Willow Camp and Steep Ravine
Loop hike from Pantoll to Stinson Beach and back
Length 8.5 miles Climbing 2080 ft
This immensely scenic loop hike runs along steep coastal bluffs with Mt. Tam's best ocean views before dropping down to the resort town of Stinson Beach. After stopping in town for refreshments and a break on the attractive beach, you'll climb out of town, first over chaparral-covered hills and then under the shade of Steep Ravine's old-growth redwoods. Superb scenery and great variety make this Mt. Tam's most enjoyable hike.
The Pantoll/Stinson Beach loop is a popular hiking destination. Most hikers start in Stinson Beach (to get the climbing out of the way first) and then descend on the relatively easy Matt Davis Trail. As described here, the hike starts in Pantoll (so that you can take a midway break in Stinson Beach) and descends on the uncomfortably steep, but much more scenic, Willow Camp Trail.
Start at the Pantoll parking lot. If this small lot is full, park a third of a mile down the road at Bootjack and hike the Matt Davis Trail to Pantoll. From Pantoll, the well-used Matt Davis Trail winds through somewhat dull woodlands for a mile before emerging onto grassy hills with a superb view of the ocean and San Francisco. Turning a corner, you next get a magnificent view of Stinson Beach. The sound of the crashing surf far below can be clearly heard.
After a very brief quarter-mile of these coastal views, the Matt Davis Trail reaches an intersection with the Coastal Trail. To the left, the Matt Davis Trail descends into pleasant but unexceptional woodlands on its way to Stinson Beach. Toward the bottom there are a few views of the town. This is the easiest and most popular route to Stinson Beach.
For a more difficult but much more scenic route with lots of great coastal views, don't descend on the Matt Davis Trail. Instead, continue north and generally uphill on the Coastal Trail, then take the Willow Camp Trail down into Stinson Beach. The narrow Coastal Trail is cut into dizzyingly steep, grass-covered bluffs, and you may have to brush past tall grass overhanging the trail. The scenery is among the best on Mt. Tamalpais. However, after the Coastal Trail comes an unpleasantly steep descent on the little-used, gravelly Willow Camp Trail. It can be slow and exhausting, but there's little danger of falling off a cliff, and the trail is clearly visible.
Most maps show a third route that descends from the Coastal Trail to Stinson Beach, the McKennan Trail. This barely-visible track drops very steeply from Ridgecrest Blvd and disappears completely about two-thirds of the way down. The McKennan Trail also has a lower section that starts near Highway 1 and climbs toward Ridgecrest Blvd, but it too disappears without meeting up with the upper section. The park may remove this trail because it is little-used and excessively steep.
The bustling town of Stinson Beach makes an enjoyable stop on the hike. The long, attractive beach is popular in the summer although the water is too cold for swimming. Steep redwood-covered bluffs rise up above the town, giving the beach a distinctly Northern California look. Along highway 1, several restaurants serve sandwiches and pasta, and there's a little bookstore.
After maybe visiting the beach or stopping for lunch, pick up the Dipsea Trail just south of the business district. The trail climbs through woods before breaking out into chaparral and continuing to climb, offering some great views of Stinson Beach, the ocean, and the pretty redwood-covered bluffs that tower over the town.
On a hot summer day, Steep Ravine is a cool and refreshing contrast to the baking-hot chaparral and grasslands. The trail climbs steeply through attractive groves of small to mid-sized redwoods. The area is lushly overgrown with ferns and a little brook cascades down the ravine.
Near the top, the redwoods end and the forest takes on a drier appearance. The trail finally emerges from the woods at the Pantoll parking lot.
© 2006, 2012 David Baselt