Daniel Southard Takes a Hike
Miwok/Wolf Ridge Loop: 4.5 miles/2.5 hours, hilly and somewhat strenuous, but with well maintained and graded trails. It starts a short distance from Headlands Center for the Arts at the Visitor Center where Lagoon Trail begins. Go 0.1 mile north to Miwok Trail, which you take 1.6 mile to Wolf Ridge Trail, then 0.7 mile to Coastal Trail (where you’ll find the optional .2 mile side trip to the Wolf Ridge Summit), then 1.5 mile to the Rodeo Beach and the sand spit to the south part of Lagoon Trail, where you’ll go .5 mile back to the Visitor Center. This seems complex but it is actually easy to follow (and well-signed) once you’re on the ground.
When the fog hugs the ground the way it has been during these first weeks of November, you can live within it, enjoying the way it mutes colors and obliterates distances, cradling the sound of the old man with a tuba on the bridge pylon in its nebulous fingers. Or you can do what some of us did last week and hike in, through, and above it by making use of the incredible topographic variation here at the Headlands. It doesn’t need to be foggy to enjoy this loop but it certainly makes for a memorable version of this landscape.
The name Miwok attempts to honor the indigenous inhabitants of this land before the European invasion, and as we walk we can imagine how this terrain was lovingly cared for as a vast garden during the previous 15,000 years or more. Cycles of human-caused fire occurred on average every 7-9 years, keeping these hills park-like and grassy. We can imagine clean lines of sight where we would have seen herds of Elk and Antelope, as well as Wolves and Grizzly Bears on the hunt. In this present day, the hiker will have to content themselves with their imagination and the abundant coyote and deer scat to remind ourselves that wildness can still remain wherever humanity lets it.
It may seem like a featureless gray expanse of water vapor from underneath but the fog and blue sky are intimate friends. The trail rises slowly through it, disembodied strands of fog intermingling with floating patches of blueness as rays of sun pierce it in unpredictable ways, leaving ridgelines alternately swamped and stranded by the undulating fog sea. The peninsulas and ridges of the Headlands reaching out into the sea face south, and the additional sun exposure of this improbable landscape do their best chaparral impression, carrying the hiker seemingly hundreds of miles south down the coast. But as the Wolf Ridge Trail ascends and winds behind the hill, the north slope reveals a lusher landscape, with ferns hidden in the gullies and even an occasional Coast Live Oak.
Where the Wolf Ridge and Coastal Trails intersect, take a side trip uphill to the summit–known to some as Hill 88–a short distance away. Here you will find the human-flattened top of Wolf Ridge haunted by a former military compound which looks like an abandoned rec center plunked down on this island in the sky. The view from the 950’ plateau is only limited by what the atmosphere gives you. It may be like the view out of the window of an ascending 737 over an endless blanket of fog, with only hilltops, antennae, and bridge pylons thrusting above. Or, on a crisp winter’s day after the rain has cleared the air, you may see for a hundred miles or more. Visible are the twin-peaked mass of Mount Tamalpais to the north, Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands to the west in the ocean, Mount Diablo looming darkly over San Francisco and the Oakland Hills far to the east, and the distant headlands falling from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the South. When you can tear yourself away from the view, all that remains is the winding descent down to the sea and back to the starting place.
Daniel Southard, 18 November 2019.