Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Barnabe Peak

Tomales Bay and Olema Valley from Barnabe Peak
7 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Samuel P. Taylor State Park entrance fee required

A panorama of redwood-choked valleys, grassy ridges, saltwater bays, and distant high peaks can be seen from the summit of Barnabe Peak, a low but prominent summit in Marin County in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. The grassy summit of Barnabe Peak, which is topped with an off-limits lookout tower, is the highest point in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. The loop hike ascending from the park’s main visitor area to the summit packs a good workout on the way to the summit’s excellent views, then visits a patch of old growth redwoods on its return leg. While not the most unique hike in Marin County, this peak’s great views and the variety on this hike makes it a good alternative to the more crowded Marin County trails in the Marin Headlands or out at Point Reyes. Like most Bay Area hikes, this trail is most enjoyable in the winter and spring, when the grassy hills are green and temperatures are moderate.

I hiked Barnabe Peak on a nice day in early March. To reach the trailhead at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, I took US 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge and left the highway at exit 450B for Sir Francis Drake Blvd; I followed Sir Francis Drake Blvd west for 15 miles past San Anselmo and Fairfax into the mountains until coming to Samuel P. Taylor State Park. I turned left at the main entrance to the park; I took the park road past the entrance kiosk and then parked in the plentiful day use parking on the left side of the road just before the bridge over Lagunitas Creek. The trailhead parking area was under the shade of a second growth redwood forest along the stream, which made for a peaceful and beautiful start to my outing. 

I started my hike from the bridge over Lagunitas Creek by following the North Creek Trail to the north from the northeast corner of the bridge. The single-track North Creek Trail paralleled Lagunitas Creek for a fifth of a mile and then came to a junction for a trail that led up and out to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. I followed the spur trail up to the road; unfortunately, the trail crossed a road with high traffic at this point. I carefully crossed Sir Francis Drake Blvd and came to a spur road leading to the Madrone Group Camp. I followed the paved spur road 300 meters uphill to reach the camp itself; at the far end of the road, an unnamed trail led uphill. I followed this trail briefly uphill to a junction with the Riding and Hiking Trail, where I turned left, following the Riding and Hiking Trail gently uphill to the northeast for about a half mile.

At just under one mile from the trailhead, the Riding and Hiking Trail intersected with the Barnabe Fire Road. I took the right fork here for the Barnabe Fire Road, a wide dirt road which began to ascend steeply. Over the next 1.4 miles, the Barnabe Fire Road ascended over thousand feet as it followed the grassy, open ridge. The high point of the trail was visible ahead of me throughout the climb: Barnabe Peak’s grassy summit was crowned with communications equipment. The trail was very exposed here, which might make hiking less pleasant during hotter months with direct sun; in early spring, the grasses of the mountain were pleasantly green, a nicer look than the yellow and brown hillsides of summer.

Looking up towards the summit of Barnabe Peak
Views that were initially confined to the forested Lagunitas Creek valley and Bolinas Ridge across the valley soon began to expand, encompassing Olema Valley, Tomales Bay, and Black Mountain to the northwest. Tomales Bay separates the Point Reyes Peninsula from the rest of Marin County; it is formed by the underlying San Andreas Fault. The forested Olema Ridge, part of the Point Reyes Peninsula, began to come into view behind Bolinas Ridge as I reached the higher slopes of Barnabe Peak.

View towards forested Bolinas Ridge
Black Mountain, Tomales Bay, and Olema Valley
The Barnabe Fire Road passed an intersection with Bill’s Trail at 2 miles. After this junction, the fire road began a steeper ascent as some final elevation gain brought it to the crest of the ridge at 2.3 miles. Here, the Barnabe Fire Road made a wide, sweeping U-turn, where it intersected with a less worn fire road on the right; the main trunk of Barnabe Fire Road actually continues down this less-obvious path to the right. I continued following the road trace through the U-turn to visit the summit first before continuing along the ridge and a hundred meters later I arrived atop 1466-foot Barnabe Peak, which was crowned with a fire lookout and some communications towers.

Looking south from the summit to Bolinas Ridge and Kent Lake
The fire lookout was closed to the public but the summit still delivered stellar views. In addition to the views of Marin County’s Black Mountain rising above the green grassy hills near Olema Valley and the waters of Tomales Bay, a new panorama to the east greeted me at the summit. The town of San Geronimo lay in the forested valley below to the east. Bolinas Ridge continued to the southeast until cresting at the sharp summit of Mount Tamalpais to the right of San Geronimo, while the twin peaks of Mount Diablo on the other side of San Pablo Bay rose to the left of San Geronimo. This is one of the only places I know of where it’s possible to look in the same direction and see Mount Tam and Mount Diablo at the same time! Even Mount St. Helena was visible, although the view to the north was somewhat blocked by a secondary northern summit of the mountain that lay on private land.

