Sky Oaks Trailhead,
Mount Tamalpais/Marin Municipal Water District,
Marin County
In brief:
3.5 mile loop through the low foothills of Mount Tamalpais.

Distance, category, and difficulty
:
This 3.5 mile loop hike is easy, although there are a few short steep stretches on the tour through Pilot Knob. Total elevation change is about 500 feet. Trailhead elevation is about 740 feet. This hike climbs to about 1180 feet, then descends back to linger around 740-800 feet.

Exposure
:
Mix of sun and shade.

Trail traffic
:
Moderate.

Trail surfaces
:
Dirt fire roads and trails.

Hiking time
:
2 1/2 hours.

Season
:
Hot in summer, nice in spring.

Getting there
:
From US 101 in Marin County, exit San Anselmo/Sir Francis Drake. Drive about 5 miles west on Sir Francis Drake to Fairfax. Turn left on Pastori, make the first right onto Broadway, and then drive a few blocks and turn left onto Bolinas. Drive about 1.5 miles and turn left onto Sky Oaks Road (signed to Lake Lagunitas). Drive to the end of the paved road, following the signs to Lake Lagunitas. If possible, park near the pit toilets.

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3756'55.88"N
Longitude
12235'50.28"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, restaurants, and stores in Fairfax, about 1.5 miles east. No camping.

Trailhead details:
$8 entrance fee (self register if kiosk is unattended). Lots of parking in several lots. There are designated handicapped parking spaces, and trails are accessible to wheelchairs, although poorly suited to them. Wheelchair-accessible pit toilets in the center of the parking lot. No maps at the trailhead (you can purchase a map at the entrance kiosk if it is staffed). There's one drinking fountain in the picnic area, and a pay phone near the old restrooms. There is no direct public transportation to this trailhead.

Rules:
Watershed is open from sunrise to sunset. Most trails are multi-use, but a few restrict bicycles. A handful of trails are designated hiking only. Dogs are permitted, on leash, in lands managed by the water district, but not in the state park.

The Official Story:
Sky Oaks Ranger Station: 415-945-1181
MMWD recreation page

Map Choices:
Trail map from MMWD (pdf)
A Rambler's Guide to the Trails of Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands, published by the Olmsted & Bros. Map Co., is probably the best map for this section of Tam (order this map from Amazon.com). For small, obscure trails, use it in conjunction with Tamalpais Trails.
Mount Tam Trail Map, published by Tom Harrison Maps (order from Tom Harrison Maps). Comparable to the Olmsted map.
Tamalpais Trails, by Barry Spitz (order this book from Amazon.com), has an excellent map (unfortunately without topography), and detailed descriptions of all Tam trails.
Hiking Marin, by Don and Kay Martin, has some terrific, but small maps (order this book from Amazon.com).

Sky Oaks in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.

View the most recent photos from the featured hike.
View 80 photos from the featured hike



