Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve,
Marin County Open Space District,
Marin County
In brief:
2 mile loop through rocky grassland fronting San Pablo Bay in Corte Madera.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
This is an easy 2 mile loop hike. Trailhead elevation is around 15 feet, and the featured hike's high point is around 540 feet; total elevation change for this hike is about 500 feet. There are a few short steep sections.

Almost completely exposed.

Trail traffic:

Trail surfaces:
Dirt trails and fire roads.

Hiking time:
1 1/2 hours.

Nice year round.

Getting there:
From US 101 in Marin County, exit Paradise Drive/Tamalpais Drive. Drive east on Tamalpais, and turn right onto San Clemente (before The Village shopping center). After a few blocks, San Clemente dumps into Paradise Drive. Continue on Paradise, past Westward Drive, to the preserve gate on the right side of the road. It's about 1.5 miles from 101.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3755'15.24"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, restaurants, stores, and pay phone about 1.5 miles north in Corte Madera. No camping.

Trailhead details:
Abundant roadside parking. No admission or parking fees. No restrooms, drinking water, or maps. No designated handicapped parking, and trail access is obstructed (the trails are not suitable for wheelchairs or strollers). There's a Golden Gate Transit ferry bus shuttle stop a short distance from this trailhead.

Some trails are multi-use, and others are designated hiking only. Dogs are permitted, on leash only.

The Official Story:
MCOSD's Ring Mountain page
MCOSD field office 415-499-6405

Map/book choices/More information:
This hike is described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco, by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order this book from Amazon.com.
• Download the pdf map from the MCOSD website.
Afoot and Afield: San Francisco Bay Area, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of a Ring Mountain hike.
Hiking Marin, by Don and Kay Martin has a good map and preserve description (order this book from Amazon.com).
• Barry Spitz's Open Spaces has a detailed map and good text (order this book from Amazon.com).

Ring Mountain in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.

