From Sea to Summit at Mount Tamalpais

 View of the San Francisco Bay the summit of Mount Tamalpais.

View of the San Francisco Bay the summit of Mount Tamalpais.

Last Saturday I took Onur on a 14-mile hike from Stinson Beach to Mount Tamalpais, one of the tallest peaks in the Bay Area at 2,571 feet. I had been researching it for Modern Hiker, and found it to be truly original—like no other hike I’d done in Washington. Of course, I wanted to share it with Onur. We parked at Stinson Beach, and from there hiked through a beautiful redwood forest before continuing on to the summit.

 Onur approaching a ladder halfway through the Steep Ravine Trail.

Onur approaching a ladder halfway through the Steep Ravine Trail.

The beach and redwood forest were just the beginning of a hike steeped in history. From there we hopped Old Stage Road and Old Railroad Grade, transportation routes used in the early 1900s in connection with railroad activity at the time. Old Railroad Grade was the former railroad bed of the Mill Valley and Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway, which ran from Mill Valley to East Peak between 1896 and 1929 on a dizzying 281 turns over 8.2 miles—the equivalent of completing 42 circles.

West Point Inn was the westernmost point of the railway (hence the name), built in 1904 so that railroad passengers who wanted to visit Stinson Beach could get off and transfer there. (Old Stage Road refers to the horse-drawn stagecoaches that used to take care of the transfers.) The Inn changed hands over the years until a group of passionate volunteers formed the West Point Inn Association. They now run it, and there are rooms upstairs, as well as rustic cabins with shared facilities.

West Point Inn

Since West Point Inn is located at the junction of Old Stage Road and Old Railroad Grade, our hike took us right by it. Hikers are welcome to come up on the Inn’s porch to rest at picnic tables and enjoy the views of the San Francisco Bay. There’s also a hiker store inside with snacks, coffee, tea, bottled water, lemonade, postcards, and maps for sale. It’s run on the honor system, so you drop a buck in a labeled bucket and take your snack. Out on the porch are hummingbird feeders with oodles of rainbow-throated hummingbirds.

 The view from the deck at West Point Inn.

The view from the deck at West Point Inn.

From West Point Inn, it’s another 2.0 miles to East Peak, where an active fire lookout called the Gardiner Fire Lookout sits atop the summit. Volunteers with the Marin County Fire Department maintain it. Hikers aren’t allowed inside, but there are lots of rocks and boulders at the summit to see the views.

 Onur at Gardiner Fire Lookout

Onur at Gardiner Fire Lookout

On a prior visit, one of the volunteer keepers came out to chat with a bunch of us at the summit. The keeper told us about where to go to find more information if we wanted to actually volunteer and become keepers ourselves (here) which I thought was pretty cool.

 Mount Diablo to the east, San Francisco to the south.

Mount Diablo to the east, San Francisco to the south.

I took Onur to a spot on East Peak I call the “throne”—a pitch of rocks shaped like a giant king’s throne facing east towards Mount Diablo. The views were something special—a panorama of the Pacific Ocean, Marin Headlands, San Francisco, San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island, the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, Angel Island, the Tiburon Peninsula, the San Quentin-Rafael Bridge, Mount Diablo. The last time I had been here, the view had been mostly socked-in. Onur must have brought his usual good luck with him, because we had clear views all the way to San Francisco!

Two hundred feet below East Peak, next to the Verna Dunshee Trail, is a Gravity Car Barn. Volunteers built a replica of a “gravity car” that had been used to take passengers down to Muir Woods in 1907. The gravity cars were like open-air roller-coasters, with a brakeman sitting up front and 30 passengers loaded into its bench-like style. They glided down the mountain between 10 and 12 miles per hour.

 A replica of a gravity car with the Gardiner Fire Lookout overhead at the summit.

A replica of a gravity car with the Gardiner Fire Lookout overhead at the summit.

How did the gravity cars get back up? Steam locomotives tugged them back up behind them while simultaneously pushing open-air passenger cars up the mountain. Interestingly, the first car was a recycled San Francisco cable car.

There’s also a museum inside the Gravity Car Barn with descriptions of the railway and a video. Onur and I were lucky enough to get to the summit when it was open, Saturdays and Sundays between 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.

 Looking out from the Gravity Car Barn to a replica of the gravity car outside.

Looking out from the Gravity Car Barn to a replica of the gravity car outside.

 One of several educational displays inside the Gravity Car Barn.

One of several educational displays inside the Gravity Car Barn.

All-in-all, we had a spectacular day. We got snacks at West Point Inn, and drank a cold thermos of orange vitamin water that Onur had packed for us. After we made it back down to the beach, we grabbed our towels and walked right into the Pacific Ocean. It was ridiculously cold, but we were so warm from hiking in the sun all day that we dove a few times underneath the waves, hiking clothes and all.

It was the kind of memory I’ll cherish.

Stinson Beach