Header Graphic
Adventures: > Favorite Ascents of Mt. Tamalpais

by Peter Holleran

    I have to confess that I spent five days at the Woodstock festival in 1969. I can't remember too much of what went on during that time, which is generally considered as proof positive that I was actually there! I also confess that I still like to get high, as fast and as often as possible, which is why I make frequent use of the shortest and steepest paths up Mt. Tamalpais, varying from two to just under four miles in length, affording alot of bang to the buck when short on time for either training or enjoyment. The following routes are divided into two categories, those with the fullest extent of vertical climb (over 2000 vertical feet), and those conveniently accessible by road but starting from a higher elevation, for those with less time or stamina. Climbs are described to the East Peak visitor area only; various trails and scrambles exist for the remaining 200 feet to the actual summit. It is hoped that this article will suggest interesting options for newcomers and for Mt. Tam regulars a chance to revisit "old friends".
    Warning: most of these are for mountain goats only, but you will be well-rewarded for your efforts. If you do these climbs once or twice a week, you will never need a stairmaster again. I dedicate this to Guy Palmer, local specialist in ferreting out even more abstruse and arcane routes to the summit, but that is the subject for another article!

FULL ASCENTS (2000 feet or more):

From Mill Valley:

1) Perhaps the shortest route, no more than two miles, is from the end of Cascade Ave. Take Zig-Zag trail (on left) a steep 1/2 mile, emerging on Gravity Car Grade near the Mountain Home Inn. Go right 0.1 miles or less to a connector (left) to Hogsback FR. Go right on Hogsback straight up, past Old Railroad Grade (stealthily, as the route from here is unofficial, ie., unauthorized, presumably for erosion concerns, but it is mostly rock, with the rains, not hikers, having washed away most of the erodable dirt long ago), all the way to the East Peak parking area. This climb has magnificent views, and a pleasant surprise just before the trail crests the top (note: a lovely little Buddha statue placed atop a man-made stupa of rocks was recently stolen; it is hoped the unfortunate soul now laden with bad karma will return it someday). This route is good training for the Mt. Tam Hill Climb as the long upper portion is even steeper than the Temelpa Trail. It is not recommended for the descent, however.

2) A less intimidating, and more runnable, variation of #1 is to take Hogsback only as far as Old Railroad Grade, then go left 0.4 miles to the Fern Creek trail, following that to the East Peak area.

3) A traditional, historic route to the summit climbs the Dipsea stairs from 0ld Mill Park, then makes a right on Edgewood Ave and follows the old Pipeline trail (now paved over in two sections by Edgewood Ave.), to the Mountain Home Inn. Then follow Hogsback as described. (For a slightly shorter route, at the top of the Dipsea stairs cross the street and go straight on the little trail for about 50 yards, then turn right and up the embankment, passing to the left of the water tank, following the path across the right side of a field to exit higher up on Edgewood Ave). After the 2005 Quadruple Dipsea I just couldn't seem to get enough of the stairs and took this route again and again. I love combining this ascent with a return down the recently regraded Temelpa Trail, connecting with Old Plane Trail, Old Railroad Grade, and Gravity Car Grade to the Mountain Home Inn, and continuing back down Edgewood Ave., etc. This is probably one of the finest descents on the mountain.

4) From the west end of Blithedale Ave., take Old Railroad Grade 1.8 miles to the Temelpa Trail, which starts on the right shortly before Old Railroad Grade continues as Fern Canyon Road. Follow Temelpa all the way to the Verna Dunshee paved loop around the summit; for a shorter option, continue straight on the little-used, unmarked Telephone Trail at the four-way junction 0.8 miles up Temelpa (just past the Sitting Bull Rock), exiting at the East Peak parking lot. This is quite steep and requires some hands over feet climbing, but affords a different, unique perspective of the mountain. By the way, the Sitting Bull Rock boasts a fresh, new plaque and installed, 'winterized' portrait of Chief Sitting Bull, creating a nice little shrine (unfortunately, since writing this the rangers took it down after several years of local enjoyment). I passed here once and found some elderly ladies silently enjoying the peaceful spot. I said to them, "this is almost like a holy place", and one of them replied, "what do you mean, almost?"

5) To explore more of the eastern side of Tamalpais, take Old Railroad Grade 0.2 miles to H-Line (or “Two Tanks”) FR. Go right. At the junction (0.6 miles) go left and then UP Blithedale Ridge FR, 0.9 miles to Indian FR. The profile of Mt. Tam from Blithedale Ridge is one of the nicest you will find. Go left 0.1 mile up Indian FR and then cut left up the unofficial Indian Fire Trail, which, although frequently used, is not on any map. This will rise steeply and cross Eldridge Grade three times. You will have to skirt some brush placed at the first crossing point to discourage mountain bikers from using the bottom portion of the trail, which you would almost have to be out of your mind to try in the first place (but then again, I have even seen bike tracks down the steepest portion of the East Peak Fire trail, which is the true definition of insanity). At the third crossing Eldridge will actually be several yards to the right. You will go LEFT ten yards and continue up the fourth and last portion of the Indian Fire Trail. There were some Tibetan prayer flags up here (since removed), and you will actually feel like you are in Tibet as you ascend this rocky crag. From points north you will visualize this route as the hair of the famous "Sleeping Maiden". The trail then makes a dramatic exit at one of the most spectacular vista points of Tam before continuing a short ways to the Verna Dunshee paved loop. I also love climbing down this way. It is as if you reach the edge of the world, turn around and say goodbye to the relative "civilization" of the lookout tower, and then plunge into the abyss.

