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21. Dipsea Trail (01/11/97)

Hikers (6): Eugene, Giri, Melik, Peter, Russ, Taylor
Distance: 13 miles
Rating: 3 difficulty, 8 beauty
Park info: Mt. Tamalpais State Park from Stinson Beach to Mill Valley

Write-up by Peter

We had originally penciled in this hike for two weeks earlier, but the torrential downpours had forced us to change our plans (Russ called up me at 4 o'clock in the morning telling me he didn't want to die -- little did we know how prophetic that would be!). Sara was the one who had told us about the Dipsea Trail, but she had a wedding to attend on the day of the hike, so we were on our own.

The book had suggested starting in Mill Valley and walking 6.5 miles to Stinson Beach, then somehow finding a ride back. We decided to start in Stinson Beach and walk the Dipsea Trail to Mill Valley and back -- a Double Dipsea! There's an annual Dipsea Race that covers the same trail, so how hard could it be?

Things got off to a disorganized start ... Taylor decided to take her own car and drop some things off at her parents in San Francisco on the way, while Eugene, Giri, Russ, and myself drove up together. The plan was to meet at the trailhead in Stinson Beach at 10 o'clock. I had a bad feeling about this ...

Well, the Four Musketeers made it to the trailhead shortly after 10, but there was no sign of Taylor. It should be mentioned that we stopped at the Dipsea Cafe to pick up food on the way, but were mighty disappointed. All they had were cutesy little $6.95 tuna salad sandwiches (with a side of fries) to go. Not a good place for hiking food, despite what the sign says outside. A much better place for food is the Bell Market just around the corner, which is where we ended up going.

After phone calls to Taylor's parents, apartment, and voicemail came up empty, we decided to hit the trail before it was too late (it was already 11:30 and we had to get back on time because the parking lot closed at 6:00). Just as we were about to head out, she showed up. It turned out she had gone to Mill Valley by mistake, and had waited there for almost an hour before finally reading the flyer and realizing that we were to start hiking in Stinson Beach.

We finally got going. Just as were about to hit the trailhead, who should show up but Melik! His ski buddies had ditched him earlier that morning, so he had decided to join us, but he had also gone to Mill Valley by mistake. Instead of driving to Stinson Beach, he had walked the Dipsea Trail, so he was already half-done. Without giving the poor guy a chance to rest, we made him do U-turn and join us.

1, 2, 3, ... HIKE!

The trail started over some gentle bluffs, then quickly led into a thickly wooded area. We started walking along a stream, then up through a steep series of steps and switchbacks. We were huffing and puffing already. Rusty was in the lead, followed by myself, then Melik and Taylor, and then Giri and finally Eugene (wearing headphones, so he couldn't hear us calling him -- pretty smart!).

We reached a small clearing at the top, then went through some switchbacks in another wooded area before finally coming out into the open, where we stopped for our first break. The view from the top was impressive -- the Pacific Ocean stretched out on one side, and the San Francisco Bay on the other. The top of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge could be seen off in the distance. We waited a few minutes for everyone to regroup, then headed onwards.

We walked along a fire road for the next mile, until we reached a signpost. At this point, we asked Melik which fork to take, and he naturally led us in the wrong direction. After walking another half-mile, we arrived at ranger station. We realized we had come the wrong way, and started to abuse Melik. Little did we know that this wrong turn would end up saving out butts later!

We returned to the signpost and took the correct route down into Muir Woods. Nice scenery along the way, and mostly downhill, so it was an easy walk. A couple of the trails we were supposed to take were closed, so we had to loop around and it added about an extra mile to the journey. It took the better part of an hour to get to the Muir Woods parking area, and we stopped there for a short break.

Right after Muir Woods, the trail lead steeply upwards to the main road, then back down into the woods, then up again and across the road, through some good shiggy, then up to the town of Mill Valley. We were only about 20 minutes from the end of the trail at the bottom of the legendary 671 steps of Mill Valley, but by this time it was already after 3 o'clock, so we began thinking we should turn back in order to make it the parking lot before closing.

After some deliberation, we decided that the best thing to do would be to go to the bottom of the steps and have the slower hikers get a ride back to Stinson Beach with Melik to retrieve the cars, while the more energetic hikers would walk back.

