This is the perfect time to explore Mount Tamalpais. This moderately strenuous 3.7 mile loop passes through a lovely grove of Sargent’s Cypress trees and passes through two historic mountain sites, Barth’s Retreat and Laurel Dell.
From Rock Spring, take the Cataract Trail. Almost immediately you pick up Simmons and cross a dry creek. Benstein turns right and you continue straight along the almost dry Ziesche Creek, which is however lined with ferns.
Edward Ziesche was a German immigrant who arrived in the 1860s. He became secretary of the German Benevolent Society and, being an avid hiker, of the Tamalpais Club. He built a cabin on Mount Tamalpais in the 1880s.
Simmons Trail climbs, first through forest, then into chaparral where manzanitas and buck brush are in bloom. Buck brush is a species of blue-flowered Ceanothus that grows on the rocky slopes of steep canyons. It is a host plant for California tortoiseshell butterflies, which now fly; pale swallowtail swallowtails, which still hibernate in their pupae, and hedgerow swallowtails, which hibernate as eggs laid in August and emerge in April. I recommend hiking poles for this section as there are some high ‘steps’ to climb.
The trail reaches the scenic Sargent cypress forest where the view opens up before the trail descends again. Sargent’s cypress exists in scattered locations. In Marin, it’s only east of the San Andreas Fault. The next area north is near Occidental in Sonoma County, and the northern end of the range is at Red Mountain in Mendocino County. To the southeast, the nearest grove is on Cedar Mountain in Alameda County.
As the trail descends, look for pink calypso orchids, a springtime treat that never fails to delight me. The bumblebees that pollinate them may have different feelings about them, as pollinating them requires tricking the bees. They have fake nectar spurs, but actually have no nectar to offer. They rely on newly emerged bumblebee workers who are inexperienced and don’t recognize the trick. Pollination rates are low because bees can get tricked once and collect pollen, but they learn quickly and may not get tricked a second time, so pollen may never reach another’s stigma orchid.
The good news is that when an orchid is pollinated, it can produce up to 16,000 seeds. Yet it is extirpated, endangered, or threatened in many states and needs good stewardship everywhere.
Continue to Barth’s Retreat, built in 1886 by Emil Barth, a German musician and music teacher who enjoyed hiking the mountains and helped build many trails. At this time, many regulars camped on Mount Tamalpais, and artists and writers in particular gathered at Barth’s Retreat for meals and conversation. There are picnic tables if you’re up for lunch, and if you choose to wait, there will be more at Laurel Dell.
From Barth’s Retreat, take the small connector to Laurel Dell Road and turn left. At Laurel Dell, stop to remember Overseer Louis Pistolesi and the people who organized the Tamalpais Conservation Club in 1912 so that the mountain could be “one great preserve in which the people could enjoy themselves without trespassing.” John H. Cutter, the first president, had the honor of naming the site.
Cross a shallow stream. When Fire Road veers right, toward Ridgecrest, continue straight on Ray Murphy Trail, named after a Marin Municipal District ranger. Cross a bridge and turn right on Cataract. Just around the bend, search the creek for an engine from one of two United States Navy Corsair fighter jets that collided mid-air during a training mission in October 1945. Fortunately, the two pilots were able to parachute and survived. Cataract Trail takes you back to Rock Spring to complete the loop.
To get to Rock Spring from Highway 101, take the Highway 1, Stinson Beach exit. At Tam Junction (first traffic light), turn left onto Shoreline Highway (also known as Highway 1). In approximately teo miles, turn right onto Scenic Highway. In another 3/4 mile, the road splits into three lanes. Take the middle fork. In about five miles, the Pan Toll Ranger station will be on your left. Turn right, go through the gates in front of the train station and proceed approximately 1 1/2 miles to the Rock Spring parking lot.
Wendy Dreskin has run the Meandering in Marin Nature/Hiking course at the College of Marin since 1998 and teaches other nature courses for adults and children. To contact her, go to wendydreskin.com