From Kentfield :

1) From Goodhill-Crown Rd (note: keep in mind that Crown Road has two sections, one accessible from Evergreen Dr., and one from Goodhill Rd., both branching off Woodland Ave. near College of Marin): Park just past the junction of Crown with Phoenix Rd. and look for the narrow trail just over the guardrail on the right. This is the Tucker Cut-Off. Take it down to Tucker Trail and make a left. After crossing a foot bridge (one used to have to jump over the swollen creek in the winter), follow Tucker steeply upwards, passing several cascading streams, and when it finally levels off and veers right (towards Eldridge Grade) look on the left for the obscure and unmarked Tucker Falls Trail. Be careful passing the falls (you will need your hands and all your wits, and it is even more hair-raising coming down), and follow this up to a higher point on Eldridge Grade. The Tucker trail is cool in summer, rich and verdant in winter. It was a favorite of Steve Lyons, and you will love it, too. Keep your eyes and ears open (don't wear a Walkman) as mountain lions have been spotted in the vicinity, and you will probably be alone in here. From the top of Tucker Falls there are two options: continue left up the Grade and look on the right for the crossing of the Indian Fire Trail and take that to the summit, or backtrack 0.1 mile or so down the grade and look on the left for an unmarked, short connector to the East Peak Fire Trail, then follow the fire road left very steeply up to Eldridge Grade, which you will then cross. Continue slightly to the right up a narrow pathway through the scrub to the Verna Dunshee paved loop, and from there, 10 or 20 yards to the right, you can find a continuation of this scramble to the summit, crossing Plankwalk trail, with further scrambles above that; I always like taking these shortcuts, as you get the chance to surprise weekend warrior hikers on their brief stroll up from the parking area.
    This East Peak Fire Trail option has several delightful surprises and sacred sites, as well as sweeping panoramas of the northern side of the mountain. I will say no more so as not to spoil the fun. I do have to admit, I like keeping these areas to myself.    [note: although these routes begin up on Crown Rd. (elevation 500’), after descending to the Tucker Trail there is still 2000 feet of climb to the East Peak parking area]. An even shorter option is to take the unmarked path about ten yards to the right of the unmarked Tucker Falls Trail, not much more than a deer path in which you will most certainly be alone, and follow that as it undulates up and to the right (with one short downhill) until it also exits on Eldridge Grade. The connector to the East Peak Fire Trail is then only ten yards to the left. A hidden sanctuary lies therein.

2) From Phoenix Lake:

   a. Go right at the dam to Phoenix Junction. Then take Eldridge 2.25 miles (0.25 past the junction with Lakeview) and continue as described in #1 above via the connector trail and East Peak Fire Trail.

   b. Go left at the dam to the end of the lake and take Bill Williams Gulch to the Tucker Trail, then also continue as described. Enjoy the quiet of the Gulch and the historic ruins of old dams.

SHORTER ASCENTS (1500-1800 feet)

From Mill Valley:

1) Drive to the top of Summit Ave. and continue up Fern Canyon Rd. After the first long left hand loop look for the Temelpa Trail on the right and park. Take Temelpa Trail to the summit area.

2) Drive to the Mountain Home Inn on Panoramic Highway. Take Hogsback straight up to the summit area.

From Kentfield:

1) Drive up Goodhill-Crown Rd to the end. Take the Indian Fire Road just past the gate on the right, then Indian Fire Trail, or

2) Drive up Evergreen-Crown Rd. Take Evergreen Dr. steeply up to a short fire road that connects with Indian FR at a quiet junction, then take Indian FR to Indian Fire Trail.

The book Tamalpais Trails (map included), by Barry Spitz, will be found most useful in negotiating these routes. Also see Mt. Tamalpais, the Sacred Mountain, on www.mountainrunnerdoc.com.

    There are many other interesting and enjoyable summitting possibilities, but these are the quickest and most direct. But be careful on your descent! The top portion of Indian Fire Trail is thrilling and has fairly stable footing, but negotiating the middle sections is a piece of work, requiring all ones balancing skills. I tend to avoid these sections by detouring down Eldridge Grade and Indian Fire Road because the footing is not good and there are some erosion problems. The steep middle section of the East Peak Fire Trail is also quite a hairy descent, but which I take frequently for strategic reasons, to access out-of-the-way places and find much needed solitude. Telephone Trail is quite tricky, but I sometimes take it if it is getting dark and I am in a hurry. Just don't expect anyone to find you any time soon if you get killed. (The truly adventurous might explore the gully that opens up a little ways down on the right, roughly paralleling the Telephone Trail but working its way along the old line of telephone poles and exiting somewhere on Old Plane or near the Double Bow-Knot. Guy Palmer swears you don't need a machete or chain saw to get through the years of overgrowth along this path, but this is a guy (or Guy - what guy? Guy - reminds me of who's on first? the guy on first base? Who. The guy on first... ) who also claims to have found a way to the Double Bow-Knot via a long unused, steep, and now overgrown fire road (visible only in aerial pictures from the 1930's) starting from the old dam at the end of Cascade Avenue in Mill Valley. I found myself shut out by chaparral and scotchbroom several times trying to find a passage this way, but I did achieve success with a steep and marginal trail starting from a backyard on Lovell Ave. that exits at the Double Bow-Knot near a small "No bike" sign. (The trail is easier to find, the first time at least, at its upper end). Combining that with the older Telephone path may well be the shortest route up Mt. Tam, although not the fastest due to its technical difficulty, but an interesting adventure nonetheless for the intrepid explorer.
    The way I figure it, the more trail knowledge one has the better, for who knows when secret routes such as these might come in handy as bail-out points when getting chased by someone or something on the mountain? (Doesn't anyone else ever think of such things?!).