Monday, January 11, 2010

Perfection on the Marin County Coast

From Fox News, Channel 2.1
January 4, 2010

Three hikers were buried alive on the western flank of Mount Tamalpais State Park yesterday when a waterlogged, 200-foot high section of the popular Steep Ravine Trail collapsed, trapping the unfortunate souls in a tangled New Year's grave of mud and grass and rocks and bay laurel and Douglas fir and toppled sequoia sempervirens, the stately coast redwood tree native to the area.

The trio was first reported missing by a female friend who was supposed to meet them after their hike. She was waiting at the entrance gate to the Steep Ravine Environmental Campsite and Cabins on Highway 1, a short distance south of Stinson Beach in Marin County, California.

"It was a beautiful winter day with sunny skies, light winds and almost warm coastal temperatures," the woman said, "and our plan was to spend the night at one of the rustic yet highly coveted cabins maintained by the park service. Reservations go on sale seven months in advance, and they're so popular with outdoor enthusiasts that even then the chances of getting one are slim."

Unfortunately, when the hikers had still not returned two hours after the appointed rendezvous time, the woman drove into Stinson Beach and sounded the missing persons alarm. She told police that she tried to call even sooner, but her cell phone couldn't get a signal.

"I have reception down at the cabins, but up here by the road...nothing. It's so weird. You know what I mean?"

Park rangers, firefighters and emergency personnel quickly arrived on site, hiked into the remote, muddy ravine, and soon discovered the catastrophic mudslide just below the section of trail with a 10-foot ladder next to a lovely, cascading waterfall. From official reports it didn't take long to determine what had happened to the missing hikers: a dark brown and beige, striped knit hat and an iPhone containing pictures from the doomed trek, both discovered at the base of the slide, immediately hinted that the gruesome truth lay somewhere beneath Mother Nature's cloak of destruction.

The names of the deceased have not yet been released pending notification of their families.

The female friend, whose name is also being withheld, apparently left the scene when the first body was unearthed and spent the night by herself in Cabin #4. An unconfirmed eyewitness account heard her mutter under her breath as she turned and hiked back down the trail to her car:

"I'm sorry people, but there's no way in hell I'm missing out on a cabin at Steep Ravine."

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Happy New Year friends, family and countrymen, and welcome to The Headlands Report. That this monthly adventure-log is gonna contain more than just the facts should by now be obvious; a 150-year old teetering coast redwood hasn't smashed me...yet. And that the newsletter is titled The Headlands Report, but the first installment regales the pleasures of Steep Ravine and Mount Tamalpais, is no mere fluke. The Steep Ravine Trail was my first hike on Mount Tam after I moved to San Francisco from Cleveland, Ohio in January of 1988. The park, the cabins, the coast and the mountain have for 22 years inspired me, made me smile, made me sweat, kept me sane, kept me even less out of shape, helped me slow down, and left me continually amazed by the raw, physical beauty so close to my home in San Francisco. I remain smitten.

Those of you who receive my emails on a regular basis will probably remember the series I sent last spring and summer. To recap the details: I have never, in over two decades of hiking the hills north of the Golden Gate Bridge, seen an explosion of wildflowers as mind-bogglingly spectacular as in 2009. For three straight months the display of color, of shape and of number grew bigger and better. And for three months I was there to watch the fireworks, the dazzling scope of which I attribute to the following. One: like it or not, the park rangers have been hard at work ripping out invasive species (some of which were very pretty), allowing the native ones to flourish. Two: a flurry of late winter storms dumped a good amount of rain in the coastal hills, and the ensuing weeks saw plenty of warm, sunny days. Three; 20 years of protection can make a difference, and this I witnessed with my own eyes.

In response to the enthusiastic emails last year, in which I named some of the wildflowers that I can recognize, my sister Susan wrote: Where's the pictures?

So now, with The Little iPhone That Could in my hand, I hope to document life accross the Golden Gate: life in the Headlands as the year unfolds. The majority of images, food for thought and other miscellanea will come from one single hike: The Loop, or Hill 88, as we fondly call it. When my friends and I are in cahoots we this 4.5-mile/800-foot elevation gain trail a couple times a month. It takes just under two hours and is literally 15 minutes from my apartment in the Fort Mason District. I hope to capture in words and in pictures the ever-changing mood of the landscape as the sun climbs higher in the sky, as the days grow longer, as the winter rains (lets hope for some more) baptize the land anew, and as the sleeping hills stir toward spring.

Weather permitting our first New Year foray to the Headlands and our first circumnavigation of Hill 88 will be Sunday January 10, but for now...Steep Ravine. It's just the way it's gotta be.

