Basics: This hike climbs from Stinson Beach to the East Peak of Mt Tamalpais. It’s a long one – we hiked it as a loop totaling over 16 miles round trip. We reached the top via the Steep Ravine Trail, Matt Davis Trail and Old Railroad Grade road. We returned on the International Trail, Northside Trail, Bay Area Ridge Trail and Matt Davis Trail (among others). Mt Tam has an amazingly large and well developed network of trails and roads. There are many options. Everything is well-signed, but unless you know where you are going, bring a map!
Directions to Trailhead: The Dipsea Trail and the Matt Davis Trail both start in Stinson Beach. We parked next to the fire station near the Matt Davis trailhead. If you’re driving north along Highway 1, turn right on Belvedere Ave (immediately after the fire station). There’s plenty of parking along that road. The Matt Davis trail begins at the end of the block. The Dipsea trail begins a short distance to the south on Highway 1. Both trails are marked with signs and are visible in Google Maps.
Trail Description: It has been raining quite a bit here lately, so I thought it might be a good weekend to go check out some waterfalls. I began looking at our options and settled on something in Marin county – perhaps Cascade Falls, Cataract Falls or Carson Falls. Somehow, after debating the different trail options, our waterfall plans morphed into hiking Mt Tamalpais from Stinson Beach. All the waterfall hikes seemed too short to warrant the long drive. Of course, we picked one of the more difficult ways to hike Mt Tam. Rob’s logic: if you’re going to climb a mountain, start from the bottom. (Doesn’t matter if there’s a road to the top.) So we decided to start at sea level in Stinson Beach. We made plans to go up the Steep Ravine Trail – I’ve wanted to hike that trail for a while, plus it has numerous little cascades so we would still get to see some waterfalls.
The alarm went off at 5:30 am, an absurd hour for a Sunday. We stumbled out of bed and hit the road as quickly as possible. Peet’s coffee had just barely opened when we got there It was a long drive out to Stinson Beach; we reached the trailhead sometime before 8:00 am.
We started up the Dipsea Trail from Highway 1. The Steep Ravine Trail splits off to the left after just over a mile. At the junction, there is a dire warning sign (it actually just says “ADVISORY”) for the steep 10-ft ladder, one mile ahead. Seems a little silly considering how many steep uneven steps there are along the majority of the trail.
The trail really is in a steep ravine. The canyon walls were high above us. We enjoyed the small cascades in the creek alongside the trail.
Everything was still very wet from the rain and fog. The trees and plants were dripping. At one point, I reached back and realized my backpacking was dripping also! Turns out, my hydration system had sprung a leak! The hose had punctured, rendering the Camelbak useless. I spent the rest of the trip drinking water only sporadically and feeling somewhat dehydrated.
Eventually we did reach the ladder…
After the ladder, it was less than a mile to the upper trailhead at Pantoll Ranger Station. There, we took a short break then headed up the Matt Davis Trail past Bootjack Camp. After nearly 2 miles, we took the Nora Trail towards West Point Inn.
Until 1930, a scenic tourist railway ran between Mill Valley and the East Peak of Mt Tamalpais. The westernmost point for the railroad was at the West Point Inn. The tracks came up the hill and curved around the Inn, then headed up towards East Peak. From the Inn, we followed the Old RR Grade Road up the mountain.
After just over a mile, we reached Ridgecrest Blvd. Suddenly we were surrounded by other hikers, cyclists, and cars. From this point, it was less than a mile to the crowded summit.
We sat under the fire lookout (which unfortunately is closed to the public) and ate lunch. There were a lot of people climbing around the rocks, eating, and hanging out at the summit. Mt Tam has a road to the top, so there is little solitude to be found at the summit. But it’s about the journey, not the destination, right? I’d rather hike on my journey than drive. And the destination does have incredible views.
We descended on many different trails. There is a huge network of paths and the options are endless. We more or less followed the trails listed here:
– Middle Peak Road (0.4 miles)
– Lakeview Trail (0.2 miles)
– International Trail (0.5 miles)
– Northside Trail (1.0 mile) to Rifle Camp then Portrero Camp
– Laurel Dell Road trail (0.3 miles) to Barth’s Retreat
– Mickey O’Brien Trail (0.6 miles)
– Cataract Creek Trail & Laurel Dell Road (0.8 miles) to Ridgecrest Blvd
– Coastal Trail (or Bay Area Ridge Trail) (1.8 miles)
– Matt Davis Trail (2.3 miles)
It should be noted that the Lakeview Trail had no lake view. In fact, most of the north side of the mountain was forested and a little boring.
Once we crossed Ridgecrest Blvd, the scenery changed dramatically. The 1.8 mile section of Coastal Trail was one of the best parts of the entire hike. The grassy hills were full of wildflowers. Hang gliders silently flew over us and we could see the ocean far down below. I wanted to keep looking around, but after almost falling down the steep hillside, I focused on the narrow path in front of me.
The last mile or two of the trail was forested again. I was ready to be back at the car, so it felt like a long slog down the hill. I did still enjoy the lush greenery along the trail: ferns, giant trees, wild flowers, thimbleberries and a lot of poison oak. We made it back to the car by 5:00 pm – a long day well spent on the trails of Mount Tamalpais.
More Info: This great map by Tom Harrison allowed us to plan the trip, and not get lost along the way: