Friday, March 20, 2015

Good times at Bon Tempe

Shadyside Trail
The five lakes of the Mount Tamalpais Watershed have unique personalities and characteristics. Phoenix Lake is very close to Ross and gets the most footsteps. Little Lake Lagunitas is a charming jewel. Bon Tempe and Alpine really are one lake with a spillway separating them. Kent Lake is the most obscure, tucked back into a canyon in the northwest part of the watershed. I love all these lakes, but I think my heart belongs to Bon Tempe.

The Bon Tempe trailhead is accessed via the Sky Oaks area outside of Fairfax. Unlike the other watershed staging areas, this one is not free: pay the $8 use fee at an automated payment vending machine near the entrance kiosk. Past the pay station, continue down the road, bear right at the signed fork, then park in the gravel lot on the left.
Newt along Shadyside Trail

The fire road climbs to the spillway and heads southwest. One the far end of the spillway, a junction offers a choice. Kent Lake and its namesake trail are to the right, as is the start of Rocky Ridge Fire Road. You can hike out and back on Kent Trail, but if you want a loop, come prepared. It's 2 miles to the first junction so loops involve at least 5 miles and 500 feet in elevation change. I like to string together Kent, Stocking, and Rocky Ridge Fire Road (which is described on my Bon Tempe page), but there are additional trails to add variety to your day. Be sure to have a detailed map and good navigation skills in the wooded north slope -- it's easy to get lost when you can't see the surrounding area because of the dense tree cover.

Back at the junction on the edge of the spillway, consider an easier option. The loop around Bon Tempe, on Shadyside and Sunnyside trails, is one of the mildest 4 mile hikes in the watershed. Trails are well signed and there are lots of runners and hikers about.

On Wednesday, craving more than a lakeside stroll, I choose a hike that may be my new Bon Tempe favorite. An easy jaunt on Shadyside, sharp climb on Lagunitas-Rock Spring Fire Road, and moderate descent on Rocky Ridge Fire Road. This loop is about 5 miles with about 800 feet in elevation change.

View to Bon Tempe Lake from Lagunitas-Rock Spring Fire Road
So from that junction at the edge of the spillway, I turned left onto Shadyside Trail. At a nearly level pace, the narrow path runs slightly uphill from the lake, through a mix of coast live oaks, Douglas fir, and California bay. Madrone blossoms littered the trail like nature's confetti. Although it was a few days before spring, early wildflowers were still going strong along the trail, including milkmaids, hound's tongue, and mission bells. Fetid adder's tongue had already gone to seed, but there were huge colonies of this plant -- I made a mental note to come earlier next year to catch these strange brownish flowers with mottled green leaves. I saw lavender Douglas iris, creamy Ferdinand's Iris, and a deep blue variety, ground Iris.

Newts! The first one crawled out from under one of those fetid adder's tongue leaves, and headed toward the lake. The second one scampered across the trail coming back from the water. I glimpsed the third in a pool near a bridge. I guess breeding season is running late this year.

Gypsum spring beauty, on Lagunitas-Rock Spring Fire Road
Past a signed junction with Lower Berry Trail (signed as closed), Shadyside Trail emerges into a grassy stretch before returning to the woods again. The trail ends at a junction near Lake Lagunitas. At this point I'd hiked 1.7 miles. Time for some butt-busting climbing! I turned right onto Lagunitas-Rock Spring Fire Road. The fire road rises then dips to offer an out -- the path to the left heads around Lake Lagunitas. (If you have any worries about your water supply or ability to climb, you might exercise this option and loop around Lagunitas and then take Bon Tempe Sunnyside back to the trailhead.) Lagunitas-Rock Spring Fire Road begins to ascend in mostly steep stretches, although there is one nearly level bit that allowed me to catch my breath. Initially the fire road is shaded by madrone, coast live oak, and Douglas fir. A bit past the junction with Lower Berry Trail (here NOT signed as closed, hmmm) there's a break in the trees. Here manzanita and ceanothus are plentiful, and on my hike there were great froths of a delicate pink flower, Gypsum spring beauty, occupying the rocky ground on the left side of the trail. The view, off to the right, made me forgive the steep fire road. Wow! Low grassy hills were reflected in Bon Tempe Lake's mirror -- hey, I was down there and now I'm here. That sense of accomplishment always thrills me. I could have soaked in the view for a long time, but I had to motor on in order to get my son from school in the early afternoon. Onward uphill, not much farther, to the very welcome signed Bay Tree Junction. I turned right onto Rocky Ridge Fire Road.
Runners on Rocky Ridge Fire Road

Nearly 3 miles into my hike, I was relieved that the sustained climb was behind me. Rocky Ridge Fire Road offers curious hikers a broad sample of Tam's plants. From Bay Tree Junction, the trail wanders downhill through madrones and bays. At the ridgeline, serpentine soil fosters low slung natives including manzanita and ceanothus. Because there are few trees on this stretch,  I enjoyed exceptional views of Tam and surrounding open spaces. At 3.3 miles, signed Stocking trail heads west toward Hidden Lake and Kent Trail. No time for that today -- I continued straight. I always hope to catch native flowers that thrive in serpentine soil on Rocky Ridge; on Wednesday I saw just one Oakland star tulip, but manzanita and ceanothus were blooming, filling the air with sweet scents. Bees buzzed deliriously. Western fence lizards scampered across the rocky trail, reminding me that rattlesnakes will be out and about now. As the fire road descends steeply, chamise gives way to Douglas fir forest, which then shifts to grassland, buckeyes, and oaks. Soon I was back at the edge of the spillway, then at the trailhead.

I can't wait to go back!

Read more about the Bon Tempe area (includes driving directions and details).


David H. C. said...

Thanks for this wonderful walk suggestion! On our April 11 walk, we were surprised to still find a couple of the gypsum spring beauties you photographed in bloom up on the ridge.

The Lower Berry Trail is not closed; it heads uphill immediately a few feet after one crosses the little bridge on the Shadyside trail. The closed trail is the (former) lower portion of the Stocking Trail, and the sign is a few feet before the bridge! We took Lower Berry uphill to join the Lagunitas-Rock Spring Fire Road instead of going all the way along the lake to the road. Lower Berry is a lovely little trail!

Jane Huber said...

Hi David -- glad you had a great hike. Next time I think I will take Lower Berry Trail. Thanks! Jane

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RobHarris said...

Hey man,
Wanted to know which boots are you usually using for the hikes? Been thinking about picking up a pair of Hoka Runners from nearby Running Store Texas, but thought maybe there are some better options? Thanks!