Friday, July 2, 2010

Hiking up Big Rock Ridge

Entrance to Big Rock Ranch—George Lucas's compound in Marin County, northern California. All these photos are © 2010 by Maureen Hurley and may not be used without express written permission from her. Please respect copyright.

Yesterday, I wore the skin right off my feet by hiking 3 hours in last year's worn out crocs up a long mountain range. Crocs = rubber slippers. Not even a proper half-shoe. What was I thinking? I promptly stepped on a stick and punctured a hole in my foot—but it didn't deter me. Though I gimped a bit, I was on an adventure. The euphoric path beckoned and blocked the pain. I had no idea where the trail led, or where I was going. Other than it was there, in front of me.

Big Rock, the apex of the watershed divide between West Marin (Lucas Valley Creek) and Southern Marin (Miller Creek). © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Big Rock Ridge in the distance. You can see the radio towers to the right. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

The path led ever onward. And so I followed the trail switchback after switchback into box canyons, climbing through chaparral, traversing crenulated flanks of steep hillsides—heading east, south, then north, then south-east again. I strolled beneath oak cathedrals where bumblebees droned in the banks of sage, phacelia, star thistle and bush monkeyflower, I crossed damp seasonal runnels in the fern-lined ravines. Not enough to wet my feet, but horsetail ferns thrived. I gazed out on the southern exposure of chaparral slopes from the rails of civilized wooden foot bridges that made the hike seem very Japanese.

Invasive purple star thistle & Bombus californicus, one of 27 California native California bumblebees—threatened species all. Also sighted: diminutive but toxic to livestock yellow star thistle. And the rare native carmine red cobweb thistle—I should've taken a photo but it wasn't very close, and I was in a hurry. Double-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

The trail opened up and took a sharp turn to the northwest and held course. I expected it to climb the chaparral ridge to the southeast—on public lands. I quickened my pace. When I crossed the threshold of the ridge, a narrow hiker's vee into the vast golden pastures of Big Rock Ranch, the view was so spectacular, I was gob-smacked.

This was a ridge I have always wanted to hike but it was off limits as we didn't know the rancher at Big Rock. The western slope was too out in the open to successfully trespass. And the rancher was permanently irate because the teen townies from Marinwood kept painting the iconic Big Rock in pastel hues.

George Lucas inherited the rancher's fight but took a Jedi stance. Now Big Rock is sandblasted clean and fenced in—in solitary confinement, replete with surveillance camera. Now, the only graffiti artists are the ravens who shit on its crest.

Trailhead. Note the surveillance camera trained on Big Rock. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

The view was so stunning, I took myriad photos of downtown San Francisco—Baghdad by the Bay as Herb Caen dubbed it—all three bay bridges (the Golden Gate, the Bay and Richmond bridges). To the southeast, Mt. Diablo loomed nearly 4000 feet straight up from an otherwise featureless plateau. But marine haze hid details. The naked eye was a far better camera lens.

Mt. Diablo from Loma Alta. Telephoto lens distorted the color and atmospheric haze made it hard to see. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

There was s small corner of San Pablo/Suisuin Bay glistening like lapiz; and to the southwest, majestic Mt. Tamalpais peeked out from behind its smoky darkness, framed by the broad open slopes of Loma Alta ridge—where I hiked up in my old crocs at the summer solstice. To the west (or Tír na-nÓg, as my grandmother called it), the familiar eastern flank of Mt. Barnabe (my natal home—a place that haunts me even in dreams) was coyly shrouded a gossamer shawl of marine mist.

As I crested the Big Rock Ridge summit after a steady hour of navigating even more switchbacks, I could see glimmerings of the Coast Range—Mt. Whittenburg, Elephant (or Black's) Mountain—once featured on Jesse Colin Young & the Youngbloods album cover—near Pt. Reyes—and to the north veering to the east near Novato, the tip of Mt. Burdell and the laid back Sonoma Moutain—cradling the Petaluma watershed. This is probably one of the best views in all of Marin Co. And I've traversed most of the coastal ridges between Mt. Tam to Devil's Slide. I've been around.

