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. Next to the often-crowded Muir Woods National Monument (external link), “Mount Tam” Is popular too, but it doesn’t feel as packed. Here you will find deep canyons, cool redwood forests, oak woodlands, open meadows and chaparral.
ACTIVITIES: The park offers 60 miles of hiking trails, plus picnicking, star-gazing, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, birdwatching, botanizing, rock-climbing, mountain biking and geocaching. Ocean swimming is permitted nearby at Stinson Beach (external link).
Most of the park’s ranger- or docent-led programs (including campfire talks, forest walks, and Junior Ranger programs (external link)) start on Memorial Day weekend and end after Labor Day. Check the schedule for days and times. Aimed at kids age 7 through 12, these programs offer games, crafts, hiking, and exploring with other children.
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 (external link) at (800) 444-7275 for more information. RV driving is not recommended because of the narrow, winding mountain roads, and because campsites do not have hookups.
TRAILS: 60+ miles of trails. Try the spectacular Steep Ravine Trail for a rich, redwood-filled experience. This trail is so steep that you will have to climb down a short ladder next to a waterfall. 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.
FEATURES ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: Parking, campsites, restrooms, cabins, Mountain Theater, 0.75-mile-long Verna Dunshee Trail, parts of the Old Mine and McKennan Trails.
DOGS: Not allowed on trails or dirt roads. On leash elsewhere. In tent or vehicle at night.
ENTRANCE FEE: $8 for day-use vehicle entry at some trailheads; no charge to walk or bike into the park.
EVENTS: Friends of Mt. Tam (external link) hosts hikes each month.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit the website of the state park (external link).
EAT: Bob Hansen, former President at The Yosemite Fund, suggests stopping at the Pelican Inn (external link). It’s an authentic British pub, and it’s a good place to stay.
STOP: Jessica Neff, Stewardship Manager, recommends spending some time at the secluded Tourist Club (external link). 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 nonmembers at certain 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 (external link).
DON’T MISS: The Steep Ravine Trail (described above) during the rainy season for a dramatic descent along a tumbling creek.
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