To see the whole Bay Area in a single day, go to Mount Tamalpais State Park (801 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley, 415/388-2070, 7am-sunset daily, day-use parking $8). Known as Mount Tam, this park boasts stellar views of the San Francisco Bay Area—from Mount St. Helena in Napa down to San Francisco and across to the East Bay. The Pacific Ocean peeks from around the corner of the western peninsula, and on a clear day you can just make out the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east.
This park is the Bay Area’s backyard, with hiking, biking, and camping opportunities widely appreciated for both their beauty and easy access. Ample parking, interpretive walks, and friendly park rangers make a visit to Mount Tam a hit even for less outdoorsy travelers.
The Pacific Ocean peeks from around the corner of the western peninsula, and on a clear day you can just make out the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east.In addition to recreation, Mount Tam also provides the perfect setting for the arts. The Mountain Theater (E. Ridgecrest Blvd. at Pan Toll Rd.), also known as the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater, built in the 1930s, still hosts plays at its outdoor stone seating. Performances and dates vary; contact the Mountain Play Association (415/383-1100, May-June, $30-40) for information and tickets. Plan to arrive early, as both parking and seating fill completely well before the show starts. The Mountain Theater also serves as the meeting place for the Mount Tam Astronomy Program (415/289-6636). Held every Saturday from April to October near the new and first quarter moon, the group hosts a talk by an astronomer that lasts about 45 minutes, after which is a tour of the night sky and star viewing through telescopes. Bring flashlights.
The East Peak Visitors Center (end of East Ridgecrest Blvd., 11am-4pm Sat.-Sun.) is located at the top of Mount Tam, with a small museum and gift shop as well as a picnic area with tables and restrooms, and even a small refreshment stand. The on-site staff can assist with hiking tips or guided walks. The Pantoll Ranger Station (3801 Panoramic Hwy. at Pantoll Rd., 415/388-2070, 9am-5pm Fri.-Mon.), which anchors the western and larger edge of the park, provides hikers with maps and camping information.
Enjoy the views without setting out on the trail at the Bootjack Picnic Area (Panoramic Hwy.), which has tables, grills, water, and restrooms. The small parking lot northeast of the Pantoll Ranger Station fills quickly and early in the day.
Up on Mount Tam, you can try anything from a leisurely 30-minute interpretive stroll up to a strenuous hike up and down one of the many deep ravines. Mount Tam’s hiking areas are divided into three major sections: the East Peak, the Pantoll area, and the Rock Springs area. Each of these regions offers a number of beautiful trails, so you’ll want to grab a map from the visitors center or online to get a sense of the mountain and its hikes. For additional hikes, visit the Friends of Mount Tam website.
The charming, interpretive Verna Dunshee Trail (0.75 mile, easy) offers a short, mostly flat walk along a wheelchair-accessible trail. The views are fabulous, and you can get a leaflet at the visitors center that describes many of the things you’ll see along the trail. Turn this into a loop hike by continuing on Verna Dunshee counterclockwise; once back at the visitors center, make the climb up to Gardner Fire Lookout for stellar views from the top of Mount Tam’s East Peak (2,571 feet).
The Pantoll Ranger Station is ground zero for some of the best and most challenging hikes in the park. The Old Mine Trail (0.5 miles, easy) is another accessible trail that leads to a lovely lookout bench and the Lone Tree Spring. Ambitious hikers can continue on the Dipsea Trail (1.4 miles, moderate), making it a loop by turning right on the Steep Ravine Trail (3.8 miles, moderate) as it ascends through lush Webb Creek and gorgeous redwoods back to the Pantoll parking lot.
The Dipsea Trail loop (7.3 miles round-trip, strenuous) is part of the famous Dipsea Race Course (second Sun. in June), a 7.4-mile course renowned for both its beauty and its challenging stairs. The trailhead that begins in Muir Woods, near the parking lot, leads through Mount Tam all the way to Stinson Beach. Hikers can pick up the Dipsea on the Old Mine Trail or at its intersection with the Steep Ravine Trail in Mount Tam, but a common loop is to take the Matt Davis Trail (across Panoramic Hwy. from the Pantoll parking area) west all the way to Stinson Beach and then return via the Dipsea Trail to Steep Ravine Trail. This is a long, challenging hike, especially on the way back, so bring water and endurance.
Rock Springs is conveniently located near the Mountain Theater, and a variety of trails lead off from this historical venue. Cross Ridgecrest Boulevard and take the Mountain Theater Fire Trail to Mountain Theater. Along the top row of the stone seats, admire the vistas while looking for Rock Springs Trail (it’s a bit hidden). Once you find it, follow Rock Springs Trail all the way to historical West Point Inn. The views here are stunning, and you’ll see numerous cyclists flying downhill on Old Stage Road below. Cross this road to pick up Nora Trail, following it until it intersects with Matt Davis Trail. Turn right to reach the Bootjack day-use area. Follow the Bootjack Trail right (north) to return to the Mountain Theater for a 4.6-mile loop.
Here’s your chance to see waterfalls via the lovely Cataract Trail (3 miles, easy-moderate). From the trailhead, follow Cataract Trail for a short bit before heading right on Bernstein Trail. Shortly, turn left onto Simmons Trail and continue to Barth’s Retreat, site of a former camp that is now a small picnic area with restrooms. Turn left on Mickey O’Brien Trail (a map can be helpful here), returning to an intersection with the Cataract Trail. It’s worth the short excursion to follow Cataract Trail to the right through the Laurel Dell picnic area and up to Cataract Falls. Enjoy a picnic at Laurel Dell before returning to Cataract Trail to follow it down to the Rock Springs trailhead.
To bike up to the peak of Mount Tam is a mark of local cyclists’ strength and endurance. Rather than driving up to the East Peak or the Mountain Home Inn, sturdy cyclists pedal up the paved road to the East Peak. It’s a long hard ride, but for an experienced cyclist the challenge and the views make it more than worthwhile. Just take care, since this road is open to cars, many of which may not realize that bikers frequent the area.
For mountain bikers, a hard but satisfying trip up the mountain begins at Phoenix Lake (Lagunitas Rd.,) in Ross. From here you take the Eldridge Grade Fire Road (15.8 miles, strenuous) all the way to East Peak. The scenery is as beautiful as the ride is challenging and technical.
To make the trip into a loop, turn onto paved Ridgecrest Boulevard for a little over four miles. On the right is the Rock Springs Lagunitas Fire Road. Take it all the way back to the trailhead. To reach the peak when you are already up on the mountain, consider parking at the Pantoll Ranger Station and taking Old Stage Grade, then a sharp right on Old Railroad Grade Fire Road to East Peak (6 miles, moderate).
Make the ride into a longer loop by jumping on Eldridge Grade at East Peak, taking it to Wheeler Trail (where you will have to walk your bike a short distance), and then turning right on E-Koo Fire Road. After a couple of miles it will intersect with Old Railroad Grade (stay right), which will then meet Old Stage Grade. Turn left and head down to the trailhead.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Northern California.