Marin hike: Novato trail full of wonderful surprises

The Big Trees Trail in Novato is extraordinary and full of surprises. It contains stands of redwoods that become more extensive as you climb, fantastically shaped madrones and extensive views, including some of Stafford Lake, that make it a true treat. At the top is a stand of surprisingly large redwoods and a very large one, called the Indian Tree, that gives the preserve its name.

Too few outside the Novato area have taken this wonderful hike. So, if you are willing to climb and have never hiked the Big Trees Trail, put it at the top of your dance card.

Hike summary: The hike is 6 miles round trip with a substantial elevation gain on an excellently constructed and well-signed trail in the Indian Tree Preserve. Our hike is mostly a loop, but the upper portion is up and back. The trail is well designed, with the climbing switchbacks generally alternating with level sections, allowing hikers to catch their breath. The footing is easy, stable and generally unobstructed.

It is a unique hike and a terrific one if you are able to climb and hike the distance. No facilities. Dogs on leash allowed. No bikes, but horses are allowed.

Getting there: In Novato, take Vineyard Road just past the houses numbered in the 3400s to where the paved road ends and the crushed rock road begins. Our trailhead is located by the last house on the left. There is plentiful parking along the crushed rock road.

The hike: Let’s start relatively early in the morning, for our climb to the top of the Big Trees Trail will definitely heat up our cores. There is a large map at the trailhead for you to orient yourself. About 2.7 miles up the Big Trees Trail, we will come to a junction with the Deer Camp Trail. We will continue our climb on the Big Trees Trail, but on our return, we will loop back on the Deer Camp Trail.

We begin easy and in the open but soon will enter our first set of switchbacks. We develop a comfortable pace and breathe rhythmically. After a while, on the downhill side we see Stafford Lake, blue and gleaming in the distance, and not long after encounter our first stand of redwoods. They will appear unexpectedly as prominent islands in a sea of trees at various intervals as we continue our climb.

Redwoods exist naturally only in a narrow band along the Northern California coast, extending from Big Sur to just beyond the California-Oregon border. The tallest organism alive, and second largest in mass to the inland sequoias, redwoods can live for more than 2,000 years in optimum conditions. They thrive best in protected alluvial valleys and canyons.

Beautiful trees line the aptly named Big Trees Trail in Novato. (Photo by Jim Holden) 

On the surface, the habitat on our walk would seem not to favor redwood trees. But along our trail they grow within microclimates of exposure, moisture, soil and other components that allow them to thrive in this seemingly atypical environment.

Besides the islands of redwoods, there are two other intriguing aspects of our walk’s habitat. For most of our walk, there are an unusual number of madrone trees, some of them twisted into fantastic shapes. I recall no other trail of length that contains so many madrone trees throughout. The madrone trunks and large branches when naked without bark are colored reddish brown, yellow or both colors, and look almost spectral in a certain light.

Then there are the immense fields of ferns that seem to appear out of nowhere. The huge stretches of ferns, sometimes covering steep slopes are formidable. The stands of redwoods, the twisted madrones and the large fern fields combine to make this hike unlike any other in Marin County.

As we continue to climb, the last portion of the trail becomes steeper and is dominated by Douglas fir. We crest at Indian Tree Fire Road, and walk a short distance to the left and then right on a path up to an island of large redwoods of which the Indian Tree is the largest. Stand under it and look up. Its height, its timelessness and its immensity create a feeling of wonder.

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Take your time, wander and enjoy the atmosphere. When ready, head down the Big Trees Trail until you arrive at the junction with the Deer Camp Trail. Turn left on the Deer Camp Trail, continue down to the signed Deer Camp Cutoff and take it to the Upper Meadow Trail. We will descend the Upper Meadow trail back to the trailhead.

In an open area going up, and on the way down in some grassland areas, you will see the beautiful yellow mariposa lily with red dots inside its round-cupped petal. Perhaps of more significance, as we enter the Meadow Trail and, in other places, we see the pink of clarkia with a dark red splotch on each petal and the appropriate common name of Farewell to Spring.

Yes, summer is upon us with some great hiking ahead. See you in two weeks.

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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