Marin hike: A spectacular hike on Ring Mountain

The Ring Mountain loop is as close as you can get to a perfect springtime hike. The beautiful stretches and spots of wildflowers make it one of Marin’s top wildflower hikes. The views are equally superb — surprisingly so, since the top elevation is a relatively modest 600 feet. Yet the panoramic sweep and the close intimacy provided by the lower elevation make the views particularly enticing. When the views and profuse wildflowers combine — as they do in a few places — it is awesome.

Summary of the hike: The hike is generally moderate, but there are a few relatively steep portions and some rocky footing in spots. But if you can climb and you take breathers as needed, you will be able to complete the roundtrip loop hike of approximately 2.25 miles. Dogs allowed on leash and no facilities.

Getting there: Take the Paradise Drive exit east off Highway 101 and veer right off the main road and then curve right onto Paradise Drive and continue for a while. Our trailhead is just after Paradise Drive runs close to the bay and passes Westward Drive, at the gate to the Ring Mountain Preserve. Plenty of parking is available along the road on either side.

The hike: We start on the Phyllis Ellman Trail and upon reaching the signed junction of the Phyllis Ellman Trail and Loop Trail, take the Loop Trail to the left and continue on it to just over the ridge top. As you climb, you are presented with terrific views across the bay to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the East Bay with masses of flowers in the foreground. Soon we climb some steps that rise relatively gently.

Along the trail, we pass a host of vivid wildflowers, including bright yellow California buttercups, sun cups and goldfields, white Oakland star tulips with three rounded petals and narrow sepal points in between and varying purple- and white-colored iris. We also see pink checkerbloom and emerging clover, blue-eyed grass, the dark blue of sky lupine and yellow and white tidy tips. The landscape looks as if a vagabond painter had randomly tossed colors all around.

The tidy tip flower is easily recognized and now predominant in several spots along the trail. It appears to have been painted by an obsessive deity, who, while holding the flower’s yellow radiating rays, meticulously painted each of the small tips white.

Tidy tips seen on Ring Mountain. (Photo by Jim Holden) 

Footsteps of spring — an evocative name but not a particularly pretty flower — has generally vanished along with the other early bloomers. The increase in light and warmth causes nature’s canvas to change more rapidly than you might think, so do not delay. Take this hike while Ring Mountain’s many wildflowers are still profuse.

Upslope, we enter small islands of trees and see a fantastically shaped large tree with no life left in it. Still climbing, sometimes more steeply, we reach the top of the ridge and look down on a solitary boulder landmark called Turtle Rock. Blasphemously, I must admit that it never has resembled a turtle to me. Walk down to examine it or snack or lunch by it, if you wish, and return to continue our hike.

Upslope from Turtle Rock, our eyes sweep panoramically from Mount Tamalpais, Strawberry Point and Sausalito, and over to Belvedere Island and the San Francisco skyline. Flowers surround us in different scatters of wild color.

We turn right on Ring Mountain Fire Road and after a short distance, descend a relatively steep slope and continue just past a sign and trail heading left. In a few yards, we encounter the Phyllis Ellman Trail signpost on the right and turn right on it. We continue on the trail through serpentine outcroppings of boulders and rocks atop serpentine soil.

Along this path from late May into June, you can see an astonishing flower, the Tiburon mariposa lily. Throughout the world, it exists only here.

The flower is unusual — light yellow-green with some red, purple and dark markings and hairy petals. Discovered in 1971 and announced scientifically in 1973, the flower is different — I’d say almost punk — and singularly beautiful. But it is hard to see unless you are focused on looking for it, because it blends so well into its surroundings.

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Restricted to this serpentine outcropping on this upper slope of the Ring Mountain Preserve, it is hard to imagine that the plant exists solely within these few acres and nowhere else on the 126 billion acres of our planet. Why not cash in your winning lottery ticket on this one-in-a-billion chance and schedule a hike in late May or early June to see this flower when fresh? Generally, by the end of June it will be too late — the Tiburon mariposa lily flower will have disappeared for another year.

Back to the present, we continue on the Phyllis Ellman Trail down to the trailhead with fine memories of our beautiful hike.

Looking back over our winter and spring hikes, we have seen and experienced waterfalls, wildlife, spring’s wildflowers and views. Looking forward, we will continue to adventure. See you in two weeks at Point Reyes.

A longtime avid hiker and Marin resident, Jim Holden is the author of two nonfiction books: “It Happened in Marin” and “Adventurous Lives, Daring Acts.” He can be reached at

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