I know what you're thinking: Didn't we already hit Stinson Beach in March?
That we did, conquering the breathtaking Dipsea/Steep Ravine/Matt Davis Loop on the 9th. Let's call that one our "Coming In Like A Lamb Hike." Now, we exit the tempestuous month on a trail just a quarter-mile away -- but worlds apart.
With the long days here to stay, sunny weekends mean a rush to crush Mt. Tam. But one trail remains virtually unmolested by the crowds: Willow Camp. Most tourists (and more than a few locals) don't even know that it's there. And the preponderance of those who do won't want to have anything to do with it, so steeply pitched is the route.
But as we hit the home stretch for our high-altitude HIKE OF THE YEAR in South Tahoe, we're sparing no opportunity to train up -- and bear down.
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The Ultimate Semi-Circle takes place May 16-18 at Mount Tallac, which stands sentinel over Lake Tahoe. Only a few spots remain. RSVP.
LENGTH: 7.3 miles (round trip)
VERTICAL GAIN: 2,274 feet, including the relentless 1,900-foot ascent from Stinson Beach to West Ridgecrest Blvd.
TYPE OF HIKE: Out-and-back, mostly on an exposed fire road, with forested single-track stretched in the middle at the end of the hike.
PLANNED STOPS: 15-minute stop at Cataract Falls, about 1.5 hours into hike; and a 25-minute lunch stop on our return trip to the apex of the hike, at the intersection of Willow Camp and Coastal trails.
TIME ESTIMATE (WITH STOPS): 3.75 hours.
RESTROOMS: At Laura Dell, near Cataract Falls.
Take Highway 1/Stinson Beach exit off 101 and -- you guessed it -- follow Highway 1 to Stinson Beach. The Fire Station is the very first thing you'll see, on the right, when you get into town. Park on Belvedere Ave. if you can -- but anywhere in town will do. Give yourself 45 minutes from the 101 exit -- Highway 1 to Stinson Beach is a crowded, serpentine route on weekends. And parking is a ... beach.
Climb. Descend (down the other side). Visit some cool falls. Re-climb. Descend.
That's the game plan for our 10th Semi-Circle Hike, part of the grand scheme of training for our 2014 HIKE OF THE YEAR: The Frolick on Tallac at Lake Tahoe, where we'll be ascending to a peak nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
If you were among the 37 Trustees who hiked Mt. Tam from Stinson Beach to Pan Toll on our March 9 excursion, you might have a hard time believing that you're ascending the same mountain -- especially since we start from the exact same place.
This time, however, the first half-mile of our hike is through the mean streets of Stinson Beach. If you’ve never gotten beyond the touristy part of this hamlet, you’ll dig the array of architecture and landscaping. Breathe deeply: that’s the smell of money.
We’ll quickly make our exit from town onto the trail. Here’s the short-and-sweet summary of Willow Camp: exposed, twisted (literally and figuratively) and breathtaking (literally and figuratively). All of which means you’ll get plenty of sun, plenty of sweat –- and jaw-dropping views, from top to bottom. The climb: nearly 1,900 in less than three miles -- most of it, in fact, in a nasty two-mile stretch.
Like any Semi-Circle hike, our route has a few surprises (which, technically, won’t be surprises when I reveal them in 3 … 2 … 1): At 1,000 feet, the mountain plateaus (ever so briefly) and swings into gradient forest cover. Along the way, we’ll pass a lonely stand of redwoods, separated by just a half-mile from their plentiful brethren along the Matt Davis Trail.
As we leave the leafy canopy behind to start the vertical charge to meet up with iconic Coastal Trail, Willow Camp passes through a wonderland of wildflowers, which should be coming into bloom, right about ... then.
As we cross Coastal Tree, you’ll also notice more hikers sprouting up. They’ll become even more plentiful as we cross the aptly named Ridgecrest Boulevard (the kind of road with pavement and a yellow line down the middle). Congratulate yourself for a sweet ascent – that’s Stinson Beach’s “Vacation Row” and lake-sized tidal basin 1,900 feet below.
But don’t rest on your laurels, because we’re heading for Laurel Dell, the sunny meadow a quarter mile down on the eastern side of Mt. Tam. Actually, we’re just passing through Laurel Dell (here’s me taking the high road and not making a reference to Laura Dell being the slutty cheerleader that we all passed through in high school … oops, too late).
Just beyond the dell is our goal: multi-tiered Cataract Falls. Take a picture and text it to your snow-bound relatives back east.
After we’ve had our fill our frolicking (much like Laura Dell on prom night), we’ll make the sub-mile hike back up to Ridgecrest, cross the road and grab some hang time in the meadow (pictured above) on the western slope, above Coastal Trail. Eat, drink … and drink in the view. Your relatives will love checking out the pics while they’re chipping ice off their windshields.
For the first (and probably last) time in the annals of The Circle of Trust & Beer, we'll be hitting the same post-hike watering hole twice in the same month. But there's nothing like basking in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais after you've mounted her, and there's nowhere that frames the grandeur of Tam better than the Parkside Cafe.
The beer's just as cold and the beach just as walkable in late March as it was earlier in the month, when we basked in the glow of an experience worth repeating.