Mountain biking in
Northern Marin County
- China Camp
- Jack London
- Big Rock Ridge
- Mount Burdell -
- Home -
Most riding in Marin lies to the south of Sir Francis Drake, but following route 101 north, beyond the "San Anselmo" turnoff,
the confluence of communities along the bay begins to fragment into isolated towns between the hilly ridges.
One has to give credit to the county of Marin for establishing a series of Open Space Preserves along the major ridges,
which could have just as easily been parcelled out to put mansions along
the peaks and keep the rest off-limits to the public, like what happened in Tiburon.
Instead, many of these areas are accessible to bikes by fireroad and, not uncommonly, singletrack,
and potential trails in this area are getting a relatively high degree of activism.
To the south these OSPs are squeezed between encroaching developments, like Ring Mountain,
but up here they are large enough
to make for fairly long and satisfying rides.
This area of Marin tends to be dry, with oak trees spread out across dusty meadows
more reminiscent of the East Bay than the coastal climate to the west.
The best known destination in this area for mountain bikes is China Camp.
Nearly a ghost town by the middle of last century, it is the remnants of a fishing village
established in the late 1800s and, in its heyday, was populated by around 500 immigrants. There's
a Mom and Pop store (now a concession stand),
a dock, a few old fishing boats in the harbor, a few houses, a rusted
electrical engine for towing boats ashore, and that's about it. Harvesting grass
shrimp native to the bay-- rumored to be the sweetest tasting in the world-- the population dwindled as siltly runoff from
hydraulic gold mining in the Sierra Nevada altered the local ecology and
shrimp numbers plummeted. So in 1970 the State of California purchased the village and
converted it into a historic park.
Here the coast is bordered by acres of estuaries and mud flats, where grass shrimp once thrived,
and where manzanita hillsides
give way to dense oak as they rise steeply from the shore.
China Camp State Park: Nike Station & Shoreline Loop
"Riding toward the village I ran into a herd of does,
maybe five or six,
which seemed startled when I came by. A little further down the trail
I came across two fawns, still
with the spots on their back. They first tried to hold completely still,
but as they were standing in the trail it became
obvious that wasn't going to work. So then they tried to evade me.
The trail was looping back and forth down the hill, so when they tried
going downhill, that's where I was
going. Then they turned around and started heading uphill again and
finally got away. They were very cute. All in all, the deer seemed
to have difficulty deciding whether they should be frightened of me or
not. Their attempts to get away were very half-hearted."
(b. August 23, 2000)
Directions: This route takes you from the north park entrance to the Nike station
at the summit of San Pedro Ridge, then down to the historic village, then back along the meandering
but mainly level shoreline trail to the start. There are a few other trails in China Camp, but this route
basically circumvents the park boundaries offering a good overall sense of the place.
By car, take 101 North past San Rafael and turn right at the North San Pedro exit.
Follow that to China Camp and park along the road at the first ranger station. Just beyond it is the Bay View trailhead.
On bike, follow Bayview a couple miles, until you reach a fork which turns right on the Echo Trail
leading to Bay Hill Drive.
Turn left on the road a mile later and climb to the radar site.
Continue on the fireroad heading south, and turn left on the Back Ranch Fireroad then right getting back on to
the Bay View Trail which terminates on the Ridge Fire Trail.
Turn left and follow it down to the Oak Ridge Trail,
which continues down to the end of the Shoreline Trail and the village.
You can skip the nike radar site by staying on the Bay View Trail, and chop off maybe a couple hundred feet of climbing.
The shoreline trail will return you from the village back to the car.
Profile: The trail begins at sea level and grades on Bayview are mostly manageable;
much of the climb is along a few steep fireroad sections whose inclines might reach into the teens.
Bay Hill Drive, leading up to the Nike station (elev. 900), is particularly steep but at least it's paved.
The map doesn't state the distance but it was probably 3 or 4 miles to get there.
If you don't climb to the ridgeline, the Bayview trail peaks at 600 feet around the Echo Trail turn.
It's a busy park, so obey the speed limit returning down.
The shoreline trail has some ups and downs but follows an even contour.
This area is sheltered from the Pacific breeze and so gets very hot in the summer.
Comment : The shoreline trail earns a spot in my heart because, after Golden Gate Park,
it was the first place I took my brand new first mountain bike, and, man, I had a blast!
But running into a family of deer became pretty routine by my second or third ride in Marin.
Overall, this loop is a fun ride on okay singletrack, with probably more notoriety than it deserves.
It can get crowded, and this is the only place I've been where mountain bikers get territorial.