Facts, figures and information abound when it comes to Mount Tamalpais and Steep Ravine: Wikipedia has a detailed entry online, covering history, geology, flora and fauna; and the websites,,, to name a few, offer a plethora of advise on hiking, biking, camping and the like. We'll skip the official data, as it's easy to surf for yourself should you want to learn more, and concentrate on a more personal roster of memories, then get to some photographs of the joint.

No matter the weather, Steep Ravine is a wholly satisfying place. I've stayed there when the sun has been so hot and the wind so still that we couldn't wait for darkness to descend, when violent winter storms have rattled the cabin to its foundation, in full moon and in new. With friends I once helped rescue a badly injured California sea lion; he was nursed back to health and released by the Maine Mammal Center, and as far as we know is still out there doing sea lion stuff. From the shore I have watched firsthand the environmental success story of California gray whales swimming north to the Chukchi Sea in Alaska. In 2000 two baby whales washed ashore south of the cabins and died; while exploring our usual trails we smelled the almost asphyxiating stench of their decomposing flesh before we even realized they were there. Months later, I held their bleached bones in my hands; it was all that was left. I have seen a red-tailed fox, raccoons and countless deer; three-foot long rat snakes, tiny garter snakes and red-bellied newts; red-tailed hawks, herons, egrets, terns and grebes; harbor seals, sea lions and harbor porpoise; a 200-pelican feeding frenzy. I have skinny-dipped and rock climbed in the nude (the former a chilly experience and the latter one liberating, to say the least). Over and over I have stopped everything to watch the sunset.

The Steep Ravine Environmental Campsite and Cabins are, for me, perfection on the Marin County coast. There are surely places in California that rival the beauty, the peace, and the mind/body rejuvenating allure of Steep Ravine, but none are finer. Together with Mount Tamalpais State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore and the Marin Headlands, they make life in San Francisco a better one.

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A view of the cabins from a trail heading south along the coast, with #4 Rocky Point in the foreground right and #10 Whale Watcher on the left. All the cabins are good, but these two, in our humble opinion, are the most coveted. The small cove in the background fronts a rocky, rumble-tumble beach (sandy during the summer months).

Here's another view of Cabin #10, with Stinson Beach in the background (in January!). Inside each cabin is a wooden picnic table with benches, 5 elevated sleeping platforms (air mattresses are a must), a counter for food preparation, a wood burning fireplace, and that's about it. No stove or sink, but a grill is outside each cabin and taps with running water are located here and there; no bathroom, but and outhouse is on site, as are two new flush toilet, handicapped accessible restrooms by the parking lot.

A shot of the Steep Ravine Trail, a 4.5-mile/1,100-foot elevation gain hike we usually tackle before checking into the cabins. On New Year's Day 2006, two friends and I were some of the first people to stumble upon an enormous landslide inside the ravine. Pushed to the tipping point by a series of nasty-ass winter storms, a huge slab of the ravine wall had collapsed overnight, taking the trail with it and leaving a tangled mess of trees, rocks and earth in the middle of a very angry Webb Creek. We made it out alive, but the trail was subsequently closed. The storms were so severe most of the mountain was closed for a week; it took park rangers several months to clean up after Mother Nature and reopen the trail.

One of the many footbridges on the trail, spanning Webb Creek, and one of the massive coast redwoods found inside the ravine. This is probably 2nd growth, not one of the original behemoths that can stand over 370 feet, the tallest living things on Earth.

Inside Steep Ravine. After a good string of winter storms that waterfall is 10 times bigger, actually wetting the left side of the ladder.

A view from the Old Mine Trail as it leaves Pantoll Ranger Station and heads out to the exposed hills. 30 minutes of hiking remain before you head back into the ravine and back down to where you started.

Nite-nite from inside the cabin.

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Official State Symbols of California
Motto: "Eureka!"
Nickname: The Golden State
Animal: California grizzly bear (Ursus californicus), 1953
Bird: California quail (Lophortyx californica), 1931
Fish: Golden trout (salmo agua-bonita) 1947
Marine Fish: Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), 1995
Marine Mammal: California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), 1972
Insect: California dogface butterfly (Zerene eurydice), 1972
Flower: California poppy ((Eschshlozia californica), 1903
Grass: Purple needlegrass (Nessella pulchra), 2004
Fossil: Saber-toothed cat (Smilodon californicus), 1973
Mineral: Gold, 1965
Genstone: Benotoite, also called blue diamond, 1985
Rock: Green serpentine, 1965

Peace out, cyber-hood.
Peter J. Palmer

1 comment:

  1. Proud to be your first follower, Peter. nice blog of a spectacular place