2 mile loop through rocky grassland fronting San Pablo Bay in Corte Madera.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This is an easy 2 mile loop hike. Trailhead elevation is around
15 feet, and the featured hike's high point is around 540 feet; total elevation
change for this hike is about 500 feet. There are a few short steep sections.
Almost completely exposed.
Dirt trails and fire roads.
1 1/2 hours.
Nice year round.
From US 101 in Marin County, exit Paradise Drive/Tamalpais Drive. Drive
east on Tamalpais, and turn right onto San Clemente (before The Village
shopping center). After a few blocks, San Clemente dumps into Paradise Drive.
Continue on Paradise, past Westward Drive, to the preserve gate on the right
side of the road. It's about 1.5 miles from 101.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* based on Google
Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, restaurants, stores, and pay phone about 1.5 miles north in Corte Madera.
Abundant roadside parking. No admission or parking fees. No restrooms, drinking
water, or maps. No designated handicapped parking, and trail access is obstructed
(the trails are not suitable for wheelchairs or strollers anyway). There's
a Golden Gate Transit ferry bus shuttle stop a short distance from this
Some trails are multi-use, and others are designated hiking only. Dogs are
permitted, on leash only.
The Official Story:
Ring Mountain page
MCOSD field office 415-499-6405
Map/book choices/More information:
Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
Download the pdf
map from the MCOSD website.
This hike is
described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco,
by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com.
Afoot and Afield: San Francisco Bay Area, by David Weintraub
this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of a Ring
Hiking Marin, by Don and Kay Martin has a good map and preserve
this book from Amazon.com).
Barry Spitz's Open Spaces has a detailed map and good text
this book from Amazon.com).
101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area, by
Ann Marie Brown (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and descriptions of a featured
Ring Mountain in a nutshell --
a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.
View photos from the featured
Mountain Open Space Preserve,
nestled between the Marin County towns of Tiburon and Corte Madera, possesses
an amazing variety of assets. The grassy slopes afford fantastic views
of Mount Tamalpais, the bay, and San Francisco. Trails wind through rock
formations, across tiny creeks, through wildflower dotted hillsides, and
under old coast live oaks and California bays. Petroglyph Rock, near the
preserve's highest spot, has rock carvings created by Native Americans.
And the unusual geology of the preserve supports plants that grow nowhere
else, most prominently the Tiburon mariposa lily, which blooms in May.
All this in a setting just a few miles north of San Francisco makes Ring
Mountain a perfect choice for a quick hike, or
for more advanced nature study.
This small preserve gets a lot of use from
neighborhood residents and dogwalkers, and has a ton of unofficial paths
and shortcuts. The fire roads on the south slope of Ring Mountain can
be accessed by a few small streets off of Tiburon Boulevard (such as Reed
Ranch Road), but most non-neighborhood visitors use the main entrance,
where there is more parking. Phyllis Ellman Loop Trail climbs from the
trailhead to the ridge, and from there you can wander along the ridge
to the east or west, or drop downhill to the south, then retrace your
steps to the ridge and return to the trailhead via the other end of the
It's fascinating to see the seasons change
at Ring Mountain. Although the trails get muddy in the rainy season, it's
always special to
find the first wildflowers of the year in late winter, when the grass
is short and fresh. Serpentine soils host extensive wildflowers in spring.
Although the preserve lacks foliage trees, toyon and poison oak are pretty
For the featured hike, cross through
the open space gate and walk through the marshy area, then cross the bridge
on the hiking only trail. A large sign acknowledges the assistance
of the Nature Conservancy in obtaining the land. I've never seen maps
available here, but at the information signboard there's a pamphlet
(under glass) describing the stops on the self-guided nature
tour. Unfortunately, there are not always pamphlets to take with
you; if you have a copy of Open Spaces the nature tour is summarized
in the Ring Mountain chapter. The path, which gets
muddy in the wet months (you'll find that a recurring theme at this preserve),
drifts gently uphill along a grassy, rock-studded hillside. Look for mule
ear sunflowers and flax in May. At 0.20 mile, the trail splits at a signed
junction. Most hikers take the loop in the clockwise direction, as the
numbered post sequence progresses that way. Bear left and continue
On the fringes of the trail watch out for
poison oak (it flourishes in large shrubs throughout the preserve), which
grows alongside shrubby California bays, toyon, blackberry, and coyote
brush. False lupine is common in spring. The path crosses a stream (look
for ninebark here) and then ascends steadily through the grassland. There
are many informal trails cut into the hillside, and it is often a confounding
proposition to stay on the real trail. If you pass a numbered post, you
are on track. If you get off course, just aim for the
ridgetop. As you head uphill, pause from time to time to savor the view
behind you of northern San Francisco Bay, including the Richmond-San Rafael
Bridge and San Quentin State Penitentiary. Large boulders patchworked
with multicolored lichens stand sentinel on sides of the trail. Just past
the number four post, a fence discourages hikers from proceeding uphill
to the left, and the official trail sweeps right.
