The brochure claimed the elevation gain on the Tiburon Ridge hike was only 500 feet, but we didn't believe it. Our 15-member group of hikers -- all clad in layered clothing -- had to stop to catch its collective breath at the top of the first (of many) steep, grass-and-boulder-covered hills. Three of our party bailed before reaching that hilltop.
We were being led through a section of the wild Marin County Open Space District (www.marinopenspace.org) and the Ring Mountain Preserve (www.bahiker.com/northbayhikes/ringmountain.html) above the Tiburon peninsula by 30-year veteran hiker-guide Paul McKown. Most of his guiding is done for the Sierra Club (including in England and Italy), but this one was under the auspices of the Sebastopol-based Coastwalk (www.coastwalk.org or 707-829-6689).
The 22-year-old nonprofit Coastwalk "helps people experience the California coast in an intimate and respectful way." Essentially, it sponsors hiking, camping and kayaking adventures along the seashore with the intent of raising the public's ecological awareness. Its motto: "Saving the California coast, one step at a time."
There was an entertaining twist to our 5 1/2-hour, eight-mile, ridge-top (which was more like 12 miles). We temporarily left the Open Space District to walk (mostly uphill) through some exclusive residential neighborhoods in Tiburon, past incredible estates adjoining the wilderness area. "We call (the sprawl of multimillion-dollar houses) the 'March of the Mansions,' " McKown said.
One gated mansion showed off its nouveau-riche grandeur in the "front yard" where statues of lions and life-size bronze stags, with coats of arms mounted on exterior walls, were displayed. As we strolled along the manicured streets, we noticed the only people out on a Saturday were landscapers maintaining the lush flora. In wide driveways were parked Ferraris, Bentleys, Hummers, BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and Lexuses. Another twist on this "urban hike" is that it won't be offered by Coastwalk again until next year, though hikers can access the wilderness areas on their own (see the maps on the Web sites).
Mostly, our hike took us across open meadows and narrow wooded passages dotted with yellow, blue and white wildflowers (and bushes of poison oak), up to amazing (though somewhat foggy) vistas of Belvedere and Angel islands, San Francisco, Sausalito, Tiburon, the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, San Francisco and San Pablo bays, the Marin Headlands and Mount Tamalpais, which looms over Mill Valley.
Our return trip to the Blackies Pasture parking lot included a tedious walk on a wind-blown bike path through Tiburon Bay Park.
These upcoming six Coastwalk-sponsored hikes are free, but note that group size is limited and they fill up fast (800-550-6854, ext. 5). However, you can hike them on your own. These books will get you started; also, ask for maps at sporting goods stores such as REI.
* "Hiking Marin: 141 Great Hikes in Marin County" by Don Martin and Kay Martin (Martin, $21.95, 336 pages).
* "The Bay Area Ridge Trail: Ridgetop Adventures Above San Francisco Bay" by Jean Rusmore (Wilderness, $15.95, 264 pages).
* "Open Spaces: Lands of the Marin County Open Space District" by Barry Spitz (Potrero Meadow, $17.95, 262 pages).
Upcoming Coastwalk hikes
* Point Reyes National Seashore Loop, June 3: Plan on an 800-foot elevation gain on the 7.7-mile Bucklin Loop Trail.
* Dipsea Trail Part 1, July 1: The hard-going, four-hour hike goes up and down hills and into Muir Woods before the payoff of great views.
* Dipsea Trail Part 2, Aug. 5: Plan on 10 miles of climbing and descending steep hills, with lunch at Stinson Beach.
* Coast and Ridge Loop, Point Reyes National Seashore, Aug. 13: Tenacity is your best friend on this 14-mile trek along the tops of seaside bluffs, with lunch on a beach.