Circumstances recently compelled me to be deep in Marin County with a few hours to kill – long story, not worth it – so I planned ahead for once and sought to squeeze in an invigorating trip on the trails.
Mount Tamalpais, everyone’s go-to destination, would have taken too long to reach and traverse, given time limitations. But I grabbed my handy copy of Jessica Lage’s “Trail Runner’s Guide: San Francisco Bay Area” and flipped to the 21 trails listed for Marin County. I settled upon a 9.6-mile steady, but not especially steep, loop course up to Barnabe Mountain, starting from Samuel P. Taylor State Park. There’s this bonus, too: You can slip into the campgrounds and take a shower afterward.
Just when I was pulling into the park entrance, congratulating myself on such foresight, I was greeted with some disappointing news from the ranger at the kiosk. She told me that Bill’s Trail, essentially the first 4 miles of the trek, was closed for maintenance. Had been since summer. She mentioned something about erosion and protecting the spotted owls and added it might be a year before the California Conservation Corps reopens it.
So much for my plan. As I sat behind the wheel with a panicked look the ranger probably only sees in fawns caught in headlights, I figured I at least could pass along to loyal Fresh Tracks readers the lesson that, when selecting hikes from outdated guidebooks (this one from 2003), it might be wise to call ahead to park offices to determine if, you know, the trail still freakin’ exists.
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“You wanted to go to Mount Barnabe?” the ranger asked, looking at the open book on my passenger’s seat. “You can still do that, you know.”
What followed was an elaborate explanation about how I could still ascend to Barnabe Peak and complete most of the second half of the route. I made her repeat it three times, and it went something like this:
“Park at the day use area just past the kiosk, walk on the paved park road and, just before the bridge, turn right at a gate where the dumping station is at. That’ll get you to the North Creek Trail, and you go a ways before you see a path up to cross the road (Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a traffic major artery) to the Madrone picnic area. Keep following the road and signs’ll eventually start pointing to Barnabe. Turn and start climbing. Can’t miss it.”
Got all that?
Well, I wasn’t at all sure of myself when I set off, but since I’m here to tell the tale, you can probably discern I sussed out the directions.
Actually, the ranger was spot-on, even about the length of this abridged trek (6 miles, as it turned out). Except she failed to mention that the climb up to Barnabe was steep – nosebleed, lung-searingly steep. Oh, how I longed for the “gradual climb on long switchbacks through shady forests,” according to the guidebook, on the cordoned-off Bill’s Trail.
As I climbed 1,329 feet over the first 2.1 miles on a winding fire road sans trees and creeks and enveloped in a dense fog even in late morning, I repeated snatches of prose from the guidebook’s description of Bill’s – the trail not taken:
Guidebook: “Lush foliage thrives beneath dense tree-cover.”
My experience: Huff, huff … All I see is rocks sticking up out of the dirt road.
Guidebook: “Verdant moss cloaks bay laurel trunks.”
My experience: Huff, huff, huff … Another barren switchback with the faint outline of a single bay laurel through the scrim of fog.
Guidebook: “(S)witchbacks … on a gentle grade, crossing a number of wooden bridges.”
My experience: Huff, huff, huff, huff …
Near the peak, I reached the junction of the Barnabe Trail and Bill’s Trail. It was indeed closed, with yellow caution tape stretched between two posts. From there, it’s only 0.3 miles to the fire lookout at the peak, where the guidebook promised views of Mount Tamalpais, Point Reyes and the Tomales Bay. The view for me: a bank of fog.
Once you hit the peak, the rest of the course is the same as advertised and definitely worth the drive out to Marin County: a 1,200-foot descent over the next 1.7 miles, weaving in and out of copses of trees, then a winding single track on the riding and hiking trail that parallels Lagunitas Creek. It’s a beautiful stretch that makes up for (mostly) the closure of Bill’s Trail.
The course, albeit shortened, still was a nice respite from the notorious Marin County traffic and, once more, it proved this adage: There is no such thing as a bad trail.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park – Barnabe Mountain
Trail length: 6 miles (loop)
Elevation gain: 1,462 feet
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to Highway 37 in Vallejo to Highway 101 South. Exit 1001 at Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and drive 16.2 miles west to the entrance to Samuel P. Taylor State Park.
Route: From the visitor’s parking lot, go 0.1 of a mile on the paved road and make a right at a metal gate leading to a fire road used by park personnel. Look for a single-track trail, the North Creek Trail and follow for 0.5 miles until you see a gravel path about 15 feet in length that leads to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Carefully cross the street and rejoin the trail at a sign posted for Madrone picnic area. Follow the road uphill until reaching the signed Barnabe Trail. Turn right at the junction and follow the trail 1.2 miles to the fire lookout. Retrace steps 0.1 of a mile to return to the fire road. Go right on the Ridge Trail (not marked) and descend 1.9 miles to the riding and hiking trail (also marked on signs “To Irving Picnic Area.”) Go 0.9 miles, making several right turns, on the trail, then return to the trailhead.
Parking: $10 (unless you have a state parks “Poppy” pass)