|Open space at Gary Giacomini Preserve; lunchtime at the Yellow Door Cafe; snacks to go at the Lagunitas Grocery.|
To my mind, spring starts when the wildflowers appear at Roy's Redwoods Open Space Preserve in San Geronimo Valley. When I was growing up, my friends and I used to mark the season's launch by the first day we could picnic here.
The 5 1/2-mile-long San Geronimo Valley, over White Hill west of Fairfax in Marin County, sees many visitors briefly as they whiz through on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard en route to Point Reyes National Seashore. But the towns lined up here - Woodacre, San Geronimo, Forest Knolls, and Lagunitas - make nice destinations on their own.
After you top White Hill and head west, the fields framed by rolling green hills signify that you've left the urban side of Marin behind. Start a valley visit at Roy's Redwoods Open Space Preserve (entrance off Nicasio Valley Rd., 1/2 mile north of Sir Francis Drake Blvd.). You'll find an open meadow, shade under the redwood trees, and trails leading over the hills for out-and-back hikes. For picnic fixings, stop en route at the Woodacre Country Market & Deli ($; 175 San Geronimo Valley Dr.; 415/488-9064).
To the south, along San Geronimo Ridge, you can hike for days in the vast Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve (in Woodacre, take Railroad Ave. to Carson Rd., then head west up to Conifer Way). Though trailheads can be tricky to find, the preserve is worth seeking out for hikes through grassy fields the color of gold.
For art shows as well as local history and information, pop into the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center (6350 Sir Francis Drake; www.sgvcc.org or 415/488-9385). Hearty meals can be found at the Yellow Door Cafe ($$; closed Mon-Wed; 7282 Sir Francis Drake; 415/488-0311) and Two Bird Café at the Valley Inn ($$$; closed Mon-Tue; 625 San Geronimo Valley Dr.; 415/488-0105), where there's live music on weekends. Finally, at the Lagunitas Grocery ($; 7290 Sir Francis Drake; 415/488-4844), order a milkshake, my favorite post-hike treat, to savor the flavor of youth and spring.
To the valley
San Geronimo Valley is 20 miles northwest of San Francisco; from U.S. 101, take Sir Francis Drake Blvd. west. www.marinopenspace.org or 415/499-6387.