A Lovely Lake in Marin County
Phoenix Lake
Neil Wiley

Perhaps some day we can walk around our own local hidden lake. Behind the Loma Prieta Playfield, Building Blocks, and the Morrell Road loop is one of the area’s most exquisite jewels—Lake Elsman. The water is blue, clear, and clean, but except for a few San Jose Water Company employees, no people are seen. The reservoir is shielded from public view to protect water quality. However, if a deal can be made between Midpeninsula Open Space and the water company, we can visit this beautiful area while maintaining a valuable resource.

In the meantime, I’d like to show you a similar mountain lake shared by the Marin Municipal Water District and some nearby Marin communities. Phoenix Lake is in the foothills below Mount Tamalpais, and near the suburban towns of Ross and Kentfield. Rolling hills and thick forest hide a population with far more density than ours. This lake looks pristine even though it is surrounded by well-used trails shared by casual strollers, families, serious hikers, bikers, and dogs.

My daughter April, who lives in nearby Kentfield, led me and three dogs on an easy walk around the lake on a drizzly day during the holidays. A drive up Sir Francis Drake Boulevard takes us into Ross, where we turned left on Lagunitas Road. At the end of the road, we parked in Natalie Coffin Greene Park’s small parking lot. (If you come later on a nice day, you may have to wait for an available spot.)

The fire road to the lake is wide. On the left, water is rushing down a spillway into a creek. On the uphill side, you can see a big, strange-looking stone cone covered with moss and ferns. California bays, oaks, buckeyes, and madrones line the road. Within about a quarter-mile, the road passes the top of the spillway where a few benches overlook the lake.

Continuing straight along the main trail, I watch for ducks, grebes, and herons. Most are hiding from the light rain or the dogs. I wonder why ducks wouldn’t like rain.

About a third-of-a-mile in is the intersection with Worn Springs Trail on the right, but we continue straight until we reach an intersection with a narrow single-track to the left, close to the lake. (No bikes are allowed.) A turn right on Worn Springs Trail would have taken us up to 1,141-foot Bald Hill.

Ferns spread out under redwoods. Madrones, bays, oaks, and maples compete for the sun. The trail is mostly level, but steps built into the ground make the occasional climbs a bit easier. The dogs love the narrower trail, especially when we meet other dog-walkers. I take a few pictures of an almost invisible little waterfall. Returning to the spillway, a short walk over the bridge leads us back to the parking lot.

The walk around the lake is an easy three-miler, but you can continue on Fish Grade Trail to the bigger Bon Tempe Lake, or hike all the way to the top of Mount Tamalpais via Eldridge Grade. It’s over six miles up to 2,114 feet, and then back down. You can walk many trails in the protected watershed of 21,600 acres.
The trails around Phoenix Lake are good for walking with children, dogs, or friends. They also show that municipal water systems and open-space organizations can share the same beautiful environment. Let’s hope this happens in our own Santa Cruz Mountains.