SAN RAFAEL Rather than beginning this month's Fresh Tracks in medias res atop the Oak Ridge Trail looking down on San Pablo Bay, say, or maybe wending through oak-studded singletrack what say we start at the very start, at a Porta-Potty?
The inside door of a Porta-Potty, to be exact.
Perhaps figuring they had a captive audience, the Friends of China Camp tacked a laminated flier in each facility at its Miwok Meadows picnic area telling park users that, essentially, they'd be you-know-what out of luck if not for the efforts of this nonprofit organization.
It's not just the bathrooms to which they refer. China Camp itself was one of 70 state parks scheduled to be closed as part of a $22 million budget cut. Within weeks of this declaration last spring, a loose affiliation of Marin County residents fishermen, hikers, mountain bike and kayak groups, scores of history buffs formed the Friends of China Camp.
They may have harbored disparate interests, but they united in attempting to save a 1,500-acre park abutting San Pablo Bay that once served as thatched housing tracts for the Coast Miwok Indians, later thrived as a post-Gold Rush Chinese immigrant fishing village and has, since time immemorial, been home to delicate marine and arboreal habitats.
In that four-month effort, Friends of China Camp signed up 1,400 members and raised more than $250,000. And, taking advantage of a 2011 Assembly bill allowing nonprofits to essentially sublet state parks set aside for closure, the group sought to take control of a beautiful and historic village and open space that otherwise would have gone fallow.
The result: a three-year operating agreement allowing Friends of China Camp to keep the gates open, the picnic sites spruced up, the trails groomed and, yes, the Porta-Potties well-stocked and tidy.
Whether the change of operators will translate into more visitors to a traditionally underused park is an open question. But, for now, we should just cheer that it's still open.
Why China Camp is, as the San Francisco Chronicle once called it, "the most overlooked state park in the Bay Area" is a mystery to anyone who has spent a day there. Not only are there fascinating historical remains of the Chinese settlement at China Camp Village on the promontory, but there are gorgeous bayside picnic spots at Weber Point, Buckeye Point and China Camp Point and, at the southernmost point, a beach that draws sunbathers and long-distance swimmers.
Perhaps China Camp's close proximity to Mount Tamalpais, the Muir Woods and the Marin Headlands dwarfs its grandeur, kind of like how the fourth runner-up in a beauty pageant is often overlooked.
Anyone who takes the time to discover China Camp's charms will gain an appreciation. From a trail runner's or hiker's perspective, what China Camp lacks in vertical challenge (à la Mount Tam), it more than makes up in scenic beauty and untrammeled (OK, maybe partially trammeled) singletrack etched into the foothills.
Few other places, it seems, can boast a route that, within minutes, takes you from sea level (tidal marsh and undeveloped shoreline) to a forest (oak, madrone and even the occasional coast redwood) in a 600-foot altitude change.
Another plus: Unlike fog-shrouded Mount Tam and the wind-buffeted Marin Headlands, China Camp features a temperate microclimate thanks to the protective, hilly ridges that block the marine layer and keep temperatures relatively warm in winter (50s) and refreshingly warm in chilly Bay Area summers (70s to 90s).
On the late November morning I visited, it was perhaps the worst weather day the park has seen in some time, with rain muddying the trails. Still, the temperature hovered around 55 degrees, even atop the ridge. I wore shorts and a T-shirt and wasn't the least bit chilled, though I did keep moving to stay warm.
The route we chose was a 6.7-mile loop in the heart of the foothills. It can easily be expanded to 13 miles by adding a wider loop along the northeastern boundary, or whittled to four miles with a cutoff (see box).
Only one hazard exists for those on foot, and that is mountain bikers roaring down the paths with impunity. China Camp is one of the few singletrack trail areas left that allow mountain bikers, and they take advantage of it. That should not be a problem for those hoofing it. I wouldn't advise running with music blaring in your earbuds. It's safer to hear what's coming. Plus, a bevy of birds provides music enough.
Starting from Miwok Meadows you park on the side of North San Pedro Road and go a quarter-mile to the trailhead you travel north from the picnic tables over a bridge and onto the Shoreline Trail, which you'll follow 1.5 miles to the first major junction.
