Mount Tamalpais State Park
A San Francisco Bay Area oasis of trails and open space
HIGHLIGHTS: A walk on 2,571-foot Mount Tamalpais puts Northern California in perspective. From this promontory just north of San Francisco, you can see the Farallon Islands 25 miles to the west and the Sierra Nevada 150 miles to the east on a clear day. Closer up, the mountain offers frothy waterfalls, wildflower-filled meadows, head-high huckleberry patches, fog-watered forests of redwoods and Douglas-fir, and a rugged coastline, where you can camp or stay in cabins.
ACTIVITIES: Mountain biking was born here and still thrives on its fire roads. The park offers 50 miles of hiking trails, plus picnicking, star-gazing, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, birdwatching, botanizing, rock-climbing and geocaching.
VISITOR CENTER: Usually open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, the East Peak Summit visitor center (415-383-9211) has information on history, geology, flora, and fauna, as well as maps and gifts. Maps and information are also available on weekends at the Pantoll Contact Station (415-388-2070).
CAMPGROUNDS: Pantoll Campground lies in a mixed forest just off the Panoramic Highway. Its 16 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis all year. Drinking water, firewood and restrooms (but no showers) are available. The Rocky Point/Steep Ravine Campground, just one mile south of Stinson Beach, has seven campsites and nine cabins. These oceanside sites are extremely popular; reservations are highly recommended. For the park's two group campsites: Alice Eastwood (off the Panoramic Highway near the Mountain Home Inn) and Frank Valley Group Horse Camp (on Muir Woods Road about a mile north of Highway 1). Reservations are required. Contact Reserve America at (800) 444-7275 for more information.
TRAILS: Try the Steep Ravine Trail for a rich, redwood-filled loop. Start at Pantoll Campground and head down through a redwood forest along Webb Creek, which can be boisterous during the rainy season. After you've descended about a thousand feet in elevation, turn left at a bridge onto the Dipsea Trail. Take the Dipsea up to the Coastal Fire Road, and turn left. In about 350 yards, turn right on the Old Mine Trail, and soon you'll find yourself back at Pantoll. Total mileage: 3.8.
If you don't mind walking a few extra miles, Pantoll also is a good place to start an exploration of Muir Woods National Monument. Take the Stapleveldt Trail downhill for about a mile to the northwest corner of the Monument. Turn left on the Ben Johnson Trail. In 0.7 miles, turn left onto the Main Muir Woods Trail. People are usually scarce out at this end of the grove, so it's easier to get that peaceful, I'm-just-a-speck-in-the-universe feeling amid the tall trees.
MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: In late winter, the intriguingly named "fetid adder's tongue" blooms here. This lily's small, brownish petals blend in well with the dark forest floor, so it takes a keen eye to spot them. In springtime, look for the flashier pink-to-purple calypso orchids and dark-red Pacific trilliums.
HIDDEN GEM: While on East Peak Summit you can visit the Gravity Car Barn, which celebrates the steep, 8.2-mile-long railroad line that operated here from 1896 to 1930. Visitors rode in cars pushed upward by a steam-powered locomotive and downward by the force of gravity. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reportedly said of the ride, "In all my wanderings, I have never had a more glorious experience." While you can't hop on board today, the Barn's exhibits will help you learn about the train-and a colorful, bygone era of Mount Tam tourism. The barn is open on weekends from noon to 4 p.m.
EVENTS: The Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association offers astronomy programs during the summer and guided hikes throughout the year.
EAT: Bob Hansen, former President at The Yosemite Fund, suggests stopping at the Pelican Inn. It's one of the most authentic British Pubs outside of England and it is also a good place to stay.
STOP: Jessica Neff, Stewardship Manager, recommends spending some time at the secluded Tourist Club. It's a neat little place hidden off of a trail where you can get a beer and have a picnic. Be sure to vist the website as it's only open to non members at certain days/times.
FAVORITE HIKE: The Matt Davis trail is Jessica's favorite. It consists primarily of woods with the most fascinating tree formations. It almost seems like a fairytale setting.
FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTION: Jessica enjoys the guided moonlight hikes.
DON'T MISS: Jessica suggests attending the astronomy program for the public on Saturdays between April and October.
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