5.5 mile loop through woods to a viewpoint, with a return through a residential
neighborhood. Hosts a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 5.5 mile loop hike is moderate, with about 1200 feet in
elevation change. Trailhead elevation is about 320 feet. The preserve's
high point is about 1440 feet. The featured hike climbs gradually to 1440
feet, then descends back to the trailhead, with a few moderately steep descents.
Dirt trails and fire roads.
Nice year round.
From US 101 in Marin County, exit San Marin Drive/Atherton Avenue. Drive
west on San Marin Drive about 2.6 miles, to the junction with Novato Boulevard.
Continue straight across, now on Sutro. Drive south on Sutro about 1 mile,
then turn right onto Vineyard Road. Drive on Vineyard about 1 mile, until
the pavement turns to gravel, then look for and park near the open space
signpost on the left side of the road. (Note: you can also take Novato Boulevard
to Sutro, etc., I just don't find that way as pleasant.)
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 38° 6'9.91"N
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Lots of side of street parking. No entrance or parking fees. No restrooms,
drinking water, or maps. No designated handicapped parking, and trails are
not suitable to wheelchairs. There is no direct public transportation to
the preserve. The nearest Golden Gate Transit bus stop is on Novato Boulevard,
and it's quite a walk from there.
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, pay phone, stores, and restaurants back in Novato. No camping.
All trails are open to hikers and equestrians only. Dogs are permitted
on leash on trails; off leash under voice command on fire roads. Dog owners
must have a leash for each dog.
The Official Story:
Indian Tree page
MCOSD field office 415-499-6405
Download the Indian Tree pdf
map from the MCOSD website.
Trails of Northeast Marin County is my favorite map, but it
doesn't show one trail (available from Pease
The Bay Area Ridge Trail, by Jean Rusmore (order
this book from Amazon.com), has a decent map and descriptions of the
Ridge Trail segment though the park.
The map in Barry Spitz's Open Spaces is simple but good, and
the trail descriptions are useful (order
this book from Amazon.com).
Don and Kay Martin's Hiking Marin has a good map and preserve
this book from Amazon.com).
72 photos from the featured hike.
View 61 photos
of a shorter hike (Big Trees and Deer Camp Trails).
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Tree is not the best-known open space preserve/park in northern Marin county. In fact, unless you live nearby, you've probably never heard of it.
While Mount Burdell and Indian Valley are popular with locals, and Olompali has a high profile entrance on US 101, Indian Tree is tucked back in a
quiet section of Novato, on a gravel road not far from Stafford Lake.
You may encounter equestrians and runners on the lower trails at Indian
Tree, but cyclists are not permitted on any of the trails, and the highest,
most remote part of the preserve is very quiet. Indian Tree boasts a nice
ascent through a mixed forest of redwood, California bay, oaks, and madrone,
with the reward of great views and an impressive redwood grove at the
top of the mountain.
Since the preserve shelters a broad variety
of plants, it's a good destination in all seasons. Look for delicate annual
wildflowers in the woods and grassland from late winter to late summer.
In autumn the black oaks are pretty. It's a muddy trudge in winter, but
that's when madrone, manzanita, and huckleberry bloom.
For the featured hike, start at the Vineyard
Road trailhead. Begin walking through the grassland on Upper Meadow
Trail. The path, open to hikers and equestrians only, initially runs
parallel to an adjacent house's property line, but Upper Meadow Trail
curves right and begins a slight climb. At about 460 feet, Upper Meadow
Trail meets Big Trees Trail at a signed junction. Turn left onto Big
The narrow trail, open to equestrians and
hikers only, quickly heads under cover of California bay, madrone, and
coast live oak, and begins to climb in earnest. Look for aptly-named snowberries
on the right side of the trail in autumn. Switchbacks are
part of a Big Trees Trail reroute, which replaced a former steep straight
course up the mountainside, still visible in places (you will cross this
old trail many times on your way to the top). The
new trail is perfectly graded and it's an easy ascent. Big Trees Trail
steps out into the grassland, offering initial views to the north of Verissimo
Hills, Little Mountain, and Indian Valley Golf Course (Stafford Lake becomes visible a little further uphill). After crossing back into the
woods, the trail sweeps through the grass again, passes a group of buckeyes,
and then drops back under the trees. Big Trees repeats this pattern as
it climbs, ascending in a wide zig-zag pattern up the mountain, passing
through small clumps of redwoods, coyote-brush dotted hillsides, and forests
of madrone, coast live and black oak, Douglas fir, and ferns. As Big Trees
Trail progresses uphill, the trees thicken, views are obscured, and outside
noise fades. In the understory, look for wild rose, hazelnut, California
coffeeberry, creambush, poison oak, and some large toyon shrubs. In winter
you might see frothy white
flowered milkmaids and blue-purple hound's tongue. On my first Indian
Tree hike, I often had the sensation that I was just about to reach a
crest in the hill, but the mountain kept undulating upward, with no end
in sight. At 1.78 miles, you'll finally reach a signed junction with Deer
Camp Trail (on the signpost Deer Camp is identified simply as "trail,"
but Big Trees is named). Turn left to remain on Big Trees Trail.
(If you've had enough and want to head back, take Deer Camp Trail downhill
now, then return to the trailhead on Upper Meadow Trail.)
