Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Will you catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge and other landmarks on your trek of the Marin Headlands? Check the weather forecast for a hint.

Fresh Tracks: Marin Headlands trails offer great glimpses, fog permitting

Published: Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012 - 12:34 pm

SAUSALITO – High noon atop the Marin Headlands, I stopped at a junction barely a mile up the Coastal Trail, prime spot for the visual splendors of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, the rocky out- cropping of Angel Island, azure Richardson Bay and even, in the distance, the East Bay hills.

Or so all the guide books promised.

Me? I saw squat.

No, I take that back. I saw a windswept tundra (how's that for guidebook phrasing?) with fog rolling through so close it was as if someone had summoned a Hollywood special-effects crew for maximum shrouding effect.

So thick and fast-moving was the cloud cover that I could barely even make out the rutilant layers of chert – a silica-rich rock formed from plankton fossils – for which the Marin Headlands are known and which inspired the bridge's reddish color.

Have I mentioned, too, that the gale so buffeted my shivering frame that I feared I'd be whooshed up and flung several miles away, like a cow in a twister?

The only thing to do was to keep moving on my appointed 7.5-mile Fresh Tracks loop, hoping the winds would either subside or blow harder and remove the fog so I could gawk and marvel at the eye candy that annually beckons thousands to these blushing bluffs.

Neither happened, alas. The wind blew; the fog kept a-rollin'.

This is what they don't tell you in all the Bay Area hiking and trail-running guidebooks: That the chance of getting a crystal-clear day at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, especially in late summer, is a real crapshoot.

Yes, yes, I checked the forecast beforehand. It called for a clearing of the marine layer by midday, the usual steady wind, a temperature hovering around 60. That's pure bliss for sweltering Sacramentans wanting to escape the heat, but hit-and-miss if you want the bonus of the views.

On the trip down, things looked promising. Crossing Highway 37 from Vallejo to San Rafael, the murk burned off and, once I hit Highway 101, Mount Tamalpais was visible. Good signs. Pockets of sunlight endured into Sausalito, but, emerging from the Waldo Tunnel headed bridgeward, it was socked in.

Did that stop me from gamely setting off on a trek recommended mostly for its views?

No, reader, it did not.

That's because there're more than just pretty vistas to behold at the Marin Headlands, which spans for miles from the bay to the Pacific Ocean and, inland, meets up with the verdant trails of Mount Tam.

Take the chert, for one thing. Who knew such a geologic and marine wonder is etched into the hills? Oh, you tell me scores of kids know that by middle school? Well, it's never too late for a guy to learn.

If you look closely at this rustlike sedimentary rock – really close, with something called a scanning electron microscope – you see the fossils of radiolaria, a single-cell plankton of various bulbous and conical shapes. An electron scanning microscope wouldn't fit in my hydration pack, so I had to take the word of geologists on the GGNRA's website (www.nps.gov/goga).

Chert-colored walls can fascinate only so much but, fortunately, there are other natural wonders along the trails.

During that first 600-foot switchback climb that leads from the Golden Gate Bridge parking lot (Marin-side, of course) to the crest of the Coastal Trail, you pass several signs admonishing you to stay on the designated trails so as not to disturb the fragile habitat of the Mission Blue butterfly, which is purported to flit amid the lupine, coyote bush and red Indian paintbrush.

Fog-saturated though this segment was, I actually saw a few of these endangered butterflies alight. This never happens to me; I never see an imperiled species in its designated area. So this sighting was memorable.

When you reach the first trail junction at 1.1 miles, you want to turn left and continue up the Coastal Trail. A right turn would lead you to the Student Conservation Association Trail, which you'll traverse on the return loop.

You won't want to tarry long here, even if you want to try to discern views through the mist, because the wind smacks you in the face with the force of a good woman scorned.

Keep moving to stop shivering. The next two-tenths of a mile is perhaps the steepest climb of the trek. It's called Slacker Hill, and it's anything but, though wooden stairs lessen the vertical effort. At the point when you can't climb any higher – gosh, that's probably the peak, right? – the guidebooks tell you to look for the "dramatic panorama" of the Pacific.

