Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Between tafoni formations, old growth redwoods and the promise of uncrowded trails, our hiking appetite was intrigued and we picked a particularly foggy day to explore the trails at El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space. Damp it was and slightly cooler than we had anticipated so we had to cut short our initial hike. However the trails still left a pleasing and fleeting memory of quiet and forest mystery. Little known for Bay Area hikers, El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space is where you should go to get your tree forest fix. It’s trees, trees, trees and more trees every step of the way.
Just south of Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space, El Corte de Madera Creek has a parking lot but it’s off the main trailhead and as we pulled in, it was clear it was a hardcore bikers’ rendez-vous. Jeez, there were some serious mountain bikers there, all suited up for the Tour de France. We got out of the car – the only hikers around – and entered the open space at Skeggs Point. I based my itinerary on an article by Susan Alcorn the San Francisco Hiking Examiner called “Hike in El Corte de Madera Creek.” In it she described a 3.3 mile loop but I wanted a more complete view of the open space and planned a longer loop to include the old growth redwood and the creek. In hindsight, the creek wasn’t much to behold and the old growth redwood was as tall as douglas firs around but it was still cool to see it.
From Skeegs Point we got on Tafoni Trail, a wide fire road where the first sets of bikers passed us with a polite “thank you.” We quickly learned that you have to be on the lookout for bikers at El Corte de Madera Creek and kept our ears open. The grade was moderate and our girls (3 ages 6, 8 and 8) were skipping ahead of us. At the junction with Fir Trail at 0.9 mile, Fir Trail makes a right and shortly after, you’ll see a wooden fence with a sign to the tafoni formation. Fortunately this is a narrow hikers-only trail and we walked single file to an overlook of a massive mossy boulder. I call it a boulder but to give you an idea, it’s at least 20 feet high, a rare sandstone monolith whose intriguing features are best seen up close. So we followed the trail and reach the observation platform. Standing under the big rock, the kids oohed and aahed over the lacy rock patterns structures, the honeycomb holes and “wind caves” resulting from thousands of years of wind erosion. If you are a geologist at heart – I so wish my dad had been there – you’ll probably enjoy it more than my kids enjoy a Nutella toast.
Since there was no picnic table at the Tafoni formation and we thought it’d be a nice thing to have for our lunch, we pushed an extra 0.5 mile to the Vista Point for lunch.
We retraced our steps to the junction with Fir Trail and made a right on Fir Trail. At the fork, we took the trail that went up and around a small hill to find the Vista Point. What a laugh! Please click on the photo gallery and check out the picnic table at the Vista Point. It was so wet that it perfectly reflected the trees’ branches! As for the vista, well, it was so foggy that we barely saw beyond the clearing. I bet the vista is awesome on clear days but on foggy days, even the kids didn’t want to sit on the ground because it was so damp. So we quickly pulled out our sandwiches, ate while pacing around the clearing and couldn’t wait to keep going because when you stop walking, it gets chilly quickly.
After lunch we continued down Fir Trail. And when I write down, I’ve rarely seen trails that steep in the Bay Area. At places we had to hang on to vegetation to secure our footing. Unaware that we’d have to go up every foot we were going down, the girls were still racing ahead of us and stopping at the occasional banana slug. Ah, this was fantastic banana slug weather. As in, it’s banana slug party time! As the Johnny Cash song goes, we went “down, down, down” in our own ring of fog. How do the bikers do it?
Finally when I was hoping we wouldn’t go any further down, we saw a wooden bridge below us and took a sharp left on Giant Salamander Trail. Was this the creek? Apparently not, this one was dry. The terrain definitely leveled out and over the next mile or so, the Giant Salamander Trail crossed a few more bridges. The trail was narrow and lined on both sides with pretty grasses that sprouted like brooms from the ground. We walked and walked until we reached what must have been El Corte de Madera Creek. Not impressive by any means, the creek was framed by lush ferns and a clear stream flowed down the canyon. Seemed like we were ready to start the slow and steep ascent.
Sling Shots and Old Growth Redwood
At the junction with Timberview Trail, we took a left and started going up. Amazingly, it was much more moderate that what I feared and except for one steep portion, the kids had no trouble hiking up the mountain. To their credit, they were way too busy picking up douglas fir cones to use as projectiles for their sling shots designed on the trail.
Yes, I think sling shots saved them from noticing the elevation gain. My friend Olivier happened to have big elastic bands in his pocket and the girls had no trouble finding perfect sticks with the right angle. He tied the elastic bands and the catapulting began! It was the ideal distraction and I won’t forget to pack elastic bands in my pockets next time.
As we were looking for the famous old growth redwood of the preserve, we noticed a singular tree on the side of the trail. It was sawed off in half but a thin sliver remained so that it looked like a seat for a giant. Of course we had to climb it! It was in fact, much more fun than looking at the old growth redwood. First Olivier went up. Then two of the girls wanted up. Then my friend Alexandra – who incidentally, almost fell in the hole that was in the middle. Then Olivier staged a photograph with his wife at the top in the hole and his shoes at the bottom of the stump. It was great and once we thought we had gone over all the photo combinations, we got on our way.
The sign for the old growth redwood was just a few hundred yards beyond and somewhat removed from the main path. We entered a narrower path and arrived in front of the forest monster. Though it didn’t look like it was the tallest tree in the forest (I couldn’t find any height estimates in the brochure but it looked like 100 feet or so – hard to tell), it was certainly the widest. Apparently it’s 50 feet all around. There we put down our packs and ate our snack. My girls puled out their thermos hot water bottle and whipped up a hot chocolate and apple cider.
After our stop, we walked up non stop til we got to Metuhselah Trail where the trail became more level and super wide. With inclines on both sides, it looked like we were walking a wide ridgeline. My oldest was chit-chatting with my friend Alexandra while the two other girls had pulled a notebook and were writing a poem as they hiked. I overheard some of the lines as “as there are no animals” and chuckled internally. Indeed we had seen no animal on this hike except banana slugs but I guess if you’re a child, it doesn’t count unless it’s furry.
After roughly 6.1 miles we got back to a trailhead with a massive antenna and – we couldn’t believe it – fake plastic trees planted between douglas firs. What the heck? The Skeggs Point trailhead was just 0.2 miles further and by the time we got back to the car, it was the sunniest day you’ve ever seen. How unfair is that?