We walked through the town, along some alley-ways behind some residential areas, and down the steps to the town center. The trail certainly was not well-marked through the town, and we gave Melik points for being able to find his way on the trip over to Stinson Beach.

Lunchtime! Rusty and I had decided to walk back, but it was important to get going quickly because it would start to get dark soon, so it was a quick lunch, with not much time to rest. Melik and the others suggested that they meet us half-way in Muir Woods. Rusty seemed to like the suggestion, but I wanted to walk all the way. Not one to back down, Rusty agreed to go with me. Little did he know what a dumb-ass move he had just made!

The others took off, leaving Russ and me to hit the trail. The book had made the 671 steps seem like a torture test, but in fact they were pretty easy. In part, it was due to the steps being relatively small, so it was possible to take 2 or 3 steps at a time for a portion of the way, and in part, because the steps were not one continuous set, but rather, were broken up into three separate stretches with fairly long flat portions (streets) in between.

We covered the trail from the lunch spot, up the steps, through the shiggy, and back down to Muir Woods in less than an hour. The pace had taken its toll, and my knee was feeling the pain, so we had to stop for a few minutes. We couldn't stay too long as the sun was going down already, so we left Muir Woods at 4:30 and started up towards Mt. Tam.

Somehow the route from Mt. Tam down to Muir Woods had seemed pretty flat on the first leg, but on the way back, it was a grinding uphill climb. We did not remember it being so long, and now that it was getting dark, everything looked different. Now and then we would see a landmark that would give us a clue that we were going in the right direction, but we were never really sure.

Going through Muir Woods was taking longer than we had anticipated. The wind was kicking up and the fog was rolling in overhead as we walked through the stark woods. It didn't help matters that we hadn't not seen any other people for over half an hour. Rusty was pretty quiet and I knew that The Man was cursing me for suggesting we walk all the way back.

Eventually, we saw some clear sky up ahead, and emerged at the signpost where we had previously taken the wrong turn. Finally, we we knew where we were. We estimated we had about 45 minutes to go. We walked along the fire road back towards the clearing where we had taken our first break on the way over. The lights of the entire San Francisco Bay Area were twinkling off in the distance. Very beautiful and romantic -- too bad it was just Rusty and me!

We headed into the woods again -- it was pretty damn dark by now, so we walked slowly. Rusty was virtually blind as a bat in the dark, so I went first. We went a few feet, then stopped, looked around as best we could, then went another few feet. We remembered there had been no steep drops in this part of the woods on the way up, so we were pretty safe.

We inched along for what seemed like hours, then came into the last little clearing before the descent down the steps. That part was going to be a major challenge. We could hear the water falling down the side of the mountain, so we knew we were pretty close. We would have given anything for a flashlight at this point! Rusty's leg was cramping up, so we had to stop for a little while.

Back into the woods again ... it was pitch black by now. We stopped to let our eyes adjust to the darkness, then slowly moved ahead. After a few steps, I felt soft leaves under my feet and knew I had gone off trail. As soon as Rusty heard that, it was bad news! Flashbacks of my panic attack at the top of Half Dome came to mind, except this time it was Rusty that was feeling green.

I told Rusty to stay put, and started walking around in wider and wider circles, until I eventually found solid ground and figured I was back on trail. I called to Russ to come over in my direction. Canteen Boy was only about five feet away, but could not see me in the darkness. Eventually, Rusty found his way over.

Decision time ... should we forge ahead and try to make it down the steep steps, or try to go back through the dark woods to the fire road and up to the ranger station we had passed earlier that morning, or sit tight and wait for a rescue crew or morning light? Visions of us cuddling together for warmth in the dark woods flashed before our eyes -- not a pretty sight!

The frustrating thing was being so close to the end of the trail and yet so far. We could see the cars driving along Hwy 1 and hear the sound of the town down below, but had no way of telling Eugene and Giri that we were almost there. Rusty never thought he would be so happy to see Eugene in all his life!

