Mt. Tamalpais: Matt Davis Trail

May 5, 1996: Mt. Tamalpais State Park

From Pantoll to Stinson Beach by the Matt Davis Trail

See also pp. 96-98 in Spitz, Barry, Tamalpais Trails, San Anselmo: Potrero Meadow Publishing Co., 1995 (3rd ed.).

There are three or four routes from Pantoll to Stinson Beach. The southernmost takes you south along the Old Mine Trail to a junction with the Dipsea Trail and fire road, then west along these until the trail crosses the Steep Ravine Trail, and finally into Stinson Beach along the route described in the hike of March 10, 1996. The most popular, and possibly the most beautiful, is the Steep Ravine Trail, described in that same hike. But you can also cross the Panoramic Highway, go north along the Coastal Trail, and then drop into the center of Stinson Beach along the western end of the Matt Davis Trail. This is what I, my daughter Esther and my son David did on the date above.

How to Get There

Follow the route given in the Steep Ravine hike of March 10, 1996.

Just down the Pantoll parking lot from its upper end you'll find a set of wooden steps running up from a Bay Area Ridge Trail sign, between a couple of small Douglas firs. At the top you cross the Panoramic Highway (look right! look left!), then climb on up the slope over rock stops, past a big lichen-covered Douglas fir on the left, almost all the way to the entrance from the West Ridge highway. Turn left, past a sign warning of rattlesnakes, and cross a brushy hillside with occasional Douglas firs and the sound of cars from the Panoramic Highway below.

At about 300 meters you cross a rock culvert and enter a Douglas fir forest. The Douglas fir, thick on the edges, thins a bit as you get deeper into the wood, contouring along relatively level trails in and out of ravines where rivulets flow down toward their ultimate confluence with Webb Creek in the bottom of Steep Ravine. There are occasional views upslope where the forest opens out, to show the grassy meadows of the West Ridge. At about 800 meters you pass a rocky bluff with moss and ferns growing out of it to your right, and then make a rocky stream crossing past the huge roots of a fallen tree to your left.

Just beyond here, watch for a little meadow carpeted (in-season) with tiny purple flowers. A little further on a large madrone overhangs the trail, then three laurels whose upper ends seem to have been grabbed by a log plunging downhill make a triple arch under which you pass. At one and a quarter kilometers the trail is almost blocked by rocks and trees, but you, like hundreds before, will crowd through with no real problems. Curve on around to the right, pass through more ravines, watch for groves of oak and buckeyes. Douglas fir starts to become predominant again -- watch for one specimen, to your right, fallen but hung up on other trees about thirty degrees above the ground.

At a little more than one and three quarters kilometers you'll emerge onto a grassy slope, perhaps in a light mist. Color is provided by clover, scarlet pimpernel, thistles and poppies. Continue to contour around two knolls to your right; the second, with a significant rock outcropping, looks like a good place to take a break, but I recommend turning left on a made path up an isolated hump to the left, beyond whose sumit you can also find a grove of trees.

This knoll gives beautiful of Mt. Tam to east and north, the Marin and San Mateo coasts to the south, and the Pacific Ocean -- with the Stinson Beach spit and Bolinas -- to the west. It will often be shrouded in fog, though, especially in spring, summer and fall. If you know how to arrange for the fog to dissipate -- this can be done, though as a Caltech grad I probably shouldn't say so -- do your best; the views are worth the effort.

Another tip about resting here -- if you lie flat on the ground, you'll be in the surface friction layer, pretty much out of the wind; you can stretch your arm up and feel a twenty-mile-per-hour breeze off the ocean on your hand, while your body is buried in relatively stagnant air, warming in the sunlight.

When you're done resting, viewing, and just generally lollygagging, drop back down to the col between knolls and continue north past the ridge trail signpost. Pass a lupine-covered hillside, then enter a narrow canyon with a forest in the bottom. Emerging from the canyon, duck under the limb of a laurel, emerge onto the hillside again, and find yourself at a trail junction, where the Matt Davis Trail sign points to the left toward Stinson Beach. Follow that trail.

At two and a half kilometers you'll enter another forested canyon, with lots of ferns, and yet another two hundred meters beyond this, the latter with a large, horizontal laurel tree. Just beyond this you come out onto a grassy side ridge. When you pass a sign warning of a buried cable on your left -- you'll have to turn to read it; it's aimed at people coming up -- you short a short, steep descent, which at just under three kilometers will take you into a forest on the north side of the ridge; if you have good ears you can hear the sound of a little stream coming up from the depths of the ravine to your right.

My notes show 18 switchback legs over the next 1.8 kilometers as you descend into the ravine through which the stream flows. High up you have open forest and occasional patches of huge miner's lettuce; further down, lots of ferns and some Douglas iris to provide color. Along some of the lower legs -- which seem to get progressively steeper -- there are wooden fence rails to help keep you from tumbling over the side. Then, at 4.8 kilometers, you come to Table Rock. There used to be a rattlesnake warning sign here, but it is gone, apparently because of the one up by Pantoll.

Table Rock lies just to the right of the trail -- a stone shelf high above the forested canyon, with breathtaking views out over Stinson Beach and the spit and Bolinas. If the rock isn't filled up with hikers, there are several boulders atop it on which you can sit and enjoy the view, and even eat lunch if you'd like.

When you're done, return to the trail and follow the fence down two more relatively steep switchback legs to the bottom of Table Rock, a huge bluff overhanging the trail on the right. Stop and take a look at the ferny dell here, with two branches of the stream flowing over rock faces in small cataracts.

At just over five kilometers you'll cross the stream on a wooden bridge in a shady dell. In less than a hundred meters you emerge from the forest above Stinson Beach. Lupine, morning glory and Indian paint brush abound. Follow a narrow trail through high grass and brush. You'll also see sage, poppies and sticky monkey flower here; but in season it is the morning glories that dominate everything.

Warning! Those rattlesnake warning signs are not there just to frighten the tourists. A year and a half ago my granddaughter, then four years old, discovered a nest of rattlesnakes in this very area, just downslope from the trail. As far as I know, the rattlesnakes that live here are not particularly aggressive, and will tend to avoid you if you are too big to swallow; but if you step on one, I can't answer for its temper.

A ways down the hillside, heading north, you enter woods again, switchback downhill, and cross another stream on a wooden bridge. Beyond the bridge the hillside opens out again, and shortly you cross yet another wooden bridge. A little way beyond this you switchback to the left past a "Caution -- Rattlesnake Area" sign, and very shortly you fetch up against a cross trail.

If you follow the right-hand trail, you'll end up high up in Stinson Beach and have to find your way down to the center. Go left, cross another bridge, and come to yet another trail junction. The left-hand trail here climbs out into the open and devolves into a partly-overgrown track. The right-hand trail continues on down through shady forest, with occasional traverses of open hillside, until, at about six kilometers, it enters a particularly dark and gloomy wood consisting of large boulders and thick trees. Despair not -- just beyond, you cross a wooden bridge and emerge past a trail sign onto Belvedere Ave. Turn left and very shortly, after passing the Casa del Mar bed and breakfast inn on your right (stop to look at their remarkable garden) and the Community Center on your left, you'll find yourself at State Highway 1, the Shoreline Highway, in the middle of Stinson Beach. To get to the parking/picnic area, turn left up the highway, cross the bridge, and turn right on the next side road -- the same road you traveled down on hikes along Steep Ravine and the Dipsea Trail.

Don Harlow

Map is excerpted from the brochure "Mount Tamalpais State Park", © 1994 by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, available for $1 at Pantoll Ranger Station.

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