Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mt. Tamalpais: Mountain Home to East Peak

east peak watchtower

Difficulty - Moderate
Length - 6.5mi
Crowds - Busy
Fees - Free
Best Season(s) - Winter, Spring

The most popular way to hike up Mt. Tamalpais (tam-al-pie-ass) is the coast near Stinson Beach. Alternatively though, the dry south and east slopes of the mountain offer a unique and less popular, but equally spectacular route to the top. The trail has plenty of exposure all the way to the top and could be potentially dangerous without plenty of water on a hot day. The trail treats a hiker to constant views of nearly the entire bay area though, culminating in the famous rocky summit area. Winter or Spring conditions are the most favorable, especially spring which brings plenty of wildflowers and butterflies to the mountain. Starting from Muir Woods adds an extra 4 miles on to the hike but ends up being one of the most spectacular hikes in the Bay Area. Not sold yet? There are also no fees to get in to either Muir Woods or Mt. Tamalpais from here.


From Hwy 101
Exit Hwy 1Right on Panoramic Highway (towards Muir Woods)Continue through four-way intersection (away from Muir Woods)

Parking is not difficult to find near Mountain Home even on a busy day, there is a small parking lot near the bathroom which connects directly to trails in to Muir Woods. The closest parking however is along the side of a gravel road down near the trailhead on the other side of the road. If neither of these are available there is plenty of parking to be found on the side of the road which is what Beylah and I used when we visited on the first warm weekend of the year after a chilly winter.

The trail to the summit starts off to the left of the fire station up the hogback fire road and climbs dramatically very quickly. Immediately we both turned beat red, not used to the heat after a long winter, multiplied by the exposure, and magnified again by the steep climb, we felt it right away. The first mile or so climbs at the same breakneck pace. In a way it was nice to get the steepest part of the climb out of the way quickly.

Beylah heading up the stairs on the Fern Canyon Trail

After struggling to place one foot in front of the other for the first mile the fire road dead ends into the Old Railroad Grade. In sharp contrast to the first stretch the grade follows the contours of the mountain, with only a gentle rise. We were relieved when the trail snuck into a wooded drainage canyon in the side of the mountain. For the first time we felt quite comfortable strolling through the young redwood stand.

Before we could get too comfortable though we made a quick right up the Fern Canyon trail. It is similarly steep to the first trail but with plenty of shade. A little creek trickles along the side of the trail as it zig zags its way up the mountain. Well structures and steps cut into the side of the mountain give it almost a developed feel. After the wells the trail opens up a little sacrificing some shade for incredible views of the pacific coastline below.

Looking back down the Fern Canyon trail

Not long after the trail opens up it starts to kick back a little bit as the sound of traffic breaks through. Once on the road, its a short couple hundred feet to the summit parking lot. The summit area has viewing platforms, a good quality map and park store, even a snack bar. Beylah and I were exhausted from the climb, and overheating in the afternoon sun so we decided to give in a little and buy a nice cold 7 up.


We refilled our water bottles and continued up the trail, wood planks lead up the East Peak trail. If it was not for the suffocating crowds this would no doubt be a beautiful capstone to a great workout of a hike. However children screaming and running past us somehow took away from the experience. The summit itself was a little less crowded, most people seemed to reach the top and then just continue along their way back down.

We chowed down on the rocks at the summit and enjoying the expansive views in nearly 360 degrees. Our tuna sandwiches which Beylah prepared that morning had been calling to our growling stomaches for awhile. Below us San Francisco, Oakland, Marin, and the entire coast down to Half Moon Bay were visible from the peak. The views alone make the hike well worth it. After taking the path back down we elected to return to Mountain Home by a different route.

The expansive views of the Bay Area is why people climb Mt. Tam

From one of the viewing platforms near the parking lot we jumped on to the paved Verna Dunshee Trail. The Verna Dunshee is quieter than the summit area but offers comparable views of the Bay Area. From here one can actually contemplate the scale of the landscape sprawling out below free from the constant chatter near the east peak. The trail is short, flat and highly enjoyable. After a quarter mile the junction with The Tempela Trail drops down the east face of the mountain. It's a steep and rocky descend on a Manzanita encased trail. Views are constant but we were afraid to look up for too long for fear we would take a sudden tumble down the mountain.

The Gravity Car Fire Road

At the bottom the trail dumps out into the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road a popular route for mountain bikers. A right on to the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road begins the fairly level two mile march back to Mountain home. A mess of trails leads down the mountain, from Hoo-Koo-E-Koo we made a left on to the Gravity Car Fire Road descending through the Double Bow Knot. The trail dips and dives in through little wooded stretches and drainage valleys before finally dropping out into a small gravel road. A few hundred feet up the road spit us right out at the Mountain Home again. Despite an intense start the trail was actually fairly moderate, my legs ached to be pushed harder but Beylah was done. She was happy to jump in the car and go grab a delicious Burrito down in Sausalito.

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