Mt. Tamalpais’ 2,571-foot peak stands out across the bay and throughout much of Marin County. On a clear day, spectacular views of Marin’s lush green hills and European-style villages of wealth, San Francisco, and the East Bay are all within one’s view. On especially clear days, views as far out as the Farallon Islands or the Sierra Nevada’s snow-covered mountains are available from the peak.
“Mount Tam” offers up 6,300 acres of stellar hiking and mountain biking trails through redwood groves and oak woodlands to peaks, cascades, beaches, campsites, a natural stone amphitheater, and a couple of watering holes – The West Point Inn and Mountain Home. History records the name Tamalpais as being a Miwok word meaning “coast mountain” while another version holds that the name is the tribe’s word for “sleeping maiden”, an image one can easily allow to emerge from beholding the mountain from a perch in the East bay.
The Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railroad was completed in 1896 and ran from Mill Valley to the East Peak summit. A hotel, restaurant, and dance hall followed shortly to make Mt. Tam a popular destination around the turn of the century until 1930. One can imagine the elite congregating for a festive day and evening on the mountain!
Today, we mountain bike up to the East Peak. Borrowing a friend’s car, we drive along the gorgeous Panoramic Highway and park at Mountain Home Inn. Just a few parking spots here and we’re lucky to nail the last one we see, eagerly unloading our bikes and heading out. On past rides on the mountain, we chugged uphill from downtown Mill Valley from Blithedale Park to connect to Railroad Grade, making for – on a hot, dry Tam kind of day – a fairly grueling 8-1/2 miles to the top. Today we simply connect up to Old Railroad Grade from Gravity Car Grade –
a mile or so connector trail – which takes us on up to the peak, for a total of 5-1/2 miles of steady but moderate climbing. It’s a fair challenge if you’re a beginner, but if you’re more seasoned, it’s a steady but easy pump ever upward into enchanting views and sensory elation; an obvious playground for international tourist hikers and mountain bikers of every ilk.
The trails are the best in Marin, no surprise that the sport of mountain biking took hold here in the ’70’s with such literal trail-blazers as Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze, and Tom Ritchey – pioneers and early developers of bike technology suited to the sport.
We continue to round one rock enveloped bend after another, opening up our views of not just city life beyond but extraordinary sky-scapes of billowing clouds against robin’s egg blue. We take in the beauty of ephemeral waterfalls taking up temporary residence after recent rains, chocolate manzanita and madrone, a lone deer clinging to a rocky outcrop in the distance, and a lizard or two peeking out from cracks in the earth; a refreshing fern gully inspires a momentary rest to remark on the stunning perfection of the day!
The half-way point is where we round the next curve to the historical West Point Inn. Set under the canopy of redwoods, the veranda and
picnic tables are welcoming. A front parlor with fireplace are also open daily and there is lodging for 25 people. It’s a hang-out spot for hikers and bikers for brief respite or even a game of horseshoes. Sundays in warm seasons host all you can eat pancake breakfasts – hmmm, food for thought for future rides up here!
We haven’t earned our break yet, so we set off straight away on the final 2 miles or so up to East Peak. Should be a breeze, but the absence of a breeze suddenly renders it a tough stretch as the afternoon’s hot, dry forest-scented air of Tam kicks up the challenge. You keep thinking you’re almost there, but it’s not until you hit pavement that you know it. About a half-mile up the road and a parking lot and snack bar come into sight.
My brother Miles used to run the joint, and an added attraction to making it to the top was the treat of enjoying a good hour of shared storytelling and laughs with him. A pang of melancholy sweeps over me as I pull across the parking lot and pass right by without stopping, as he has since “retired” from his post there. We lock up our bikes and stroll up the path to the rocky perch for stunning views, camaraderie with other bikers, and lunch! We’ll contemplate great potentials with a vast and expansive consciousness and gaze, and gaze, and gaze!