerges again in grassland. The trailhead is visible downhill to the right, but the trail heads back into the woods where bluejays may sound their intruder alarms. At 4.13 miles you'll reach an easy-to-miss junction at the end of a short fenceline. Both trails return to Glen Fire Road; take a sharp right to wander easily through the canyon floor, or continue straight for a more adventurous route. The tiny path skips across a creek, then climbs very sharply up a hillside. At 4.18 miles, the path ends at Glen Fire Road. Turn right. You'll descend past a previously encountered junction with the other trail (from the fence junction) at 4.32 miles. Continue straight, and retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Total distance: 4.49 miles
Last hiked: Friday, January 4, 2002

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