Last Saturday we hiked the full length of the Dipsea Trail, all the way from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, and back.
Total distance hiked: 14.8 miles (23.82 km)
Elevation change: 9,276 feet (2,827 m)
As I realized after the hike, that's almost exactly the same distance and elevation change that one has to hike when going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. The more proud I am to report that we completed the hike in 6h 30 min!
Since I did not find a good description of this hike anywhere in the internet, I am going to try to be as detailed in my description as possible.
The trailhead for the Dipsea Trail is located in Old Mill Park in Mill Valley, CA (for directions click here).
There are several (free) parking spots in the Old Mill Park along Cascade Drive. Try to park as close to the park entrance as possible, as the trailhead is located just opposite the entrance at the intersection of three roads: Cascade Drive, Cascade Way, and Molino. There are no obvious trail markings and it almost looks like the trail leads to somebody's house: take a look at Google Map street view. Don't get discouraged by that and aim for the staircase located in the driveway on the photo above.
The trail starts with three flights of stairs (adding up to 671 steps). According to the local legend, people who hiked and/or run Dipsea never die, they just reach the 672nd step :)
Once you walked up the first set of stairs, you will need to take a few steps to the right. The second set of stairs will be there. To find the third set, you will need to take a few steps to the left.
After the third set of steps you will find yourself on Sequoia Road. Follow the road (to the west/right) for around 600 ft (200 m), until you get to Walsh Drive. Continue on Walsh Drive and then Bay View until you reach Panoramic Highway. This is where you finally get off the pavement and where the good trail markings start.
The trail will continue on the other side of the highway, slightly to the right of the direction from which you came from. After around 5 minutes the trail will reach Muir Woods Road and will run parallel to it for around 0.4 mile (0.6 km). (In November 2010, this part of the trail was closed due to a mudslide. It's not a big deal, as you can walk on the road and rejoin the proper trail after 0.4 mile. To find the continuation of the Dipsea Trail, look for a sign "Cam Del Canon" and a few mailboxes on the left side of the road. It is so obvious that you can not miss it.)
Starting at Panoramic Highway the trail steadily drops down ~700 feet (210 m), until it reaches the lower parking lot of Muir Woods. From there, over the course of 2.2 miles (3.5 km), you will need to climb ~1400 feet (430 m), until you get to the top of "Cardiac Hill". As the name suggests, "Cardiac Hill" can make your heart start pumping pretty hard, but the views from there are absolutely fantastic and will fully compensate for your climbing efforts. On a clear day you will be able to see San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Oakland, top of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
If you feel tired and did not arrange for anybody to pick you up at the end of the trail in Stinson Beach, this would be a good place to turn around, as from here over the course of next 3 miles (4.8 km), the trail will drop all the way down to the ocean, and you will loose all the elevation that you gained so far. But if you feel strong, I would definitely recommend going all the way to Stinson Beach, as this part of the hike is the prettiest. From now on, the trail will lead you through a deep misty forest across several Marin hills. Moreover, during the final one mile of the trail there are spectacular views of Stinson Beach and the ocean.
After reaching Stinson Beach you have a choice of either going back the same way you came (this is what we did last Saturday), or you can make your hike even longer by first hiking the Matt Davis & Steep Ravine Trails (described here and here) before rejoining the Dipsea Trail.
All in all this is a fantastic, but challenging hike. It crosses several parks: Mt. Tamalpais SP, Muir Woods NM, the Golden Gate Recreational Area, and it brings you all the way to the ocean and a nice beach. It should not be attempted by novice hikers (unless you do it one-way only). Depending on your strength, it can take you anything from 5 to 8 (or more) hours to complete it. Though there are people who run it in 2h...
For us, the first half of the hike (getting to Stinson Beach) was super-easy and fast, but hiking back from there was not. I started feeling pain in one of my knees at around mile 11 and, therefore, the last 4 miles where a bit unpleasant - especially during the downhills. Absolute killer for me was at the end of the hike when we had to walk down the 671 steps... Every single one of them was hurting.
At around mile 14, Anil renamed the hike "Dip-shit", which expresses pretty well what we felt at that particular moment... Still, we are very proud of ourselves for having finished it and we are surprised that today, a day later, nothing hurts us. I hope that it means that both of us are in a reasonably good shape before our Andean adventure.
The hike begins with 671 steps:
The second half of the trail leads through the beautiful green forest of Muir Woods NM:
The views from the top of Cardiac Hill:
Just a mile away from Stinson Beach:
And finally we reached the beach!