A word about this part of the Shoreline Trail. It is the most utilitarian of trails, well-used by hikers, bikers and equestrians, and its lack of elevation gain makes it sort of blah. But it's a necessary connector to the big trees and lush environment along the ridge. Plus, when we hook up again with the Shoreline for the final two miles, the path livens up considerably.
Upon reaching a three-way junction on the Shoreline, you'll want to make a hard left onto the Back Ranch Trail. You'll only stay on it for 0.4 of a mile, but it's a steep rise most of the way. This segment is a fire road that tends to erode in rain, unlike the spongy singletrack most of the way. So be careful.
By the way, if you miss that sharp left and stay straight at the junction, you'll be adding six miles to your journey, so pay attention.
The trek's highlights await you soon enough on first the Bay View and then the Oak Ridge trails. After making a left from Back Ranch onto Bay View, you will travel 1.6 miles on a slight uphill nothing too lung-busting on mostly singletrack cushioned by fallen bay and oak leaves. Most of this segment is heavily shaded and gives off a primeval feel, with big, fat raindrops falling off overhanging branches. San Pablo Bay is visible at times, too.
It's not until you make a right turn onto the Oak Ridge Trail that the serious eye candy awaits, plus some enjoyable descent. By this point, the rain had let up, and the clouds dissipated. Rounding a corner, you're treated to an expansive view of San Rafael, San Francisco, even parts of lovely Vallejo.
You descend on a series of long switchbacks until the end of Oak Ridge. This puts you briefly on the Peacock Gap Trail. Follow that downhill until you hook up once more with the Shoreline Trail.
Back nearly at sea level, the mostly flat trail winds back to the start, giving you plenty of opportunity to take in the view of the marshland and jutting coastline.
Your mind, on this last stretch, can be excused for wandering, wondering what life was like for the Coast Miwok before the Spanish took their land, or what it was like for the post-Gold Rush Chinese immigrants, before the 1882 Exclusion Act forbade new laborers and diminished the fishing business.
You wonder, too, how the state's Department of Parks and Recreation could have even thought of letting this gem of a park shutter its gates.
All are cases, you think, of man's inhumanity toward man.
CHINA CAMP STATE PARK LOOP
Length: 6.7 miles
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 West to Highway 37 (Vallejo). Travel west to Highway 101 South. Take the North San Pedro Road exit. Follow signs for the Marin County Civic Center and China Camp State Park. Turn left off the freeway and go onto North San Pedro Road. Follow San Pedro Road for about 2.5 miles to the sign for Miwok Meadows Picnic Area. Park on the side of the road and walk up a fire road 0.3 miles to the trailhead.
Route: Start at the Miwok Meadows picnic tables, head north, cross a wooden bridge onto the Shoreline Trail. Take the Shoreline Trail 1.5 miles to a three-way junction. Take a sharp left uphill onto the Back Ranch Trail. Make a left at the Bay View Trail and go 1.6 miles. Take a right on the Oak Ridge Trail for 1.2 miles. The Oak Ridge Trail descends to the Peacock Gap Trail. Continue downhill for a short ways to the Shoreline Trail and turn left. Take the Shoreline Trail back to the start.
Longer trail option (12 miles): At the three-way junction following the first 1.5 miles on the Shoreline trail, continue straight on Shoreline until you reach the Powerline Trail. Go uphill to the signed Bay View Trail. Take Bay View for about 2 miles until you reach the junction with the top of the Back Ranch Trail. Stay right on the Bay View Trail and continue to the Oak Ridge Trail and the rest of the loop.
Shorter trail option (4 miles): From the Miwok Meadows picnic table, go south down the Shoreline Trail for about 0.5 miles to the Miwok Meadow Fire Road. Turn right and go uphill of the fire road for 0.4 miles to the junction of the Bay View and Oak Ridge trails. Turn right onto the Oak Ridge Trail and follow the directions of the original route back to the start.
Difficulty: Moderate (all three distances)
Exposure: Well shaded on most of the singletrack.
Parking fee: Not on side of North San Pedro Road
Poison oak possibility: moderate
Probability of getting lost: Pay attention to signs
Will there be blood? Some of the singletrack is rocky, and it is slick after rains.