This is view you really have to earn. Sort of like hiking up Ben Lomond (3000'), you just keep at it, one foot in front of the other, and you'll reach the summit. Why would I compare Big Rock to a classic Scottish icon? Because the last time I got an urge to go climb a mountain was at Ballloch, part of the Trossachs range that cradles Loch Lomond, Scotland. Once I started trudging up the slopes of Balloch Castle, euphoria set in‚ and I wanted to keep on going. Roamin' in the gloamin'. I hiked until it was nearly midnight. We walked back to the village under starlight.

Besides, we have our fair share of Scottish references in the Greater Bay Area: Glen Ellen, Inverness, Ross, Greenbrae, Falkirk, Dunsmuir, Dumbarton, Brisbane, Albany, Stewartville, Scotts Valley, Ben Lomond, Bonny Doon, Campbell, Gilroy. And I haven't even gotten to the creek names. Suffice to say our old phone number was GL-4 for Glenwood—I suspect the suburb name of of Marinwood was an offshoot of Glenwood. I imagine that right now, my sweetie, Neil, is gazing out his ailing mother's door across the Clyde Valley at Ben Lomond and the Trossachs. A munro I plan to one day hike.

Big Rock Ridge, visible from Highway 101, dissects southern Marin—Marinwood—from Novato and is part of the larger Bay Area Ridge Trail system. According to the Marin County Open Space website, Big Rock Ridge is the second tallest mountain range in Marin; it looms more than 1800 ft over Terra Linda—with our local goddess (or The Sleeping Lady—often compared to Mt. Fuji), Mt. Tamalpais, the tallest at 2572 feet.

Mt. Tamalpais, though not a volcano, rises straight up from sea level 2600 feet, is often compared to Japan's Mt. Fuji. 
© 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Mt. Tamalpais, the Bay Area's own Mt. Fuji-san, used to stand at 2600 feet until the army corps of engineers got ahold of it during the Cold War and sawed one pap off readying it like an Amazon warrior princess—so her aim would be true. The implanted Nike missiles were never launched, but to this day, the women of Marin have a high incidence of breast cancer. My mother died from it, my two aunts survived. I live in dread.
California serpentine, aka California jade, and soapstone, or, more properly, serpentinite, is really group of 20 different varieties of serpentinite stones, one of which sometimes has an inert form of chrysotile asbestos, is not the cancer culprit. You'd have to grind up the rock into a powder and breathe non--native antigorite studded serpentine in deep for 20 years to develop cancer—and it would be mesothelioma—lung cancer, not breast cancer. 
But the scientifically illiterate closet hysterics are ignoring scientific facts and trying to ban the state rock of California. If serpentine were the cancer culprit, then men too would get breast cancer too. Breast cancer and mesothelioma are equal opportunity diseases. (A scientifically illiterate, moronic State Senator Gloria J. Romero proposed legislation (SB 624) in May 2010 to remove serpentine as the state rock and lithologic emblem.)
Serpentine soils or serpentine barrens, do host rare endemic species of plants found nowhere else in the world: leather fern, coffee fern, jewelflower, popcorn flower, campion, rock cress, wallflower, wooly sunflower, Marin western flax, linanthus, Clarkia, Indian paintbrush, owl's clover, buckwheat, manzanita, sargent cypress—most of which I've found in my wanderings. Who knew wat we called a wimpy California daisy is actually the endangered pentachaeta bellidiflora. But I digress
Mt. Barnabe—facing west. I grew up in the valley below the tower. The other side of that vague hill to the right is ours'. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley
Now, I'd always learned that my Mt. Barnabe was the second tallest mountain in Marin (I was surprised to discover it was only 1466'; it seemed so much bigger when I was young—but it does rise up nearly 1000' up from the foothills.) Maybe they meant in West Marin. Big Rock is Central /Southern Marin—West Marin folks consider it enemy territory. As a child, I used to climb up Mt. Barnabe often as it was my own personal playground. Most afternoons I rode up one arm of the ridge or down the other—it cradled me, made me who I am.

