Hike 10: Lucas Valley | Marin County, CA
Hikers: Carol, Linda and Nat (humans) | Kacee, Elvis, Glory and Willow (dogs)
Start Time: 8:00 a.m. at the Chicken Shack Fire Road entrance near Clay Ct and Alameda del Prado in Novato.
Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve is an expansive 1271 acre gem that offers incredible views. It’s highlight, the Big Rock Ridge trail reaches its highest point at 1895 feet. It is the second highest point in Marin, the first being Mount Tamalpais. Acclaimed director and creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, donated 800 acres of land, enabling the creation of the preserve and the gentle up-slope of Big Rock Trail that now connects to Big Rock Ridge. Before the trail opened, hikers had to reach the Big Rock Ridge summit via the super steep Luiz Fire Road. Lucas Valley however close to Skywalker Ranch, is not named after George Lucas as some people (myself included) think, it is actually named after an Irish immigrant named John Lucas, who owned a sizable chunk (2,340 acres to be exact) back in the 1860s. This is a great trail to spy on birds of prey. Deer are commonly sighted, especially in slightly more covered areas near the Loma Verde and Pacheco Valle preserves.
Leash Laws: Dogs can be off-leash and under strict voice control and within sight on fire roads, must be on leash on all other marked trails, in parking lots, and developed areas.
Trail Difficulty: This park is ideally suited to moderate and experienced hikers. Parts of Chicken Shack and Big Rock Ridge are fairly steep and gravelly. There are great portions of the trail with no shade, so water and sun protection is important. It’s on the longer end, so we recommend packing a lunch and parking one car at the Clay Ct. entrance and the other at the end of the Big Rock Ridge trail on Lucas Valley Road in San Rafael.
Other information: Portions of both the Big Rock Trail and the fire road along the ridge are trail easements that cross private property, so pay attention to all trail signs posted along the way.
Route: Chicken Shack fire road – Big Rock Ridge fire road – Redwood Canyon fire road – Big Rock Trail .
Duration: Roughly around 10 miles, 5 hours.
It was not our first time hiking the Chicken Shack and Big Rock Ridge trails in Pacheco Valle. We had done it countless times before. It is a great workout of a trail, especially if you take that first steep climb from Clay Ct. This time however, we were carrying provisions in preparation for the long haul. We left one car there at Clay Ct. but our ride home would be on the other side of Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve in San Rafael.
Chicken Shack is a fun “roller coaster” style trail, with climbs, drops and plateaus along the way. It is lovely when it’s foggy out (I love this trail in the winter and fall). It’s practically impossible to get lost here, since the only way to go is forward. On either side, the mountain sweeps down into a wooded area with homes at the bottom. Once you clear the trees, the sweeping views offer a great excuse to catch your breath.
Depending on the time you hike, you may or may not run into a few other hikers and mountain bikers (seriously, my respect, I have no idea how they climb those steep hills on a bicycle); and plenty of dogs on this trail both on and off leash. For the most part, people are respectful. We tended to keep all the dogs (save Kacee who would never wander far from her mom Linda, has great recall and generally ignores other dogs) on leash and we’d move off to the side to let others pass as we fed our dogs treats.
Chicken Shack fire road will connect you to Big Rock Ridge fire road. You will pass Little Cat fire road on your left (a quick but steep exit route back to the residential area should you need it, or want a quick but effective butt-kicker hike), further on up ahead you will have Pebble Beach fire road on your right. Continue forward and you’ll be on Big Rock Ridge.
Bring layers, but don’t worry about getting cold on this trail. The sheer calories you’ll be burning on that first stretch and for most of it, will guarantee you some sweat.
About an hour and a half in, and after quite a gradual uphill climb, you will reach another fork. Dropping down to your left will be Ponte fire road, which we have taken down many times before on a regular hike. You will come back down to a residential area and finish your hike on the sidewalks of Novato, taking you back the loop to where we parked on Alameda del Prado and Clay Ct. (around a 5.3 mile loop). Today however, we continued straight onto Big Rock Ridge fire road. It is a relaxed trail for the most part. This is where you get your breath back after working your way up Chicken Shack.
These uphill climbs will sneak up on you. Pace yourself, and watch your step; when it’s very dry, the trail does get sandy and gravelly.
The Mannella pack (Kacee, Glory and Elvis) were among the first dog friends Willow ever met (when she was still our foster dog); and the Mannellas themselves (Linda and Carol) are among Willow’s favorite people ever.
Keep an eye out for deer in more densely wooded areas, and if you have your dogs off-leash, make sure you have a solid recall for them. Parts of these woods can be closed to the public during hunting season. If it is the first time you are visiting this trail (or any trail for that matter), I’d recommend hiking it on leash at least once to get your dog acquainted, and if you have good recall and your dog will not wonder further than you can have reliable control over him/her, then allow them some freedom. Always, always bring irresistible treats. Never leave home without them. Out here, you have everything to compete against for their attention.
AT LAST! We made it to the gateway of Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve. Look how happy everyone is. But first, water.
No more tree cover, the expansive views start to take over.
From this point on, there is no tree cover or shade. Make sure you pack some sun protection and enough water for your dog and yourself. We had been enjoying a nice overcast day, but as we continued, the clouds started to burn off and we could start to see how this would be a very unforgiving trail on a very hot day.
Itty bitty Linda, massive Lucas Valley.