View photos from the featured hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve, nestled between the Marin County towns of Tiburon and Corte Madera, possesses an amazing variety of assets. Trailhead on Paradise DriveThe grassy slopes afford fantastic views of Mount Tamalpais, the bay, and San Francisco. Trails wind through rock formations, across tiny creeks, through wildflower-dotted hillsides, and under old coast live oaks and California bays. Petroglyph Rock, near the preserve's highest spot, has rock carvings created by Native Americans. And the unusual geology of the preserve supports plants that grow nowhere else, most prominently the Tiburon mariposa lily, which blooms in May. All this in a setting just a few miles north of San Francisco makes Ring Mountain a perfect choice for a quick hike, or for more advanced nature study.
     This small preserve gets a lot of use from neighborhood residents and dogwalkers, and has a ton of unofficial paths and shortcuts. Crossing a creekThe fire roads on the south slope of Ring Mountain can be accessed by a few small streets off of Tiburon Boulevard (such as Reed Ranch Road), but most non-neighborhood visitors use the main entrance, where there is more parking. Phyllis Ellman Loop Trail climbs from the trailhead to the ridge, and from there you can wander along the ridge to the east or west, or drop downhill to the south, then retrace your steps to the ridge and return to the trailhead via the other end of the loop trail.
     It's fascinating to see the seasons change at Ring Mountain. Although the trails get muddy in the rainy season, it's always special to find the first wildflowers of the year in late winter, when the grass is short and fresh. Serpentine soils host extensive wildflowers in spring. Although the preserve lacks foliage trees, toyon and poison oak are pretty in autumn.
     For the featured hike, cross through the open space gate and walk through the marshy area, then cross the bridge on the hiking only trail. Climbing through grasslandA large sign acknowledges the assistance of the Nature Conservancy in obtaining the land. I've never seen maps available here, but if you have a smartphone, scan the QR code for park information (genius!). The path, which gets muddy in the wet months (you'll find that a recurring theme at this preserve), drifts gently uphill along a grassy, rock-studded hillside. Look for mule ear sunflowers and flax in May. At 0.20 mile, the trail splits at a signed junction. Most hikers take the loop in the clockwise direction, as the numbered post sequence progresses that way. Bear left and continue uphill.
      On the fringes of the trail watch out for poison oak (it flourishes in large shrubs throughout the preserve), which grows alongside shrubby California bays, toyon, blackberry, and coyote brush. False lupine is common in spring. The path crosses a stream (look for ninebark here) and then ascends steadily through the grassland. There are many informal trails cut into the hillside, and it is often a confounding proposition to stay on the real trail. If you pass a numbered post, you are on track. If you get off course, just aim for the ridgetop. Turtle Rock and view southAs you head uphill, pause from time to time to savor the view behind you of northern San Francisco Bay, including the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and San Quentin State Penitentiary. Large boulders patchworked with multicolored lichens stand sentinel on sides of the trail. Just past the number four post, a fence discourages hikers from proceeding uphill to the left, and the official trail sweeps right.
      Lots of wildflowers here in the spring. Starting in February look for milkmaids and fremont's camas. In March there are good displays of buttercups and occasional shooting stars. Later in May you might see some blue-eyed grass stragglers, as well as Marin dwarf flax, tarweed, lupine, and Ithuriel's spear. The trail squeezes by some oaks and California bays, then climbs along a rocky patch tangled with roots. Petroglyph RockThen it's back to the grassland, where the trail soon fords two branches of a creek on pretty fern-lined small bridges (post 7). After that you'll reach another nebulous junction at 0.67 mile; once again stay to the right.
      After a few steps, the trail splits again. The right trail connects with the other side of the loop trail, but continue uphill to the left. Just past post number 8, look to the right for a view of one big coast live oak. An unusual trail marker, set flush into the ground, assures you that you're headed the right way. At post number 9, the trail ducks into the trees on the right. This a magical place that reminds me of Hobbiton. Bilbo Baggins could surely be hiding among the 15 trunks of this California bay, which fans out to create a sheltering thicket. After leaving the trees, look to the right for a knockout view of Mount Tam. The trail splits near post 14In March, you may see Oakland star tulip along the trail -- the flowers on this calcochortus, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, are shaded light pink/purple. The top of the hill is in reach as you continue climbing through grassland loaded with zigadene in late winter. Follow the trail to the left as it crests, then turns right and shows off the first views to the south just before it ends, at 0.90 mile, at Ring Mountain Fire Road. To the left, the multi-use fire road climbs to the preserve's highest elevation, 602 foot Ring Mountain. Straight ahead is Turtle Rock. Turn right and head west on Ring Mountain Fire Road.
     The wide fire road dips down to a junction near post number 12, at 1.00 mile. The fire road continues straight uphill, the other part of Phyllis Ellman breaks off to the right, and Reed Ranch Fire Road heads south. Only Phyllis Ellman is signed. Turn left on Reed Ranch Fire Road. Tiburon mariposa lily
After descending gently less than 0.1 mile, look to the right for an unsigned but obvious path leading to a large boulder. Turn right. The path skirts Petroglyph Rock, marked by native Miwoks, and unfortunately defaced by more recent visitors. The path ends back at Reed Ranch Fire Road. Turn left and retrace your steps to the previous junction.
     Continue straight onto the Phyllis Ellman Loop Trail
. The hiking-only trail descends through rocky grassland; it seems easier to stay on course going downhill. The bare hillside near post number 14 provides your best bet for glimpses of the Tiburon mariposa lilies when they bloom in May. Stay on the established paths and do not run the risk of trampling these rare flowers. The trail used to split just in front of post 14, but now the official route is to the left. Follow the occasional arrow sign as the trail winds downhill. Off to the right, a single buckeye asserts itself with lovely blossoms in May. Phyllis Ellman Loop TrailSan Pedro Mountain sits beside China Camp State Park to the north; the view is unobstructed. A colorful toyon tree sits on the edge of the trail beside a stream descending melodiously through the sloping meadow. Birds chatter, sing, and soar through the skies; hawks and vultures generally can be seen near the ridge top, while scrub jays noisily protect their territory near the oak and California bay trees, and red-winged blackbirds swoop through the marsh. When you return to the previously encountered junction with the other branch of the loop trail at 1.98 miles, bear left, and retrace your steps back to the roadside parking on Paradise Drive.

Total distance: 2.16 miles
Last hiked : May 10, 2013
Previous visits: January 20, 2006, March 9, 2004, May 16, 2001