Mountain biking, hiking at the Bay Area’s Mt. Tamalpais

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Calif.

As I drive north over the Golden Gate Bridge, the forest-green peaks of Mt. Tamalpais fill my car’s windshield. From the mountain’s curvaceous outline, I see why the Coastal Miwok Indians have compared its shape to that of a sleeping maiden.

But it was on her rough, rocky trails that the dozing beauty gave birth about 30 years ago to modern mountain-bike racing. It began on a steep mountain trail known as “Repack,” because local riders had to repack the grease in the wheels after extreme downhill speeds evaporated the lubricant. Breakneck rides, according to hard-core mountain bikers, make Mt. Tam one of California’s best places to test your mettle and your bike’s suspension.


But some Bay Area hiking groups have been trying to put the brakes on extreme Mt. Tam bike riding. They argue that the best way to experience the mountain’s 60 miles or so of trails is with your feet firmly on the ground.

On this one, I have to agree with the hikers. Ditch the bike, I say, if you want to really see why this sleeping beauty is one of the best Bay Area day trips. I should know. I did both.

Vultures watch

Clouds from a previous night’s storm hang over the bay and cloak the morning sun. The cool air bites at my face and hands, but I won’t feel the chill once I begin pumping the pedals up to Mt. Tam’s eastern peak.

When I rented the bike the previous afternoon, a tall, lanky kid at the bike shop recommended I ride the Old Railroad Grade, a fire road that was once part of an eight-mile railway that stretched from Mill Valley to Mt. Tam’s 2,572-foot eastern peak. The railroad was torn out after a blaze and the 1929 stock market crash. Now, only a wide dirt path remains.

A good spot to start is the parking lot next to the Mountain Home Inn, an upscale lodge about three miles up Panoramic Highway from Stinson Beach. It sits at a trail head for a path called Gravity Car Grade.


I arrive before 8 a.m. My groggy brain begins its daily plea for caffeine, but I plan to feed it a speedball of endorphins and adrenaline. I start by pumping up the Gravity Car Grade to the Old Railroad Grade. My route will circle counterclockwise to the summit and return along Eldridge Grade and another fire road called Hoo-Koo-E-Koo trail.

The hills on the railroad grade don’t exceed a 7% incline, but a quick burn pierces my legs on the long climbs. The sound of my agonized panting blocks out the chattering of sparrows and swallows in the oaks and chaparral along the semi-muddy trail. My only company is a pair of turkey vultures that drift overhead. No surprise, I think. Vultures are drawn to the sounds of expiring animals.

I stop at an overlook on the western end of my loop, about 1,780 feet above sea level. To the southeast, the Golden Gate Bridge pokes out of a gauzy fog bank. The sun sparkles off the water around Angel Island and Tiburon.

After about 90 minutes of huffing and puffing, I reach the parking lot of the summit. I lock my bike and follow the “plank walk,” a path partly built from old railroad ties, to the Gardner Fire Lookout tower, where I take in a foggy view of the bay. That wasn’t so tough, I think to myself.

Of course, that opinion came before my descent. The Eldridge Grade drops nearly 900 feet in less than a mile along a pitted fire road strewed with fist-size rocks. As I rocket down, bullet-size pebbles spin off my tires and ricochet off the bike frame.

Are those Douglas firs shading my path? Is that a banana slug near the fire road? Is that a lake? Careening down this hill -- teeth rattling, hair flying, eyes bugging -- I don’t have time for any of it. The rocks, switchbacks and puddles come too fast.


Brake. Turn. Brake. Splash.

Brake. Turn. Brake. Splash.

Just when I think I’ve conquered the worst of it, I come to a 300-foot drop covered in pea-size gravel. I resist the urge to lock up my brakes for fear I’ll careen off the road into a big world of hurt. I speak from experience.

Three hours after I began the ride, I roll back to the parking lot near Mountain Home Inn, covered in sweat and mud. The vultures still circle overhead, perhaps surprised that I made it back in one piece.

A hike among emeralds

Frodo Philp knows the best hiking routes. The manager of the Stinson Beach Motel suggests I take the Matt Davis Trail, a 3.3-mile narrow path that climbs almost 1,400 feet, from Stinson Beach to Pantoll Ranger Station, returning along Steep Ravine Trail. With a name like Frodo, I expect him to recommend a trail as lush as anything in those verdant scenes from “The Lord of the Rings.”

Frodo doesn’t disappoint. The Matt Davis Trail meanders under the shade of Douglas firs and towering oaks. I take my time to enjoy the plants and wildlife along the path. Monkey flowers, checkered lilies and Douglas iris. With every turn, I spot new species of ferns and wildflowers covering the trail banks.

Near the start of my hike, I’m startled by a rustle in the trees up ahead. A pair of deer, their ears cocked, their eyes wide, crash through the brush.


After about an hour hiking in the shade, the trail emerges from the trees into knee-high grass that covers rolling hills as softly and evenly as fur on a cat. The grass is freckled with dodecatheon, a lavender and white flower that resembles a shooting star, and brodiaea, a deep-blue lily.

Once I reach the Pantoll Ranger Station, I head down along Steep Ravine Trail, which drops into a narrow canyon, skirting alongside a spirited little creek that splashes over mossy boulders and forms pools the size of bathtubs. The creek is bordered by stands of soaring redwood trees, as big around as cathedral pillars.

The path meanders back and forth over the creek, crossing along narrow wooden footbridges, a setting more relaxing than a dose of Xanax. I share the trail with several hikers, all moving at a leisurely pace.

The grand finale to the hike comes near the bottom of the mountain, after I turn north onto the Dipsea Trail toward Stinson Beach. The trail emerges from the shade of the cool canyon onto a narrow dirt path that climbs over rolling hills, green with coastal sage scrub.

As I crest a gentle knoll, my eyes lock on the western horizon: bright afternoon sunlight glistens off the turquoise Pacific Ocean. White crested waves roll onto a wide, sandy beach. The soundtrack to this mesmerizing scene is the crashing of waves and squawking of sea gulls.

Behind me, a blanket of fog rolls over the sleeping maiden, a beauty with much more to offer if you take the time to court her properly.