After a short stretch under familiar tree
cover, Big Trees Trail suddenly steps out into chaparral and a
viewpoint. Straight ahead the hillside drops steeply into a wooded canyon,
then ascends to form Indian Tree's east flank, where Indian Tree Fire
Road is visible. If you look to the right and uphill, your gaze will sweep
past forested slopes, to a grassy ridgetop, marked by a tall stand of trees.This ridgetop is high point of the hike,
and the trees are redwoods. If you're visiting in winter, you may get
a chance to savor the scent of blooming manzanita; chamise, the dominate
chaparral shrub along the trail, flowers later in spring. Just as abruptly
as the trail entered the chaparral it leaves it, and Big Trees Trail resumes
an easy climb through a mixed woodland. On a January hike, I passed a
large, fresh bobcat scat on the side of the trail. At 2.13 miles, Ship's
Mast Trail sets out on the left side of the trail at a signed junction
(this is a shortcut trail that shaves some elevation and miles from the
hike, but if you take Ship's Mast you'll miss the ridgetop section). Continue
straight on Big Trees Trail.
The narrow path picks up the pace and climbs
steadily, with two short moderately steep stretches. One of my favorite
areas, a lush landscape of ferns, huckleberry shrubs, and gooseberry,with
towering madrones and coast live oaks, feels enchanted. Big Trees Trail
then passes a lovely small redwood grove. After one last short climb through
the trees, Big Trees Trail enters grassland at the crest of the ridge,
at 2.61 miles. There are two signed junctions a few yards apart. Turn
right onto Indian Tree Fire Road.
The fire road, closed to cyclists, climbs
at the edge of the grassland, but soon veers right back into the woods.
Just before the end of the trail (and the preserve boundary), at 2.71
miles, look to the left for a bucolic view all the way to Mount Tam. Retrace
your steps back to the previous junction, at 2.81 miles, then remain
on Indian Tree Fire Road a few yards to the undersigned junction with
an unnamed path. Stay to the right on this path.
A sloping meadow gives way to pretty treeless
rolling hills at the preserve boundary to the right. The path keeps a
level pace as it runs along a line of redwoods. When I was here in July
I was surprised to see a few yellow mariposa lilies blooming along the
last of the season's wildflowers. On a second hike, in January 2002, there
was a large swath of snow nestled in the grass on the right. The path
splits; stay left. After a few feet, at 2.96 miles, you'll arrive
at a viewpoint. There's a log and a patch of grass, perfect for a lunch
or rest stop. Madrones, giant redwoods, and huckleberry shrubs surround
the viewpoint to the right and left, but straight ahead there are unobstructed
views northeast. The hillside falls away, revealing the lower slopes of
Indian Tree, flats of Novato, and Mount Burdell. When you're ready to
continue, take the unsigned but obvious shortcut path straight ahead downhill
a few feet, to Indian Tree Fire Road. Turn right.
The broad fire road, open to hikers and
equestrians only, descends easily, through the upper reaches of an oak-dotted
sloping hillside. Indian Tree Fire Road enters a mixed woodland for a
short distance, then reemerges just downslope of a ridge and the preserve
boundary. You might see bobcat, coyote, and deer prints on the trail.
To the right the lands of H Ranch sprawl south all the way to Big Rock Ridge and Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve. Currently
the Bay Area Ridge Trail is stranded on this ridge, with the next completed
segment south on the slopes of Loma Alta.
Miles of private property intervene. This may be one of the last segments
to link the trail together, and when completed (probably via already existing
old ranch roads) this will be a very long stretch; it's more than 3 miles
as the crow flies from this ridge to Big Rock at Lucas Valley Road. For
now, you'll have to visualize the route as you take in the long views
of Big Rock Ridge's rolling hills from the side of Indian Tree Fire Road.
After a moderate descent through woods and grassland, you'll reach a signed
junction at 3.65 miles. Ship's Mast Trail takes a sharp left, on the way
back to Big Trees Trail. Take a soft left (a private ranch road
continues right/straight) to remain on Indian Tree Fire Road.
The fire road begins a somewhat steep descent
through grassland .A
few feet down, on the right, a well-worn but unsigned path departs. I
wondered about the path, but continued on the fire road. After a few more
steps, it all became clear; the path bypasses a very sharp descent on
the fire road. When the trail is wet, the descent is more than steep,
it's darn tricky navigating through the slick mud. The sweeping views
north are some consolation, and soon enough the trail levels out to a
more manageable grade. Expect more mud in winter, when seasonal seeps
trickle across the trail. Indian Tree Fire Road makes a short ascent,
rejoining with the bypass trail. Along the steady descent there are pockets
of coast live oak, California bay, redwood, and madrone, but grassland
dominates. A second bypass path breaks off to the right, and this time
I took it, although the subsequent drop on the fire road is fairly mild.
The path rejoins the fire road and you'll head downhill out of the grassland,
with oaks, bays, and madrones lining the trail. At 4.32 miles, there's an open space gate and stile. The fire road drops past a water tank and
draws increasingly closer to civilization. You'll ascend a short hill,
pass under some power lines, then walk downhill past a tennis court and
estate. At 4.68 miles, there's a second gate and a step over. Turn
right onto paved Rebelo Lane.
The road winds descends sharply past some large
houses. A handful of MCOSD "public trail" signposts will shepherd
you downhill. At 4.93 miles, a signed path heads downhill on the right.
Turn right and descend on a nice shaded trail. At 5.03 miles, the
path ends at Vineyard Road. Turn left onto Vineyard Road.
You can follow a well-worn path on the side
of the road, but when the path ends you'll be forced to walk on the pavement.
At 5.14 miles, look for a signed path on the left, which permits
a short bypass. The path crosses a creek and edges along not far from
a residence, then reemerges at Vineyard at 5.21 miles. Turn left and
walk on the side of the road uphill back to the trailhead.
Total distance: 5.54 miles
Last hiked: Thursday, January