Mount Tamalpais 101: An Adventurer's Guide to Exploring Marin's Most Beloved Peak

The airy views from Marin's most iconic mountain
The airy views from Marin's most iconic mountain John Lemieux
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Rising gracefully above the rolling hills of the coast range, Mount Tamalpais—Marin County’s tallest summit at 2,571 feet—dominates the northern skyline from almost anywhere in the Bay Area. Because of its proximity to the coast and vertical prominence, the peak creates its own microclimate, condensing coastal fog to hydrate the redwoods that cloak its western slopes, creating a unique and beautiful ecosystem to explore.

Mt. Tam, as it is affectionately referred to by locals, beckons seasoned outdoor adventurers and nature-deprived urbanites alike to enjoy the state park’s 6,300 acres of redwood and oak groves, steep trails, waterfalls, and sweeping views of the Pacific Coast.

Though Mt. Tam is Marin County’s unofficial symbol, San Franciscans have adopted the peak as their home mountain, too. On sunny weekends, it can feel like most of the city’s outdoors lovers make a beeline across the Golden Gate Bridge for the abundance of recreation opportunities on its slopes. Some 60 miles of trails (connecting to a larger trail system of over 200 miles beyond the park’s boundaries) weave through stately groves of towering redwoods, traverse grassy ridgelines with endless views, and climb steep slopes alongside waterfalls. Mt. Tam also has some of the area’s most stunning camping, infamous cycling routes, and standout spots to view the gray whale migration each year. To top it all off, the area is the birthplace of mountain biking.

Better still, most of Mt. Tam’s trailheads and access roads are under an hour drive (and easily bike-able) from San Francisco. Here, a starter list of activities in and around Mount Tamalpais State Park that will inspire your next adventure.

1. Hike or run 60 miles of scenic trails.

Mount Tam has dozens of trails ripe for exploration.
Mount Tam has dozens of trails ripe for exploration. Miguel Vieira

One of Marin’s classic routes—the Matt Davis , Steep Ravine, and Dipsea Trail loop hike—contains some of Mt. Tam’s best scenery. To hike this loop, start from the quaint seaside town of Stinson Beach and hike up the Matt Davis Trail to Pantoll, winding your way through redwoods until you reach the crest. Catch views along the open ridge and descend the Steep Ravine Trail alongside Webb Creek, past tumbling cataracts, until turning onto the Dipsea Trail for expansive views across the coastal plain at the foot of the mountain.

Trail running has a long and storied history on the slopes of Mt. Tam; the annual Dipsea Race that challenges runners with more than 2,200 feet of climbing is the second-oldest footrace in the country. As an alternative, trail runners can follow the Bolinas Ridge Trail in Golden Gate National Recreation Area into Mt. Tam State Park. The wide trail traces the ridgeline for over 15 miles, boasting rolling hills along the way. The trail offers plenty of rewards with views of the Inverness Ridge, Tomales Bay, and the ocean. (If you are feeling ambitious, you can run all the way to San Francisco.) 

For a mellower excursion, drive to the parking area near the East Summit and use the Verna Dunshee trail to circumnavigate Mt. Tam’s tallest point, observing Marin and San Francisco below, and Mt. Diablo on the eastern horizon. 

2. Camp beneath the redwoods or above the surf.

The sought-after Steep Ravine Cabins camouflage against the hillside.
The sought-after Steep Ravine Cabins camouflage against the hillside. Andrew Kearns

If you are looking for an overnight getaway, Mt. Tam contains some of the most coveted campsites and cabins in the Bay Area. One of the most sought-after sites, the Steep Ravine Environmental Campground, sits precariously on the marine terrace above the crashing waves of the Pacific. From the camp’s rocky cliffs, you can watch the sun as it sinks into the sea. Better yet, time your visit for a low tide, and take a soak in the natural hot springs beneath the stars.  Steep Ravine has seven campsites tucked into the coastal scrub on the bluffs, and some of the sites even have a view of western San Francisco.

The campsites are stunning, but it’s a stay at Steep Ravine’s cabins that tops the local bucket list for many Bay Area residents. Quaint wooden cabins dot the north slope of the campground, offering unmatched views of the ocean and the hills to the north. Each cabin has a wood stove, a picnic table, sleeping platforms, an outdoor barbecue, and some have a small porch angled perfectly for you to sit and watch the sunset. Reservations for the cabins fill as soon as they go live, so plan ahead.

If you can’t manage to snag a spot at Steep Ravine, Mt. Tam has plenty of other scenic sites. Nestled in the forest above Stinson Beach, Pantoll campground offers 16 scenic first-come, first-served sites, a rarity in this area. Though the campsite is accessible by road, you can also backpack the Matt Davis Trail to access the sites. Recently reopened, Bootjack Campground offers an additional 15 first-come, first-served sites tucked into the woods on the mountain’s east side.

