Blithedale Ridge sounds like something out of the Brontë sisters, all wind-swept heaths and brooding hedgerows fraught with romance and intrigue. It’s not, of course. But work with me, people, I’m trying to make this trail sound appealing to those Sacramento flatlanders who really can’t be bothered to drive all the way deep into Marin County just for a hilly jaunt.
Actually, Blithedale Ridge, the highest point on the trail you’ll reach in this month’s Fresh Tracks installment, needs no puffing up and embellishing.
Looming in the northeast shadow of Mount Tamalpais, it is a star attraction of the Marin County Open Space District. And, like most stars, it’s so special it goes by many names – Baltimore Canyon, King Mountain, Camino Alto. But I prefer Blithedale, not only for its patrician, blue-blood sound (we are talking, remember, about one of the wealthiest enclaves in the Bay Area) but because the peak of the trek (only at 970 feet, but still …) comes at Blithedale Summit, where the views of the bay and equally monied Tiburon are screen-saver worthy.
On a good day, it’ll take about two hours to make the drive from Sacramento. Let me assure you, it is worth it, if only for the rubber-neck gawking at the lovely, sprawling manses you’ll pass on the winding drive up Evergreen Drive to the trailhead. This open space abutting the mountain is as close as you can get to Mount Tam without making an even longer and windier drive, hell for those of us with motion sickness. Blithedale can even serve as a starting point for those ultra-distance folks who want to connect with a mighty climb to Tam’s trails.
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But the 6.5-mile jaunt I’m advocating gives you a little bit of everything. Let me tick them off for you in 6.5 examples:
1) Cozy, tree-engulfed, single-track climbing on the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail that immediately transports you away from civilization and the highly civilized swells who hole up in those trophy houses below.
2) Cool trail names, such as Hoo-Koo-E-Koo. I mean, is that great or what?
3) Wide, well-groomed fire roads that aren’t so rocky that you cannot appreciate the gorgeous views of the San Pablo Bay and laugh at the poor suckers stuck on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge during the morning commute.
4) Two extreme and prolonged single-track downhills – on the Huckleberry and Barbara Spring trails – that will satisfy the jones of any adrenaline junkie who feels it’s no big deal to donate blood to the trail gods.
5) A lush and moist mile-long cruise on a spongy dirt-, leaf- and needle-packed trail (named Dawn Falls) running parallel to Larkspur Creek, which features a waterfall and even some redwoods. A small waterfall, especially in these drought-stricken times, but a waterfall nonetheless.
6) A nice pulse-pounding set of switchbacks up to the finish to make you feel as if you’ve really accomplished something.
6.5) Great people-watching. Weekends, Blithedale and environs get really busy, but even if you go, say, on a Wednesday morning, you will see the local denizens in their natural habitat and see how the other 1 percent live.
Though I didn’t keep count, it was no exaggeration to say I encountered 15 women of youngish middle-age, dressed in nearly identical black Lululemon yoga pants walking their dogs off-leash in blatant violation of the posted regulation. A good 80 percent of said dogs were black Labradors, the rest yellow Labs or Labradoodles, with the occasional goofy golden retriever thrown in. (As the bumper sticker on one car parked at the trailhead boasted: “I Like Big Mutts And I Cannot Lie.”)
I must say the pack of unshackled Labs was exceedingly well behaved. Good thing, too, because their yoga-panted human companions either were deep in conversation on their cellphones (one snippet of conversation I overheard while loping by: “She’s third-trimester fat!”) or cut off from the natural world via ear buds.
They must have had the music volume pumped up to 11, because no less than three women almost jumped out of their aforementioned yoga pants when I announced “on your left” and passed them. I waved to another ear-budded power-strider as I traversed the Blithedale Ridge fire road, trying to find the Corte Madera Ridge fire road cutoff. Not five feet after I passed her, I decided to ask her for directions.
“Excuse me,” I said.
She kept walking.
She kept walking.
“HEY, WHERE’S CORTE MADERA FIRE ROAD?”
I eventually found the Corte Madera Ridge junction, no thanks to her. But perhaps I’m being churlish. It’s well within your rights to blot out those annoying sounds of nature (the trill of jays, the sqwuak of hawks, the bloodthristy snarl of a mountain lion) and blare Taylor Swift to your heart’s content.
Just kidding about the mountain lions, by the way. Although a sign is posted, as it is on nearly every Northern California trial, there were no cougar spottings (unless you count the Lululemon-clad moms with Labs). I did see, however, several salamanders on the Dawn Falls trail near one of the three bridges you cross over Larkspur Creek. They looked a little thirsty, I must say. The Dawn Falls trail is a highlight of the trek, and I’m told it is a thing of beauty to follow the trail upstream when it’s near full flow and brimming with steelheads.
You’ll enjoy the Dawn Falls segment, which comes last, because for most of the trail it’s relatively flat and has the aforementioned ridge crossings, kind of superfluous when I visited in early March, since you could’ve walked across the creek beds.
The hike’s major climbs come at the very start when you veer onto the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo and then continue with a series of semi-taxing rollers on the Blithedale fire road. The final climb, and it’s a doozy, are those switchbacks that bring you out of Dawn Falls and the Baltimore Canyon back to the main fire road and the trailhead.
(Petulant aside: Why do trail builders feel it necessary to implant wooden stairs on switchbacks? Sure, the climb is steep and all, but, for me, it makes climbing much harder. The steps are never properly spaced, at least for short-legged people; better just to let people use the jutting rocks and roots as anchor.)
Speaking of footing, the two extreme downhills on the single-track Huckleberry and Barbara Spring can be treacherous, although the Huckleberry gratefully sandwiches some reasonably flat stretches between its descents, a respite during which you can actually take your eyes off the ground and appreciate the verdant flora, the mossy rocks, the manzanita, madrone, oak and, of course, huckleberry.
It’s best to look up as often as is safe throughout the 6.5-mile journey, lest you miss catching sight of a lovely bay laurel or big-leaf maple or accidentally crash headlong into an uber-friendly, slobbering Lab whose owner’s disapproving smile is as tight and pinched as her Lululemon yoga pants.
BLITHEDALE RIDGE, KENTFIELD
Trail length: 6.5 miles
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 west. Take Highway 101 south and exit at Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Drive 2 miles west and turn left at College Avenue. At the first stop sign, turn right on Woodland Road and, at the next stop sign, a left on Evergreen Drive. Go 1 mile on Evergreen and turn left on Crown Road. Go 0.2 of a mile until the road dead-ends. Parking is allowed on one side of the street.
Route: Go about 20 feet on Crown Fire Road and make a quick right uphill on the single track Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail. Follow that trail uphill for 0.9 of a mile until it hits the Blithedale Ridge fire road. (Note: There is no sign identifying that it’s Blithedale Ridge Road). Turn left and go about 1 mile before turning left on the Corte Madera Ridge fire road (which also isn’t signed). Go slightly more than 0.1 of a mile. Turn left on the single-track Huckleberry Trail and follow it downhill for 0.6 of a mile. At the junction, turn left on the Crown fire road (also known as the Southern Marin Line fire road). Go 1.2 miles and turn right on the Barbara Spring Trail. At the junction, turn left on the Dawn Falls Trail and take it until it ends at the Crown/Southern Marin fire road. The last portion of the Dawn Falls Trail is a series of switchbacks. Turn right and return to trailhead.
Difficulty: Moderate. Many roots and rocks on single-track.
Exposure: Mix of sun and shade
Parking: Free, on street
Probability of getting lost: Pay attention. The single-track trails are marked with signposts, but the two wide fire trails are not.
Will there be blood? The extreme downhills can be tricky.