I knew all the mountain's secrets—where the best springs were hidden. The castle rocks. Where the dead lie buried. The windswept glens. The names of rocks: serpentine, Franciscan and limestone. The meadows where the abundant wildflowers grew. Mallow and baby blue eyes. Shooting stars and lupine. Godetia and meadowfoam. Butter and eggs. Azalea and horsetail fern. We'd pluck gold-back fern and stamp fern-prints on our jeans with the pale green pollen.

Sometimes I'd take out the little book stashed inside the geological umbilicus‚ a brass marker embedded at the summit, to see who signed it. Not many folks hiked up Mt. Barnabe in those days—and they always came from the Samuel P. Taylor Park side, not from my side of the mountain. But we knew most of the ranchers. So the western world was my oyster.

A friend was on fire lookout duty on Mt. Barnabe one summer, and I used to ride my horse up to the old wooden clapboard lookout tower that was built like a ship's quarters. Not like the ugly new stucco tower. But check out the view in the link. We'd spend hours gazing at the vast ranges—is that smoke? No. Low fog. My favorite views were to the west—Elephant Mountain, the long finger of Tomales Bay. A thin sliver of Kent Lake spillway to the south, and Mt. Tam.

As I stood surveying my new kingdom of wind at the summit, I noted my Mt. Barnabe—named after Samuel Taylor's beloved white mule—who is buried on its slopes, was roughly level with the serpentine-studded Big Rock Ridge (1825')—so I assumed they must be fairly close in height. But Big Rock has 360' on Mt. Barnabe. Poor beloved mountain of my childhood, demoted to third place.

Serpentine-studded trail. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

George Lucas's compound. No sign of life other than exiting work trucks. ILM is now housed in the Presidio. It's come a long ways from the dicy canals of San Rafael. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Most of the land I traversed is owned by George Lucas—but now, because of Open Space, we can legally trespass on Big Rock Ridge. Of course, I took obligatory photos of Lucas's compound surrounded by a moat. I won't dwell here about what that new reservoir has done to the ecosystem of Lucas Valley Creek as the huge Big Rock spring and tule marsh I crossed, that feeds the reservoir—is the headwaters.

I could even see bits of Skywalker (Bulltail) Ranch with its hillsides plaited in grapes the next canyon over. I plucked a gold-back fern and stamped delicate decorations on my jeans for old time's sake, and sucked the nectar from an orange bush monkeyflower blossom. I admired the lacy chamise in full bloom. Pale pink-tinged manzanita bells, with tiny tart "apples" ripening, pink honeysuckle, and the shiny dark leavers of the ceanothus—mountain lilac. California buckwheat. Even the lowly morning glories looked good to me.

Bush monkeyflower and morning glory, aka chaparral false bindweedDouble-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley
Farewell to spring. Aka Clarkia or godetia—a member of the evening primrose family—as is fireweed. Double-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley
Clarkia, or farewell to spring, by the roadside. Clarkia, named after Lewis and Clark—has 30 species, most in CA, and some are rare—especially the species that grow in serpentine soil. Pay attention to the markings. Another favorite of mine is scarlet ribbons. I took photos of them too but didn't want to overburden this blog with photos. See Long Way Home—Hiking Loma Alta Ridge for more wildflowers —including scarlet ribbons. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Mountain chamise and bush monkeyflower. Manzanita and sage were also in full bloom. I've never seen such a lush and colorful riot of chaparral in bloom. To see more serpentine plant images, visit my Picasa site. There were also more images of Big Rock Ridge (but Google killed Picasa so this link no longer works, sorry). © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Detail of serpentine, California's state rock. Like a close-up of an Impressionist oil painting. The orange is lichen. Double-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Serpentine detail. Double click to see larger image© 2010 by Maureen Hurley

At the higher elevations, Mariposa lilies, phlox, clarkia, brodiaea, Ithuriel's spears, blue-eyed grass (really an iris), pearly everlasting (related to eidelweiss), chaparral pea, and bush poppy, and a few spring stragglers—California poppies. No lupine or larkspur—intolerant of serpentine soils?