Uh, forget it. Too foggy.

Moving on, the Coastal Trail then rewards you with a 1.5-mile stretch of gentle, wider downhill, broken up only by a pavement crossing at McCullough Road. By the time you've descended into Rodeo Valley at the three-mile mark, the wind has lessened and the fog is above you. It's still overcast, but pleasant.

You'll need that visibility to find the trailhead for the Rodeo Valley Trail. Maps tell you to cross Bunker Road as well as a dirt parking area and "pick up" the Rodeo Valley Trail.

But construction crews have closed things to a rather narrow entry point to the right, so you need to stay left going parallel to Bunker Road for a hundred feet or so before catching sight of a parking lot to your right, across from the horse stables. The Rodeo trailhead begins there, crossing a bridge. You will want to turn right on the trail – good news, since construction crews have closed the Rodeo Valley Trail to the left that leads to the beach until October for maintenance.

The next half-mile is a pleasant, flat jaunt on a recently resurfaced dirt road. At 4.2 miles, though, the climbing commences for the next mile or so. You are climbing out of the valley back up to the ridgeline, where the rouge chert stands out. The wind and fog return like an unwanted houseguest while you ascend, but at least the wind is at your back.

You finally end the climb at the junction with the SCA Trail, a highlight of the trip. Turn right and hug the hillside of this well-groomed single-track path with a single luxury home you pass beneath.

A crosswind is now buffeting you from the right, blowing into the hillside – better than the alternative. About halfway through the SCA is a too-brief eucalyptus grove, through which you'll traverse a dark canopy, damp and mud-soaked from the fog. Leaving that oasis, it's back to the foggy ridgeline.

Guidebooks say there are "stunning views" of the bridge and downtown San Francisco from that vantage point.

I'll take that on faith.

But as I made the left for the return trip down the Coastal Trail, a strange thing happened. As I rounded the first of several switchbacks, something peaked through the fog. It was the red roofs of Fort Baker, which now houses the Bay Area Discovery Museum. Farther on, unmistakable now, was the Golden Gate Bridge, in all its chert-hued glory.

I had my picture-postcard views. I could finish now.

MARIN HEADLANDS

Rodeo Valley Loop

Sausalito

Directions to trailhead: Take Interstate 80 to Highway 37 in Vallejo, to Highway 101 South. At the last exit before the Golden Gate Bridge toll booth (called the Sausalito exit), exit the freeway. Go left at a stop sign, right onto Conzelman Road, and then an immediate left into the parking lot at the base of the bridge.

Route: The Coastal Trail begins at the north end of the parking lot near a booth (look for sign). On the trail, cross Conzelman road at two-tenths of a mile and continue on the Coastal Trail. At 1.1 miles, go left at the junction to stay on the Coastal Trail. At 1.5 miles, cross McCullough Road, remaining on the Coastal Trail. Veer right at a dirt lot, through a gate and onto the Coastal Trail fire road. At 3.1 miles, go around a white gate and, tenth of a mile later, cross Bunker Road. Turn left on a dirt path paralleling the road for 100 yards until you see a parking area at the trailhead on the right. Cross the bridge and turn right onto Rodeo Valley Trail. Go about 1.5 miles on Rodeo Valley Trail until you turn right on the SCA Trail. Follow that 1 mile to the Coastal Trail. Turn left and retrace your steps to the parking lot.

Difficulty: Moderate (two moderate, extended climbs), but the wind is something to contend with.

Toilets: None at the trailhead, but there is one on the Coastal Trail after crossing McCollough Road.

Water: No.

Parking fee: No. But parking is limited because of tour groups stopping at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Poison oak possibility: It's been known to happen on this trail.

Probability of getting lost: Unlikely, though the Rodeo Valley Trail can be tricky to find during fall construction.

Will there be blood?: No. Footing is firm, even on the single track. But watch out for mountain bikers who ride (illegally) on the singletrack SCA Trail.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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