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Sky Oaks Trailhead is the gateway to three much-loved Marin County man-made lakes, Alpine, Bon Tempe, and Lagunitas. Photo of the Sky Oaks Trailhead Fishing is a popular past-time here, particularly around Bon Tempe Lake, while the trail around Lake Lagunitas is heavily used by Marin moms pushing baby strollers, and older folks enjoying the flat grade. As there is no trail all the way around Alpine Lake, it is the least visited of the three, although Kent Trail, which covers about 2 miles of Alpine's shoreline, allows for long loops hikes up the north slope of the mountain, and then partially around Alpine Lake. Phoenix Lake, which is most commonly reached by Natalie Greene Park in Ross, is a possible destination from the Sky Oaks Trailhead; it's about 1 mile and more than 500 feet downhill from Sky Oaks.
     Sky Oaks is one of my favorite Mount Tamalpais trailheads. Lakeview Fire Road On every visit I feel transported far from the bay area; the lakes and the trees remind me of a Sierra destination. Although this is a busy, heavily used part of the mountain, there's lots of room to find a quiet trail, and the abundance of animals makes me feel like I'm in the wilderness. On my last two hikes, I saw lots of deer and several wild turkeys. According to the self-reported wildlife sightings board at the edge of the Lake Lagunitas parking lot, "you are not alone." Trail users have seen coyote, bobcats, river otter, lots of turkeys, a coyote trying to catch turkeys, and even mountains lions. So even though the trails around the lakes may feel crowded, there are a lot of obscure trails that travel far from the trailhead, and you can find special places to hang out and watch the wildflowers, birds, and animals.Pilot Knob Trail
     There are many possible loop hikes from Sky Oaks. The easiest loops are the almost completely flat trails that run along Bon Tempe and Lagunitas Lakes. Bon Tempe Trail makes a nearly 4 mile circuit around Bon Tempe, and Lake Lagunitas Fire Road and Lakeview Fire Road travel the shores of Lake Lagunitas in a less than 2 mile loop. For more challenging hikes with some elevation gain and loss, head uphill on Collier Trail or Rock Spring-Lagunitas Fire Road, and after savoring views to the north, cut across the mountain on Northside Trail, then hike downhill on the trail of your choice. It's possible to ascend all the way to Tam's East Peak by taking Lakeview Fire Road and then Eldridge Grade; a climb of about 1800 feet in about 4.5 miles (one way). Photo of Pilot Knob TrailA tangle of trails wind from Bon Tempe and Lagunitas Lakes to Phoenix Lake, traveling through chaparral, meadows, and deep woods. Any number of loops could be woven together from the threads of Concrete Pipeline, Fish Grade, Shaver Grade, Madrone, and Pumpkin Ridge trails. Whatever trails you choose, unless you are familiar with the area, consider taking 2 maps along. Although most trails are signed, some aren't, and it's easy to get turned around in the woods.
     For the featured hike, start at the parking lot near the Lagunitas picnic area. There are two information signboards here: one recording wildlife sighting, near the picnic area, and a second, mostly devoted to fishing issues, near the old restrooms. Head toward the fishing signboard, and look for the signed start of Lakeview Fire Road. Walk uphill to the left on Lakeview, and then after about 250 feet from the parking lot, continue straight past a signed junction with a private road.
     The wide multi-use trail ascends at a moderate grade. In spring, blue-purple Douglas iris bloom beneath madrone, tanoak, and redwood. False lupine is common in May. View from the top of Pilot KnobAt about 0.10 mile, at a signed junction, Lakeview Fire Road continues to the right, on its way to the shores of Lake Lagunitas. Turn left onto Pilot Knob Trail.
     The trail, open to equestrians and hikers only, passes through grassy spots, but mostly travels through the shade of madrone, coast live oak, tanoak, and Douglas fir. Look for Indian warrior, zigadene, shooting stars, hound's tongue, California buttercup, milkmaids, bluedicks, blue-eyed grass, and irises in late March and early April. I once saw a female turkey shuffling through dry leaves along the side of the trail; according to the wildlife sightings board, turkey sightings are commonplace on Pilot Knob Trail. The trail passes through a clearing, and Lake Lagunitas can be glimpsed downhill to the right. Narrow Pilot Knob Trail darts through some trees and then enters another meadow, with a terrific view of Tam's East Peak. Then the trail leaves the grassland behind and returns to the trees. Look for a giant madrone off the left side of the trail, at 0.27 mile. Lakeview Fire RoadThe path narrows as it climbs gradually through madrone, redwood, and tanoak. Huckleberry and hazelnut bushes thrive on the sides of the trail. The tree cover breaks on the left side of the trail once, revealing a view north to Worn Springs Trail and Bald Hill. At 0.34 mile, the trail crests, and from an unsigned junction, the path to Pilot Knob departs on the right. Turn right.
    