3. Test your cycling skills on the road.

Steep climbs and smooth pavement on Mt. Tam.
Steep climbs and smooth pavement on Mt. Tam. Oleg

The winding roads that traverse the shoulders and ridges of Mt. Tam have earned Marin its reputation as a cycling mecca. Killer climbs and breathless descents make for an unmatched riding experience. The jaw-dropping views from the road will distract you from your burning legs on rides like the Seven Sisters, an infamous series of seven rolling hills on Ridgecrest Boulevard. As you struggle over the Sisters, the hillside drops sharply to your right and left, revealing a view of the surf crashing on Stinson Beach, the Bolinas Lagoon, Mill Valley and the Bay. For a truly epic day in the saddle, conquer the Seven Sisters as a part of the infamous Alpine Dam ride, a 55-mile loop with 5,000 feet of climbing guaranteed to make your legs scream.

For a slightly shorter but equally grueling ride, tackle the road to Mt. Tam’s East Peak. (You will have to walk the final footpath to the top for sweeping views in all directions). The road climbs from sea level in Mill Valley up to the 2,571-foot summit for unmatched views of the park’s rolling hills, the fog-blanketed San Francisco skyline, the shark-infested Farallon Islands 25 miles out to sea, and Mt. Diablo's peak to the east.

4. Follow in history's (single) tracks.

The Old Railroad Grade climbs up Mt. Tam.
The Old Railroad Grade climbs up Mt. Tam. David Abercrombie

Looking to get off the asphalt? Mt. Tam just happens to be the birthplace of mountain biking. Back in the late 1960s, a group of Marin teenagers who called themselves the Larkspur Canyon Gang began retrofitting their Schwinn cruiser bikes to withstand tearing down Tam’s trails at top speed, giving rise to the sport as we know it today. As more and more people flocked to the slopes of the mountain for recreation and racing, the sport gained speed and popularity. Today, mountain biking is still popular on and around Mt. Tam. Though singletrack has almost entirely been eliminated in the State Park due to high use, there are still plenty of fire roads to explore.

The Dias Ridge multi-use trail runs down the coastal slope of Mt. Tam to Muir Beach, for a total of 6.9 miles round trip with nonstop views over rolling hills and chaparral. For more coastal vistas, try the Coast View trail, three miles of beautiful singletrack connecting Pantoll with Highway 1, with stunning coastal views the whole way. Other local favorites include the Lagunitas Fire Road and the Old Railroad Grade, which was once the roadbed for the “crookedest railway in the world” and connects with other routes to reach the East Peak. For some of the most advanced singletrack in the area, ride the trails at Camp Tamarancho, a biking-focused wilderness area maintained by the Boy Scouts just below Mt. Tam, toward Fairfax. (And while you're in Fairfax, be sure to pop into the Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, a must-do for any cycling enthusiast.)  

5. Enjoy seasonal highlights.

After winter rains, trails transform with gorgeous green hues.
After winter rains, trails transform with gorgeous green hues. Miguel Vieira

While there is no official off-season for Mt. Tam, make your visit even more memorable by planning around seasonal experiences. From December to January, and again in March, April, and May, some 20,000 gray whales migrate past the coastline on their way to seasonal feeding and calving grounds. Keep an eye out for gray whale calves from shore on the Coast View Trail and the Matt Davis Trail, or from Steep Ravine (all but the most eagle-eyed will appreciate binoculars).

For wildflowers, visit Mt. Tam in the spring, when the slopes turn bright green and come alive with vibrant orange poppies and purple lupine. Also in the spring, the Mountain Play Association puts on outdoor productions of Broadway musicals in a 4,000-seat amphitheater near the summit. During the winter rainy season, streams and waterfalls run high, tumbling down steep, foggy slopes toward the ocean, and creating moss-covered forest groves that look like they're lifted right from a fairy tale.

6. Pack a picnic and snap some photos.

Mt. Tam's fire lookout is particularly photogenic.
Mt. Tam's fire lookout is particularly photogenic. Basheer Tome

If you are planning a half-day activity, pack a picnic and head to the lush hillsides of Mt. Tam to enjoy the scenery. The Bootjack Picnic area provides picnic tables, running water, and barbecues tucked into a scenic oak grove. The East Peak summit has picnic tables and other amenities, with a lunchtime view that is hard to top. Climb up to the fire lookout to work off your lunch for 360-degree views of Marin, San Francisco Bay, and the expanse of ocean.

Photographers will delight in capturing sweeping views from the East Peak and Matt Davis trails, sunsets from Steep Ravine, the subtle beauty of early morning light on grassy slopes, and the glow of the golden hour filtering through redwood and oak canopies. Mt. Tam is nothing if not scenic and offers countless places to enjoy and capture its beauty.

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