Fields of gold can be beautiful indeed, but make sure you check your dog for foxtails or ticks, both abound in scenes such as this.
Kacee never wanders far from her mom Linda.
From the highest point, you will catch lovely panoramic views in every direction. On a clear day, Mount St. Helena south to Montara Mountain, east to Mount Diablo and west beyond Mount Wittenberg to the Pacific Ocean.
We were starting to get hungry, so we found a great place to perch near an antenna station to refuel on peanut butter/banana sandwiches, water and treats for the dogs. It was lunch with a view to say the least.
Our lunch view included a very pretty snow white Glory.
The ever resilient California Poppies still held their joyful presence in spite of the drought and scorching heat.
After lunch, we did a quick check on the dog’s paw pads and feet, in between the toes and through their coats, checking for ticks and foxtails. Be careful with those foxtails. It has been a record year for both ticks and foxtails unfortunately.
Once we were again ready to roll, I coaxed everyone into allowing me a “top o’ the mountain” group shot, just to prove we had been here.
A reversed oreo team of three: Glory, Carol and Elvis.
Relaxed group shot before continuing on. Willow of course takes this opportunity to ham it up for auntie Linda.
Ok, back to the trail. We continued on Big Rock Ridge fire road for a couple of miles and the veered left onto Redwood Canyon fire road. This trail is a little more windy and narrow on the path.
We came across a curious green patch with dwarfed trees. Trickles of water were nearby and offered the dogs a welcome chance at getting their paws damp.
We gradually started to work our way downhill on the Redwood Canyon switchbacks. Here we started to encounter some hikers coming in from the opposite end. It was a weekend and by this point, well into noon. Visibility is good here and sound travels. So keep your ears and eyes open in case you need to call your dog back to you to leash up or (as I do in my case with Willow), step off the trail and feed your dog treats as the other hikers pass by you.
A beautiful crooked tree on Redwood Canyon fire road.
Redwood Canyon fire road offers a little respite of shade and tree cover here and there, including some crazy beautiful and crooked trees as the one Willow is checking out in the photograph above.
It was in this narrow corner that I encountered the nicest stranger in my life. Willow is shy and fearful of strangers, which is why I give her (and the strangers) plenty of space to walk by comfortably. Feeding her treats while I do so allows not only for her to create a positive experience with something that can be potentially scary, but it also gives me a gauge for how she is feeling in conjunction with her body language. If she’s alert but is capable of gently taking treats, it tells me she’s doing alright and is relaxed. I’ll know she is stressed if she refuses to eat an irresistible piece of Orijen freeze-dried wild boar.
Strangers are one thing; make those strangers tall men with wide brim hats and sunglasses and it’s enough to send poor Willow into a panic.
Seeing such an individual coming before Willow did, gave me a chance to prepare to get her out of the way (again, keep your eyes open). He very kindly offered to step aside to let us through, but Willow was hesitant to move closer to him, so, recognizing that, I said, “Thank you, please go ahead, my dog is afraid of hats and sunglasses” and smiled. He immediately took both items off and gave us even more space to pass. My jaw dropped. Kindness, it is powerful. With that, I thanked him profusely and in a cheerful voice I enticed Willow to “go find Auntie Carol”, shoving treats into her mouth as we passed by the kind stranger.
Whoever you are sir, thank you again, so very much.
Kacee decided that a drink was not enough, and rewarded herself with a dip as well, giving Willow a shower in the process.
Willow did so well with our encounter, that the best reward I could offer her was some safe off-leash time. She was tired by then, and the trail was safe and people free as far as the eye could see. She was more than happy to follow the trail next to us, and tried to follow in Kacee’s footsteps when coming across the holy grail of watering stations.
We were getting close to the end here, so after a couple of miles, we again veered down and to the left on Big Rock Trail and I put Willow back on leash to start winding her down for the big finish.
Kacee finishes strong and happy… and like she didn’t just hike 10 miles.
By the time we reached the end it was hot. Thankfully, we had successfully avoided the hottest part of the day and finished just in time. We were tired and the dogs were too. I’d like to repeat this hike at a different time of year, ideally when we have had some rain (fingers crossed). I bet all the golden grasslands are truly spectacular when they are covered in green. Regardless, it was a fabulous and fun trail.
We reached our getaway car, parked by the trail head at the bottom of Big Rock trail on the windy Lucas Valley Road.
Every time we hike with someone, we’ll ask these same questions and share their answers with you. I hope to highlight the things we all share as hiking enthusiasts, while learning from one another and creating a caring community of like-minded people.
In Carol’s Words:
Want to read carol’s interview? She was our first hike! Head on over to Hike #1 to find out more about Carol, Elvis, Glory and their favorite places to hike.
See you next time hikers! Hope to see you on the trail. Be safe and be kind to others and help keep our trails enjoyable and protected.
Nat + Willow
Directions to Lucas Valley (via Chicken Shack fire road):
Park and start from Chicken Shack fire road:
- Between the Marinwood and Ignacio exits take the Alameda Del Prado/Nave Dr. exit over to the west side just south of Burger King. Park along the street of Clay Ct. The route starts on the hillside going up to the west.
Parking on Lucas Valley road:
- From Highway 101 in San Rafael, take the exit for Lucas Valley Road west approximately 5.5 miles (look for the big rock). The trailhead is on the north side of Lucas Valley Road.