Hike to the beach!
This hike is very popular, and with good reason. There aren't many hikes that feature a jaunt down a canyon full of old growth redwoods to a beautiful beach. Two very different animal species frequently come to mind on this hike. One of these animals is something that people marvel over when it's encountered, and the other embodies our deepest and most primal fears.
The hike begins at the Pantoll Ranger Station which is also Mount Tamalpais State Park's headquarters. The lower parking lot can hold perhaps 50 vehicles, but is frequently full. There is a small upper lot that holds about 6 vehicles. The Steep Ravine Trail starts at the lower (western) end of the larger lot. You will immediately notice the deep and dark forest of redwood, Douglas fir, California bay, and various oaks. The trail gradually descends to near the bottom of Steep Ravine Canyon which is drained by Webb Creek. There are a couple of exceptionally large redwoods near the creek and these help make sunshine hard to come by here.
The Steep Ravine Trail follows this lovely canyon down towards the coast with numerous crossings of Webb Creek facilitated by well-maintained footbridges. If you are lucky you will encounter a little beastie that's emblematic of California's redwood community. You may see it slowly crawling across the trail or even hanging out on a bridge railing. The California banana slug, official mascot of the University of California in Santa Cruz, spends its days either slowly oozing through the deep carpet of leaf litter or estivating until conditions are moist enough. These creatures always draw "oohs" and "aahhhs" when encountered. The banana slug is the world's second-largest terrestrial slug, and a hermaphrodite to boot. They play an important role in recycling the forest floor, and they seem to draw no other emotions than wonder and awe.
The trail soon reaches a small breached dam near the mouth of Steep Ravine Canyon where it ends at its junction with the Dipsea Trail. Continue along the Dipsea Trail and you will notice that the forest has opened up as California coastal scrub starts to take over. Dipsea gently descends through this scrub and finally expansive views of Stinson Beach, the mysterious town of Bolinas, and Point Reyes in the distance dominate your view. As you hike closer to sea level the trail crosses the Panoramic Highway and Highway One in quick succession. There is a final downhill portion through a magnificent forest of moss-cloaked Monterey cypress and Monterey pine before entering the small town of Stinson Beach. The next 1/3 mile portion follows a short street (the trail route is well-marked) to a busy snack bar and the entrance to the beach where there's a large parking lot. Note: anyone who's planning on hiking this route from Stinson Beach should either pick a day with very bad weather or arrive well before noon as parking in Stinson Beach is brutal.
You may look back the way you came, and marvel at how grizzly bears used to be on one's mind during any trip to the mountains. You may wonder what it was like when wolf packs hunted the extensive deer herds that are now so numerous that many consider them pests. At the entrance to the beach, however, you will be reminded that man does not control every environment he is part of. There is a sign warning of the presence of great white sharks, and it's not something that many take lightly. There have been a few white shark attacks off of Stinson Beach, but nothing out of the ordinary. It is awe-inspiring to look out into the ocean and know that there are definitely things out there that could take you out. Great white sharks do attack people, but most victims survive, and you face far more danger driving on California roadways than you do going swimming.
Stinson Beach is a fairly wide beach with firm, fine sand. Enjoy a brief moment here before returning the way you came or take a few hours to catch a swim and perhaps a nap. You may be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the Farallon Islands just west of the Golden Gate on your return hike. These small and jagged islands are most famous for whale watching and its large seasonal population of white sharks....
Popular alternate hikes are making this route a loop with the full Dipsea Trail (with a final connection to the trail head via the Old Mine Trail) to the south or via the Matt Davis Trail to the north. Both of these trails are considerably more open than the Steep Ravine Trail. Stay tuned.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.