The narrow path ascends at a moderate grade, although the pace picks up near the top. The trail ascends through a thick cover of tanoak, Douglas fir, and madrone, but as the trail leaves the woods at 0.41 mile, you'll reach an open hilltop, with some ferns mixed through grassland. There are fantastic views in every direction except to the northeast. On a clear day, Mount Diablo looms to the east, and the ridge leading to Mount Tam's East Peak seems a stones-throw away. Lake Lagunitas is at your feet. The blue waters of Bon Tempe Lake shine to the northwest and Pine Mountain stands to the north. Photo of Lagunitas Fire RoadFor very little hiking effort, Pilot Knob provides outstanding vistas and the kind of peace and quiet that enables you to loose yourself for a few minutes. When you're ready to continue, retrace your steps back to Pilot Knob Trail, at 0.48 mile, and then turn right.
     From here, the trail is nearly all downhill, through a redwood, tanoak and madrone forest. One particularly huge twin-trunked redwood stands out on the left side of the trail. As you draw near the end of Pilot Knob Trail, vegetation shifts to grassland beneath coast live oaks. After a short ascent, the path drops down to a junction at 0.66 mile. Turn right onto Lakeview Fire Road.
     This broad multi-use fire road sweeps toward Lake Lagunitas. Mixed in with the grass on the sides of the trail are madrone, coyote brush, and toyon. In early spring, yellow suncups bloom along with strawberry, and later in May you might see mule ear sunflowers, wild rose, and checkerbloom. You may notice pineapple-sized pinecones lying on the sides of the trail. Photo of Sky Oaks-Lagunitas TrailThese are from coulter pines,which are not native to Marin County. Some large stumps attest to the removal of the pines, but a few cones remain. I've seen jackrabbits on and along the trail here in spring. At 1.10 miles, Lagunitas Fire Road begins at a signed junction. Note the cute salamander sign made by local school kids. Turn left onto Lagunitas Fire Road.
      The wide multi-use fire road crosses the East Fork of Lagunitas Creek on the first of three bridges encountered around the south shore of Lake Lagunitas. As Lagunitas Fire Road runs along the shore, look to the right and back for a lovely view of Pilot Knob. On the left side of the trail, mission bells and milkmaids bloom in early spring. Later, in May, you might see woodland star, blue larkspur, creamcups, serviceberry, and wild rose. Creambush is a common trailside shrub, and there is some poison oak. The trail enters the shade of redwoods. Tiny Lagunitas Fire Trail departs unannounced on the left side of the trail, at 1.33 miles -- you have to really be looking to find it. Continue straight on Lagunitas Fire Road.
     The trail keeps a level pace through this quiet area. Sky Oaks-Lagunitas TrailJust before the Middle Fork of Lagunitas Creek trickles into Lake Lagunitas(the second bridge) at 1.50 miles, Colier Trail climbs uphill to the left, from a signed junction. Continue to the right on Lagunitas Fire Road.
     Trillium and western heart's ease light up the understory in spring. The fire road climbs slightly, then levels off again. You'll cross the third bridge, over the West Fork of Lagunitas Creek. At 1.79 miles, Rock Spring-Lagunitas Fire Road sets out on the left side of the trail at a signed junction. Continue right on Lagunitas Fire Road.
    A few steps later, at 1.88 miles, the trail splits at an unsigned junction near the damned end of Lake Lagunitas. You can go either way: to the left the fire road ends at a gate and the parking lot. Stay to the right.
     The path curves right and reaches an elevated platform. This is a great place to spy on ducks and other lake wildlife. On my last hike I saw 7 turtles of various sizes sunning themselves on logs in the lake. At the edge of the platform, at 1.99 miles, look left along the side of the spillway. Turn left.Photo of Madrone Trail
     After a few stone steps, the path eases up as it follows downhill along the spillway. Once over a footbridge you'll enter the picnic area. Aim for the parking lot to the left. At 2.08 miles, you should reach the lot. Walk through the lot, past the pit toilets and to the left of the old barn-like building, and continue to a little parking lot cul-de-sac near the end of Lagunitas Fire Road. A trail that runs around Bon Tempe Lake departs straight ahead. Step over the log barrier onto the trail.
     Although the trail is unsigned, you'll be walking on Sky Oaks-Lagunitas Trail. Keeping to a flat grade, the broad trail reaches the shores of Bon Tempe Lake, then stays there. At 2.25 miles, this path seems to end at a broad gravel road. Turn left, and almost immediately turn onto a faint path on the right side of the road.
     This continuation of Sky-Oaks Lagunitas Trail is signed "no bikes/horses ok." The narrow trail picks its way through redwood, Douglas fir, tanoak, and madrone. Photo of Pumpkin Ridge TrailThere are numerous snags and charred tree stumps along the trail. At 2.54 miles, the trail reaches the paved road near a small parking area. Cross the road. The path climbs a few feet, then bends left and runs through grassland along the road. In early spring you may see California poppy, shooting stars, and California buttercup sprinkled throughout the grass. Sky Oaks-Lagunitas Trail dips down to a redwood grove near a restroom. Stay to the left as a faint path runs to the right through the trees.
    The path rises into grassland, and at 2.80 miles, the trail splits at an unmarked junction before a thicket of poison oak. This is a very easy junction to miss. Sky Oaks-Lagunitas Trail continues to the left. Turn right onto Madrone Trail.
    
The trail is fairly well-established at the start, but can be hard to follow as it ascends through grassland. Look for white brodiaea in May. Madrone Trail ascends through a narrow gully-like shoot dug out of the hillside, then crests. Madrone Trail joins Pumpkin Ridge Trail at an unsigned junction at2.95 miles. Turn right.Returning, along the shore of Bon Tempe Lake
    The two trails runs together for a few feet, until, at a signed junction, Madrone continues downhill to the left. Stay to the right on Pumpkin Ridge Trail.
     Pumpkin Ridge Trail is another reliable spring wildflower route. In the shade of madrone, tanoak, Douglas fir, and coast live oak, look for Indian warrior, hound's tongue, irises, and milkmaids in March and April. The trail, open to hikers and equestrians, climbs a bit, then levels off. Pumpkin Ridge Trail descends on some stairs, passing one extra-twisty madrone growing on the right side of the trail. Coast live oaks frame a view of Tam's peaks. Sky Oaks Road is visible as Pumpkin Ridge Trail drops through the edge of a meadow and then ends at about 3.26 miles. Cross the street.
    
Walk down an unnamed gravel road. The grade is level. At 3.38 miles, you'll return to a previously encountered junction. Turn left onto Sky Oaks-Lagunitas Trail, and retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Total distance: 3.54 miles
Last hiked: Monday, May 13, 2002