We figured any rescue team would not come looking for us in the woods until the morning, so our best bet would be to try to get back to the fire road. Once on the fire road, it would be easier for us to be spotted by rangers. At least it would not be as dark, and once we got on the fire road, we could either take it downhill and get off the mountain, or go up towards the ranger station. Even if the ranger wasn't there, we could find some form of shelter.

We headed back through the little clearing, and then once more were plunged into total darkness. How true was that notice we had seen earlier about mountain lions in these woods? This time, it really was the blind leading the blind. I could not see anything, so to keep from getting my eyes poked out by branches, I starting inching along the trail with my eyes closed and my hands stretched out in front. Every few seconds I had to shout instructions to Rusty to keep to the right, or watch out for a thick root on the trail.

We inched along for what seemed like an eternity. Luckily, we had been down this section twice before, so we knew we had just one switchback to go and then one little turn and we'd be on the fire road. Finally, the solid ground ended, and knew we were at the switchback. Whew! Another five minutes along the top ridge, and we were back in the clear. Rusty wasn't looking too good -- he said he had used up about a year's worth of adrenaline back in the woods.

We rested for a bit, then began to make our way back to the now-legendary signpost. We once again saw the gorgeous view of the twinkling lights of the bay, but somehow Rusty was not in the mood to appreciate it. From the signpost, we took the fork up to the ranger station. We remembered we had seen cars there earlier in the day, so that meant there had to be a road nearby. I figured it had to be the Panoramic Highway, which we could take right down into Stinson Beach.

As we approached the ranger station, a power generator suddenly kicked in, scaring the crap out of us! We walked past it and through a parking lot with a bunch of ranger trucks in it. It would be great if one of those trucks had the door open with a set of keys inside! No such luck.

Luckily the light was on in the ranger station. We rang the bell and the ranger opened the door. We went in, sat down, and told him our story. He wasn't able to give us a ride, but he let us use the phone. We called the cafe where we had agreed to meet Eugene and Giri, but the staff had not seen them. Hmmmm. The ranger told us that the road going down the mountain was indeed the Panoramic Highway, and it was about 4 miles down to Stinson Beach. He suggested that we start walking and try to hitch a ride down the hill.

We hit the road. It was twisty, winding road with no shoulder, so we had to keep switching sides to avoid getting run over by cars that were whizzing by. After a few attempts at sticking out our thumbs to hitch a ride had failed, we decided the heck with hitchhiking and to just stick to walking down the road. Just then another car came around the curve and I decided to try one more time. As luck would have it, the car stopped and the driver told us to jump in. All right!

The car was nice and warm. The driver was a middle-aged lady and her passenger was an older gentleman. They were listening to some weird radio show and chuckling to themselves. We thought it was somewhat creepy, but we would take what we could get at this point. They dropped us off on the main strip in Stinson Beach, right next to our car. Eugene and Giri were sitting in the car waiting for us. It was 7:50, and they were going to give us ten more minutes before they went for help. Good timing!

Rusty immediately disappeared into the cafe to get some food, while I went and sat in the back seat and had a nice cool Sam Adams (I had been hoping the other guys had left a bottle for me). Rusty may have been scared, but not scared enough to lose his appetite!

A few minutes went by with no sign of Rusty. We had assumed he was getting the food to go, but when we went in, we saw him sitting at a table with a white tablecloth and a big plate of oysters in front of him. The Man!! After his ordeal, we felt we owed him the luxury of eating a nice meal in peace, even if he did stick out like a sore thumb in his muddy clothes in the nice restaurant.

We quickly changed in a dark parking lot and headed to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. We recounted our adventures for Eugene and Giri on the way. Boy, it was a great feeling. I kept using the word "invigorating" to describe it, but Rusty had other words on his mind! We figured we had walked about 17 miles overall -- a good day's exercise.

At the wharf, our luck continued. As I had predicted, we found a great parking spot right in front of the Buena Vista Cafe. We first went and got some hot clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (Oyster Boy was still hungry), and then hit the Buena Vista for the world's best Irish Coffee. A perfect ending to a perfect day!

Epilog

The lessons we learned on this hike were:

  1. Read the directions on how to get there,
  2. Get there on time,
  3. Take a damn flashlight!

Milestones:
Peter's 20th leaf



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