The California state rock, serpentine, (really a mineral) is the result of tectonic action along fault lines where two continental plates collide: the North American, and the Pacific plates. Serpentinite (the rock, vs. the mineral) is an ultra-basic metamorphic rock, from under the earth's mantle. Tomales Bay is the San Andreas Fault.

Serpentine soils, toxic to most plants, host many rare endemic plants that grow nowhere else in the world. These ridges—geologic islands—are the last refuge for over 300 endangered endemic species: ridge-specific manzanita, mariposa lilies/tulips, owl's clover, wallflowers, flax, campion, and odd drought tolerant ferns. Species found on Mt. Tam are not related to their counterparts on Ring Mountain in Tiburon. From what I can tell—Big Rock Ridge is one vast ridge of serpentine. Not typical Franciscan strata.

Some form of sunflower? Gumweed grindilia? Yellow aster? This hirsute plant was growing close to the summit (1800') in the open grasslands facing west. Double-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

The names of plants came tumbling back—names my grandmother had taught me as a child. And the scientific names I'd learned from my biology teacher, Al Molina. I chanted them as I trudged up the switchbacks: dodecatheon hendersonii, shooting stars, escholtzia californica—named after a botanist on the Russian expedition to Fort Ross, nemophilia menziesi—baby blue eyes. Indian Soaproot, or deer lettuce—only flowers after 4 PM. Near the summit, I noted a strange sunflower I'd never seen before—like gumweed grindelia. Where did all those names come from? Where did they go?

Now this was a find—I dismissed it as pea chaparral—until I saw the seed pods. I did a double take and counted the petals: 4, not 5 or 6. My first sighting of a bush poppy in Marin! © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Mariposa lily, or butterfly tulip. The spot patterns differ from ridge to ridge. Double-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

I'm not sure of the total miles I hiked—my body said at least 7 miles but then, it's no spring chicken. Nor is it reliable. My knee was holding its own—tore it in Andreas Canyon, Palm Springs one 4th of July—but my ankle wasn't as cooperative. So the built in pedometer may have been lying. There were many switchbacks. I lost count. But a new view filled my senses at every turn. So my pain was assuaged.

I am a cranky hiker—I don't like to hike with friends or to meet another soul—it interferes with my hearing the song of place. All afternoon, I had the mountain to myself. I was startled to meet two mountain bikers up this trail—they earned their view. I envied them, their swift descent.

Double-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

I didn't go all they way to the radio tower as it was fast approaching sunset and my feet were killing me. I had to keep moving for fear my body would seize up and I'd be stuck up there overnight, clad in a tanktop & shorts. I didn't have a watch nor a cellphone. I did, however, have my grandfather's wee brass penknife on me—but little else by way of survival tools. And I didn't fancy munching on brodiaea bulbs as there wasn't much else to eat at the top. Besides, a blanket of fog was rolling in. So back down the mountain it was. I was racing daylight.

Nicasio Reservoir—and shrouded in the fog, in the distance, is Tomales Bay. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

As I turned to the west, I involunntarily gasped—Nicasio Reservoir—sheets of silver shimmering in the distance, nuzzling the hills like a mirage. Shrouded in mist, Tomales Bay and Inverness. Where I had come from—so far away. Another country. To the east, the lights of the city lighting up like fireflies. But I couldn't tarry. A garter snake whipped across the trail in front of me. I yelled, leapt straight up in the air first, and asked questions later. Prime rattlesnake territory.

