This fun and exceptionally scenic loop is one canyon over from Muir Woods, in neighboring Mt. Tamalpais State Park. The loop descends from coastal bluffs with spectacular ocean views, through surprisingly lush mixed-species woodland, into a narrow canyon filled with lush old-growth redwood forest. Although Steep Ravine’s redwoods are smaller and fewer in number than Muir Woods, the canyon is more enjoyable since it’s a lot less touristy. Nonetheless, the Steep Ravine Trail is still extremely popular; on a nice weekend you might pass a group every two or three minutes. After a rainfall, there are some mini-waterfalls and the trail becomes even more popular.
The Steep Ravine Trail includes a 14-rung wooden ladder that can be difficult to climb if the rungs are wet.
The biggest problem with this loop is that it’s become nearly impossible to find parking during the day. Even though there’s an $8 parking fee, the little Pantoll lot can fill up by 8 am on weekends. Overflow parking (also $8) is available at the Bootjack parking lot a quarter-mile up the road, but that also fills up quickly. If both lots are full, the best option is to start from the bottom of the hill at Stinson Beach. That adds an extra 2 and a half miles round-trip, which is not entirely a bad thing since it’s pretty nice and you can stop at the beach afterwards. If you do have to start in Stinson Beach, though, the longer Willow Camp and Steep Ravine loop is a better option: it can be started from a quiet residential area at the top of Stinson Beach where there’s plenty of free parking.
From the Pantoll parking lot, take the paved service road west; after just a few yards, turn onto the Old Mine Trail. The trail, which bypasses a park maintenance yard, runs parallel to the road and eventually re-joins it. Turn left onto the road and descend a few yards to the Dipsea Trail intersection.
The scenery improves dramatically as soon as you turn onto the Dipsea Trail, which winds through open chaparral with great views of the glittering Pacific Ocean. The Sunset District of San Francisco is visible to the south, and near the top of the trail you can also see parts of the Bay Area. On a summer day a huge fog bank often covers the ocean, so you’re walking above the clouds.
The chaparral section of the trail is more or less level, but soon the trail descends into some exceptionally attractive woodland. The forest is unusually lush, with quite a variety of micro-environments, including some huge spruce and two dense, dark groves of tiny redwoods. A rich green groundcover of ferns and other plants grows in most places, but not the redwood groves.
Near the bottom, the trail descends steeply by way of a an endless series of steps through a narrow ravine. Here the landscape gets even more lush and the trail becomes overgrown with brush. The air becomes noticably cooler and is often damp.
(At the Steep Ravine trail intersection, a trail to the left leads a half-mile to reach Highway One and the access road to the Steep Ravine campground. There’s also a scenic one-mile-long trail that descends to the resort town of Stinson Beach.)
Turning right into Steep Ravine, the trail immediately enters an impressively lush redwood forest. With a few exceptions the trees are pretty small, but the varied size and light color of the redwoods, the presence of downed trees and the lack of stumps, and the relatively open feeling are all characteristic of an old-growth redwood forest.
Amid redwood sorrel and ferns, the trail winds through the narrow ravine by way of bridges and stone steps. In winter and spring, a rushing brook cascades down the ravine next to the trail. It’s such a scenic and interesting trail that you hardly notice that you’re climbing 1000 feet.
The trail is somewhat marred by a little traffic noise from Panoramic Highway a few hundred yards above the trail. Fortunately traffic along this section of the road is light, with only an occasional car to break the mood, and if there’s enough water in the brook the cars might not be audible at all.
Near the top, the canyon opens up and the redwoods give way to more mundane forest. After a few switchbacks, the trail ends back at the Pantoll parking lot.
There are a lot of trail runs on the Dipsea and Steep Ravine Trails. Hiking the trail gets kind of annoying on those days because people will be running past you every few seconds, so check a trail race schedule first. Here’s a partial list of trail runs on the Dipsea and/or Steep Ravine Trails with approximate dates:
© 2006, 2012, 2016, 2019 David Baselt