Pine Mountain in Fairfax

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Fairfax woodlands

If you need a break from to-do lists and crowded shopping malls, this 5.8-mile hike through the redwoods and madrone woodlands in the Marin Municipal Water District watershed outside Fairfax is a great way to spend a few hours.

Begin the hike by walking back past the ranger station. Taylor Trail starts from the employee parking lot on the north side of the building. Lawrence Taylor was a superintendent of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s when the trail was built. Under the redwoods and hazel trees look for sword ferns, wood ferns, goldback ferns and California polypody ferns as you descend this fairly steep half-mile shady trail. Turn right on Concrete Pipeline fire road. The pipeline was built in 1918 to transport water from Alpine Dam through the Pine Mountain Tunnel to Fairfax, and then through the Porteous Tunnel, which is under Five Corners, to Phoenix Lake.

From Five Corners turn right on Shaver Grade. The fire road is fairly level for a mile, when you turn right and head uphill on Madrone Trail. Father Juan Crespi, the journalist of the Portola expedition, gave madrones their name. A West Coast native, Pacific madrones are easily recognized by their peeling papery reddish bark and the smooth orange-brown wood underneath. It is thought that trees use the strategy of “exfoliating bark” to protect themselves from insects that lay their eggs on the bark. More tropical trees also rid themselves of fungi and epiphytes when they shed their bark. The Pomo tribe used a decoction of the bark as a wash for sores and a gargle for sore throats. Madrone bark is particularly beautiful after a rain.


As you wind your way up the switchbacks watch for fungi such as the yellow-orange sulfur shelf growing on black oak and the bright yellow-orange fancifully named witch’s butter, which feels like jello.

Turn right on Pumpkin Ridge Trail. According to Barry’s Spitz’s book “Tamalpais Trails,” pumpkin is actually a misprint for punkin, a nickname Jim Vitek used for his wife, Doris. Jim was a MMWD employee and trail builder. From Pumpkin Ridge Trail there are views, often through the trees, of Lake Bon Tempe.

Pumpkin Trail descends almost to the Sky Oaks Road. Just before the road, turn right on Alex Forman Trail., named for an environmental leader who was president of the MMWD board. He continued working to ensure Marin’s water supply even after a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He died in July 2009 and the trail was dedicated to him in 2011.

When you reach Shaver Grade, cross the paved road to pick up the trail on the other side. This trail parallels the unpaved road to the Lake Bon Tempe parking lot. A short stretch on the road takes you from the Bon Tempe parking lot to the Lake Alpine parking lot, where there is a no parking sign (but no trail sign) on a metal gate across Bullfrog Road. Bon Tempe Creek is parallel to the fire road. Even though there hasn’t been enough rain to fill it, there is still enough water that I saw a belted kingfisher and heard its rattle call. Kingfishers are one of the few birds where the female is fancier than the male, sporting a chestnut-brown belt. The creek held another surprise as well, a cackling goose hanging out with a group of mallards. Formerly considered a subspecies of Canada goose, genetic analysis has shown that cackling geese are a separate species with subspecies of their own.

The Meadow Club golf club is on your left. I like to check the small pond there for ducks. Turn left to cross a wooden boardwalk. At a T with no sign, make a right to complete the loop back to Sky Oaks.

To get to Sky Oaks from Highway 101, take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Fairfax. Turn left on Pacheco Avenue and make an immediate right on Broadway. Turn left on Bolinas Road. Go approximately 1½ miles to 700 Bolinas Road where you will see a wooden sign on your left that says Lake Lagunitas. Turn left at the sign onto Sky Oaks Road. Just past the unused toll booth there is a parking lot on the right. On weekdays there is no time limit on the parking. For a weekend hike, park at Lake Bon Tempe or Lake Alpine and do the loop from there, starting out on Bullfrog Road.

Wendy Dreskin has led the College of Marin nature/hiking class Meandering in Marin since 1998, and teaches other nature classes for adults and children. To contact her, go to