Lots of wildflowers here in the spring.
Starting in February look for milkmaids and fremont's camas. In March
there are good displays of buttercups and occasional shooting stars. Later
in May you might see some blue-eyed grass stragglers, as well as tarweed,
lupine, and Ithuriel's spear. The trail squeezes by some oaks and California
bays, then climbs along a rocky patch tangled with roots. Then
it's back to the grassland, where the trail soon fords two branches of
a creek on pretty fern-lined small bridges (post 7). After that you'll
reach another nebulous junction at 0.67 mile; once again stay to the
After a few steps, the trail splits again.
The right trail connects with the other side of the loop trail, but continue
uphill to the left. Just past post number 8, look to the right for
a view of one big coast live oak. An unusual trail marker, set flush into
the ground, assures you that you're headed the right way. At post number
9, the trail ducks into the trees on the right. This a magical place that
reminds me of Hobbiton. Bilbo Baggins could surely be hiding among the
15 trunks of this California bay, which fans out to create a sheltering
thicket. After leaving the trees, look to the right for a knockout view
of Mount Tam. In March, you may see Oakland star tulip along the trail
flowers on this calcochortus, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, are shaded
light pink/purple. The top of the hill is in reach as you continue climbing
through grassland loaded with zigadene in late winter. Follow the trail
to the left as it crests, then turns right and shows off the first views
to the south just before it ends, at 0.90 mile, at Ring Mountain Fire
Road. To the left, the multi-use fire road climbs to the preserve's
highest elevation, 602 foot Ring Mountain. Straight ahead is Turtle Rock.
Turn right and head west on Ring Mountain Fire Road.
The wide fire road dips down to a
junction near post number 12, at 1.00 mile. The fire road continues straight
uphill, the other part of Phyllis Ellman breaks off to the right, and
Ranch Fire Road heads south. Only Phyllis Ellman is signed. Turn left
on Reed Ranch Fire Road.
After descending gently less than 0.1
mile, look to the right for an unsigned but obvious path leading to a
large boulder. Turn right. The path skirts Petroglyph Rock,
marked by native Miwoks, and unfortunately defaced by more recent
visitors. The path ends back at Reed Ranch Fire Road. Turn left and
retrace your steps to the previous junction.
Continue straight onto the Phyllis Ellman
Loop Trail. The hiking-only trail descends through rocky grassland;
it seems easier to stay on course going downhill. The bare hillside near
post number 14 provides your best bet for glimpses of the Tiburon mariposa
lilies when they bloom in May. Stay on the established paths and do not
run the risk of trampling these rare flowers. The trail used to split
just in front of post 14, but now the official route is to the left.
Follow the occasional arrow sign as the trail winds downhill. Off
to the right, a single buckeye asserts itself with lovely blossoms
in May. San Pedro Mountain sits beside China Camp State Park to the north;
the view is unobstructed. A colorful toyon tree sits on the edge of the
trail beside a stream descending melodiously through the sloping meadow.
Birds chatter, sing, and soar through the skies; hawks and vultures generally
can be seen near the ridge top, while scrub jays noisily protect their
territory near the oak and California bay trees, and red-winged blackbirds
swoop through the marsh. When you return to the previously encountered
junction with the other branch of the loop trail at 1.98 miles, bear
left, and retrace your steps back to the roadside parking on Paradise
Total distance: 2.16 miles
Last hiked: Friday, January 20, 2006
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