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Map Link (788K PDF) -
"Wildest among the fisher folk may be accounted the Chinese
wrote Jack London of the inhabitants of China Camp in
Tales of the Fish Patrol.
He was very descriptive of the location. I suppose these days some might say the
same of mountain bikers. At age 16 (c. 1892), Jack London worked for the
Fish Commission which enforced poaching laws throughout the San Francisco Bay. In
"White and Yellow," he described the arrest of some Chinese fishermen-- and that ain't
an albino giraffe he's talking about. He probably wrote it early in his career
and it isn't one of his better works. Who's to say how true the story is, but his openly
racist attitude offers a glimpse into what was probably the prevailing feeling of
the time. Chapter 7,
"Yellow Handkerchief," is the exciting tale of another such encounter.
If you don't already know, consumption is what they used to call tuberculosis.
Lucas Valley OSP: The Big Rock Loop
"Slowly rotating spokes howled in high-pitched harmony as dusty gale
winds swept across the road that followed the crest of the ridge.
I found myself strangely blown across the loose gravel path leeward, and upon reaching the edge had to turn
and crank back sideways against the wind.
We had been riding the ridgecrest for the better part of an hour, sometimes on flat trail,
other times on precipitous descents, but mainly on outrageously steep climbs rising upward peak after peak.
The two radio towers upon the final summit were clearly our midpoint destination,
but beyond that the ride was a mystery spawned by hearsay in the nebulous world of rumors and innuendo.
In the mist of modern legend was a singletrack route that continued beyond, but who knew exactly where, or if,
or how far and where it would take us. So many questions lay beyond the towers that, as precious metabolic energy
faded, our patience to explore nearly faltered."
(b. May 22, 2004)
Directions: This Loop climbs to the peak of Big Rock Ridge, which parallels Mount Tam to the south,
and is the second highest point in Marin. It begins in Novato, climbs rather painfully along the ridgeline
to the radio towers at the peak, then descents mostly as singletrack down to Lucas Valley road before
returning to the start.
By car, Head up 101N to the Nave/Hamilton Field offramp
in Novato, then cross over the freeway to Alameda del Prado (you might have to head down Nave for a little
bit then turn around... maybe we missed a sign or something).
On the other side of the freeway, continue straight throught he stoplight and park on Clay.
On bike, the trailhead starts at the intersection of Alameda del Prado and Clay.
Yes, it's the paved route, but it doesn't stay that way for long.
Follow Big Rock Ridge Road past the Little Rock turn, past the Ponti turn, past the Queenstone turn, and
past the Luiz turn (all of these are poorly marked left turns) all the way up to the radio towers.
All of these turnoffs return down to Lucas Valley as well, but the best way down is to veer left just
past the radio towers down the Bay Area Ridge Trail, aka Big Rock "Trail",
which is widely switchbacking moderate singletrack descending to Lucas Valley Road.
Take that all the way back to Miller Creek Road, turn left, and follow it to the 101 offramp. Look to the
left of the offramp and you'll see a small bike lane that returns north alongside the freeway back to the start.
Overall, the loop is about 17 miles.
Profile: Oh, man. The fireroad pretty closely follows the crest of the ridge from Novoto (elev. 100)
up to the peak (elev. 1900) in about 5½ miles. But by following the ridgeline, the grade meanders up and down,
following gruelling natural contours.
There is plenty of climbing along grades reaching well into the teens, which
sometimes are mercifully short, and other times never seem to end. Making matters even worse was that they
were very slippery with plenty of loose dust and gravel. Once you get to the radio towers, the
singletrack down is a smooth, even, easy descent into the remote interior of Marin. From the trailhead (elev. 600),
following Lucas Valley back is all downhill
or flat with one small hump along the freeway at the very end. It would probably be an easier ride
in reverse (perhaps taking the Luiz or Queenstone fireroads down to the start), but, as always, we can't say
for sure until we've done it.
Comment [9½]: The first time we rode this in March, 2002, one couldn't legally go far beyond the Luiz
turnoff. But sometime since then,
bikers can go all the way to the peak, and then back down the Big Rock Trail beyond.
The singletrack is awesome and we agreed was the most enjoyable trail we've seen so far in Marin.
The only reason the loop gets dinged half a point is because of that painful climb to the radio towers.
Back to top.
Map Link (918K PDF) -
Mount Burdell OSP
"Looming storm clouds offered promises of the rain season, but today
would be dry, and the trails still soft and dusty. Contrasting against the dull yellow hillsides were vibrant
autumn maple trees along the drive through Novato that reminded us both of younger Maybury days.
At the trailhead, we found wide fireroads mostly gentle
grades with friendly trail users of all kinds offering pleasant greetings.