Once, a coiled fellow was sunning himself on the path as I trudged up our steep hill to catch my horse. She had an uncanny way of heading for the ridge around 3PM, the time I got home from school. I grasped a tussock of grass and heard him and without hesitation, I leaped backwards—straight out into space. He lunged.

I landed in the brush some 20 feet below. Gophersnakes mimic rattlesnakes—the prime difference is that the rattler holds his rattle up, the gophersnake trashes the tip of his tail against leaves. This fellow was shaking the business end of his schtick.

As I stopped by the tule spring with a water trough dedicated to Lorene French Volpe, I was literally straddling two different watersheds—Miller Creek to the east and Lucas Valley/Halleck Creek to the right. Sweet water from the pipe. I risked it. Serpentine above, no upper seep. Less chance of giardia. Ugh. Been there, done that.

One time, circa 1969, my grandmother and I traversed Halleck Creek looking for the last surviving band of Coastal Miwok Indians. We found only abandoned farm houses but the view sustained me. I could see into a small rincon of Halleck Valley as well. Hiking up Big Rock Ridge brought my small myriad worlds into focus. The great Aha! Pieces of the puzzle fitting together at last. My own inner topo map I carry with me always.

Last time I trusted a man with a topo map while hiking on unknown fire roads near Austin Creek, Sonoma County one April Fool morning—we foolishly hiked too far out, and as dusk fell, we couldn't make it back.

At least we had a blanket that time and the moon was full. At one point we used the durry blanket as a rope to slide down crevices and wash outs on the abandoned fire roads. Some of them were not even roads but donkey trails to cinnabar mines.

The road home. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

I lingered a few more moments at the Big Rock Ridge summit, then I spun a slow dervish of joy as if to take the landscape with me. But it was shank's mare back down the ridge. The shadows grew long and it was as if I was in another landscape.

A good hour later, I staggered into Peets' around 8 PM where my cousin plied me with double decafe lattes, muffins and Advil. My dogs were tired, I think I need to retire my crocs which, at this point are little better than thin moccasins. I was literally walking softly on the earth—for fear of stickers and stone bruises. The next time I decide to go for a little impromptu hike, I think I'll wear shoes.

Stonecrop, liveforever, or hens and chickies. Double-click image to enlarge it. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Bluebelly lizard, aka western fence lizard, sunning itself on Lucas Creek. © 2010 by Maureen Hurley

Topo map from MCOS site—where you can download a pdf.

For plant resources I used Wiki, various native plant societies, and UC Berkeley's CalPhotos.

More info on Serpentinite from the real rockhounds:

Looking For DetachmentSerpentine: A Group of Minerals

GeotripperThe Other California: Geology and our State Symbols 

Long way Home Wildflowers of Marin—some are specific to the serpentine soils of Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. Loma Alta and Big Rock both host rare and endangered wildflowers. Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum) is a threatened plant species. 


Poetikat said...

Spectacular hike, Mo. I love MY Crocs, but I wouldn't get very far in them. The stairs to the basement are about it (and out to the back porch).


Lin Marie deVincent, MAH Dominican University, CA 2008 said...

Thanks for the tour, Mo. You is one brave hikin' woman. I too love a solo expedition.Great stories about Marin's evolution. I didn't know about the Nike missiles. And we wonder why the earth rumbles.

Weyland said...

Val Moulton (Twilark)
I love the way you have shared this hike, I feel as if I've followed in your footsteps,enjoyed the unexpected discoveries, seen the spectacular views and the beautiful wild flowers, experienced the links with the past.

andrew said...

A very satisfying post, one that fills me up, wears me out, and rouses my appetite to visit this place.

lisa c said...

Serpentenites are being studied by UC for their relationship to the high incidence of breast cancer in areas rich with the mineral. Lovely to look at but frightening to understand that the rocks contain many know carcinogens such as cadmium, mercury and asbestos. Serpentines are the mother of asbestos, I just learned.
Anyway thanks for the lovely photo essay. Thought you should know about the study.