Mount Diablo and Mount Tam, San Geronimo in the valley below
Bolinas Ridge, Olema Ridge, and the Pacific Ocean
Leaving the summit, I backtracked a hundred meters to the big bend in the road on the ridge crest. Here, I took the left fork to head southeast and continue along the Barnabe Fire Road. The fire road continued following the grassy crest of the ridge, offering more nice views of Mount Tam and Bolinas Ridge. Looking back, I was treated to lovely views of the undulating ridge leading up to the Barnabe Peak lookout.

Looking back to the summit of Barnabe Peak
The trail descended constantly over two miles after leaving Barnabe Peak. At first, the trail stayed on grassy hillsides with plenty of views; however, by the 3 mile mark of the hike, the trail had reentered forest. At just under 3.5 miles, I passed a side trail leading down the northeast side of the ridge to San Geronimo; I continued on the Barnabe Fire Road, which soon began to descend much more steeply, making a sharp switchback off the ridge and dropping rapidly to meet the Cross Marin Trail at the bottom of the Lagunitas Creek Valley at 4.3 miles.

Grassy hillsides on Barnabe
At the junction with the Cross Marin Trail, I took the right fork to head north back towards the Samuel P. Taylor State Park trailhead. This flat and wide trail was a dual use hiking and biking path following a railroad trace; the trail ran alongside Lagunitas Creek through second-growth redwood forest, with the busy Sir Francis Drake Blvd parallel to the trail across the creek.

While it’s possible to just follow the Cross Marin Trail for 1.5 miles back to the trailhead, it is far more scenic to take a detour through Samuel P. Taylor State Park’s small patches of old growth redwoods. After all, the state park’s namesake was a European American immigrant who established the first paper mill in California during the Gold Rush; it is a bit of a miracle that any of the old growth redwoods that once filled this valley survived. So instead of taking the Cross Marin Trail the entire way back to the state park day use parking, I followed it for 0.8 miles to a bridge crossing over both Sir Francis Drake Blvd and Lagunitas Creek, just over 5 miles from the trailhead.

Immediately after crossing the bridge over Lagunitas Creek, I looked for the Pioneer Tree Trail, a single-track trail that branched off to the left of the Cross-Marin Trail and was not obviously marked. Upon finding the junction, I left the Cross-Marin Trail and took the Pioneer Tree Trail, which led down and along Lagunitas Creek for a short stretch before beginning a very gradual switchback ascent through the forest. After three extremely gentle switchbacks, the trail began contouring along the lower slopes of Bolinas Ridge and at about 5.7 miles, I came to a small spur trail to the left of the trail. The spur led briefly uphill to the Pioneer Tree, a large old-growth redwood surrounded by a coterie of newer redwood trunks. The Pioneer Tree was impressively large but was not particularly picturesque; luckily, there was a more scenic redwood forest later along this trail.

Pioneer Tree
Continuing for another three-quarters of a mile of fairly gentle hiking, the trail began descending into a lush ravine. Here, the sylvan scenery improved: there were many large coast redwoods here and the fern-filled groundcover was verdant. A number of these redwoods had notably large goosepens, which are internal trunk burn scars so named because earlier European American settlers used them as poultry pens.

Redwoods along the Pioneer Tree Trail
Goosepens in the redwoods
The redwood scenery peaked as the trail made a sharp turn in the ravine, crossing a seasonal stream at about 6.5 miles into the hike. While it was not clear that the entire forest here was old growth, a number of trees were clearly large enough that they must predate the arrival of settlers during the Gold Rush. While no Muir Woods or Peters Creek Grove, I still rank this spot among the more scenic redwood groves in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Old growth redwoods in Samuel P. Taylor State Park
A final gentle descent from the redwood grove brought me back to the Cross Marin Trail. I turned left at this junction with the Cross Marin Trail and quickly found myself connected back to the road system of Samuel P. Taylor State Park. I followed the road past a picnic area to the bridge over Lagunitas Creek and then turned right to cross the bridge and return to the parking area where I had started.

I found this loop hike around Samuel P. Taylor State Park to be quite enjoyable: I appreciated the diversity of enjoying wide opens views from Barnabe Peak and lush redwood forest on the Pioneer Tree Trail over the course of a single hike. While certain stretches of this hike are busier, including the Cross Marin Trail and the Pioneer Tree Trail, overall this trail is a bit quieter than more crowded hiking destinations at the Marin Headlands or Point Reyes. Bay Area hikers should certainly put this hike on their list for a clear spring day.

No comments:

Post a Comment