Out of character for Marin, they seemed oblivious to the controversy over bikes,
and the area took on the welcome feeling of a big back yard.
Dividing the the dwarf oak savanas were a couple examples of historic stone fences,
built by Chinese laborers looking for jobs after the railroads.
There was no shortage of rocks here, particularly embedded in the trail, and no surprise it once served
as a quarry." (October 28, 2001)
Directions: The Mount Burdell ridge stands prominently over Novato, and this loop circumscribes the
Open Space Preserve that lies it's southern face.
By car, take 101 north to the San Marin exit on the north side of Novato.
Take the exit and turn
left, following it westward until you turn right on San Andreas Drive. You'll pass the trailhead right
before San Andreas ends in a Cul-de-Sac. For the most roundabout view of the park on bike, start by heading
the San Andreas fire road for ¾ of a mile, then turn left on the Deer Park Fireroad. When you get to the Cobblestone
trail make another left. The summit isn't far, but it's a steep an rocky ride to get there.
Near the summit is a paved fireroad which takes you along the ridge. It's
pretty flat and has some wonderful scenery so check it out. Return down Cobblestone, then continue to follow
Deer Park Fire Road to the Middle Burdell trail, turning left at hidden lake. From there, continue along the
San Carlos Trail, to Salt Lick, and finish with the hilly San Marin Fireroad back to the gate.
Profile: The traihead is at 335 feet, and the summit at 1500. Over 2.7 miles it's a pretty manageable
8% grade on good fireroads for the most part. There are ups and downs as you climb and some stretches are quite
a bit steeper than 8%. Cobblestone, just beneath the summit, is steep, eroded, and rocky-- but not for too long.
The Bay Area Ridge
Trail Council posted an elevation profile.
Comment : It's like a small Henry Coe in terms of the oak pastures.
While missing Henry Coe's
remoteness, it is also without the 15+% grades except in a couple brief spots, which ended up not being a
bad compromise. While it had everything going against it-- no rain for months with withering grasses
and dry sandy trails under gloomy storm clouds-- it still proved an enjoyable and relaxing ride.
I wouldn't mind taking another look once the wild flowers bloom.
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Map Link (890K PDF) -
Other Rides... Running between Sir Francis Drake and Frietas Parkway, we rode Terra Linda Ridge
after spending some time at San Rafael's
Street Painting Festival of 2003, which they always hold in early June. That time, they had Michelangelo's ceiling
of the Sistine Chapel replicated right there on the corner of "A" and 4th Street. Anyway, I never wrote it up
because I could think of absolutely nothing about the ride which stood out. So if you have no
place left to go in Marin County, you can read all about this ride and many others in
"Mountain Biking Marin"
by Theresa Martin and Brian Simon available in bike shops.
Of note, the graveyard closes at 5:00 pm, which they did mention but is totally pertinent to our diurnal rhythm.
So instead we had to poach a hiking trail at the end of San Francisco Blvd, off Sir Francis Drake,
to get to the main route.
Click to expand
Typical single track trails along China Camp. Some get a lot steeper.
Halfway along Big Rock ridge, a clearing opened up looking northward across the golf courses and suburbs of
Novato toward Mount Burdell.
"Gimme a Y! for Yaayyyy Bill!! Biker poet extraordinaire!" Oh, why thank you Kenny, how nice of you to say.
Near the top of the Queenstone Fireroad, gazing southward toward Mount Tam.
This "Big Rock," alongside Lucas Valley Road, about a mile west of Marinwood, apparently managed to
get two trails and the second highest peak in Marin County named after it.
This is a prominent land mark where the scenic Big Rock Trail begins.
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A nice article from SF Gate on the
history of China Camp.
Like Annadel and Henry Coe, China Camp makes GORPs
Top 10 list of California single track rides. I don't know what planet
that picture is from, though.
Uh oh, looks like
someone doesn't appreciate us mountain bikers.
While this guy
is nice enough to undermine his own credibility with manifestly illogical arguments
(saving me the trouble) he makes a couple good points and
reflects the flavor of the dialog in Marin County on the subject. So if
you are not from these parts it may be worth a read. I'll just say I found the
trails, particularly the ones heavily used by bikers, to be in good condition.
Northern Marin is awesome in its scenic splendor, but I think most of the area is owned by ranchers and private
landholders so it's off limits to mountain biking. But we are always looking to see what opens up.
Until then, the Youth in Arts Italian Street Painting festival
keeps us coming back to the area, every year in early June. Here's a Street Painting Exhibit
of various shots I took from the 2004 festival.
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