What’s Best: Once a toll road that was “California’s Most Scenic Drive,” and more recently the set for fantasy car commercials, this strip of asphalt offers several panoramic hiking choices along a wavy contour above the coast.
Parking: From Hwy. 101 north of Sausalito, take Hwy. 1 toward Stinson Beach. Follow Hwy. 1 and turn right on Panoramic Hwy. Continue 3 ml. past Mt. Tam State Park boundary, to Pantoll Ranger Station, and turn right on Pantoll Rd. After 1.25 ml, at Rock Springs, go left on W Ridgecrest Blvd. Note: This trailhead covers a 4 ml. stretch of Ridgecrest, ending at Fairfax-Bolinas Rd. you can also come in from Fairfax via that road. Hiking descriptions are given as distances from Pantoll Rd. junction. Agency: Mount Tamalpais State Park; Marin Municipal Water District; Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Ridgecrest Boulevard was during the advent of the automobile in the early 1900s one of California’s first scenic drives, with people paying a dollar, big money then, to cruise the ridge up to Mount Tam. You may recognize the rolling curvature of the boulevard from footage of numerous sexy car commercials. Steep grassy slopes fall 2,000-feet to the ocean on the west, and the watershed’s forested valleys are tucked to the east.
RIDGECREST BOULEVARD MAP SAN FRANCISCO Photo Gallery
The turnout for O’Rourkes Bench is under oaks and fir trees, on your left .5-mile from the Pantoll Road junction. A trail leads down onto the bench, with options to loop around left or drop down the face to hit the Matt Davis-Coastal Trail. Bring wine and cheese. Not far past O’Rourkes, beginning at .75-mile from the Pantoll Road, is a trail on the right to Ballou Point, which skirts the road and rises gently to a rocky knoll. Engineer H. M. Ballou constructed the road for William Kent in 1926.
The Laurel Dell, Willow Camp Road, and Cooks Bench trailheads are a study in contrasts from east to west. All begin 1.5 miles from Pantoll Road. To the right, down through thick Douglas fir forest into the deep folds of the Cataract Creek drainage is Laurel Dell. The dell is a picnic glade that is a very short distance upstream from the remarkable falls of the creek. On the west, Willow Camp Road drops 2,000 feet over 2 miles, through a grass carpet with tree splotches, coming out on Farallone Avenue above the country store at Stinson Beach. You probably won’t want to go the distance, but you can reach tree-studded view knolls, about 400 feet and .75-mile down. To Cooks Bench, drop down the Willow Camp Road for .25-mile and go right, or north, on the Coastal Trail; this is a viewing spot of Bolinas Lagoon and Stinson Beach.
Ridgecrest Boulevard ends after 4 miles, at the redwood shaded saddle that is the junction with Fairfax-Bolinas Road. To the north, Bolinas Ridge Trail goes for 11.5 miles; see TH82. Going to the south of the road junction, you can take the Coastal Trail on a contour for 2 miles until it comes out to Ridgecrest. You can also veer right after about .25-mile and venture into a forested thicket for a view of the Bolinas Lagoon.
Bike: Most cyclists approach the Bolinas Ridge Trail from the north end, so it may be worth the drive to try this more secluded approach from the Fairfax-Bolinas Road at Ridgecrest. You can also make a loop via Laurel Dell down to Bon Tempe Lake and back up past Alpine Lake on the Fairfax-Bolinas Road.
Another option from Ridgecrest is a loop down Willow Camp Road to Stinson Beach. You drop steeply and dramatically for 2,000 feet over 2 miles, coming down through the quiet residences above Stinson to the highway in the middle of town. Of course, then you have to pedal back up every inch, via Highway 1 and then Panoramic Highway not incredibly steep, but a workout for even the best-conditioned among cyclists. The road part of the ride is more than 10 miles.