Mt Tamalpais via the Steep Ravine Trail

If you wanted to, you could drive almost to the top of Mt. Tamalpias. But if you want to really climb Mt. Tam, then start from the ocean. This hike leaves from Stinson Beach and climbs the Steep Ravine trail up to East Peak, then loops back on the north side. The grand total is over 16 miles, and a few thousand feet of elevation gain.

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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!

Download

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

The ladder.
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.

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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.

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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.

Fire lookout - Elevation 2571'
Fire lookout – Elevation 2571′
Up in the clouds.
Up in the clouds.
Northeast view towards Novato.
Northeast view towards Novato.

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.

Parasitic plant - in the Orobanche genus.
Parasitic plant – Orobanche fasciculata.

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So many acorns!

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.

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Along the Coastal Trail (also part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail).
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Two people up there!

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:

3 thoughts on “Mt Tamalpais via the Steep Ravine Trail”

  1. Decades ago, we had a hike starting in Downtown Mill Valley at the base of the stairs, up to the top of Tam, down to Stinson Beach, then back up over Tam, and back to Mill Valley. Those days! Used to be many good hikes about Tam, nice to see they haven’t changed too much. For the old hiking club, now, being a mountain, do they not like it!

    1. It looks like the INCH group hiked the mountain a couple of times the past several years, but they seem focused in the south bay. I’m sure there are many meetup groups all around who walk with varying difficulty. Not many people who go more than fifteen miles in a day – hard for me without a can of beer in the pack.

  2. How true! Rare to find anyone who likes to hike to the top of anything! Meetup seems to be full of non-hikers, locally, as even incentives like free beer or dinner, rides, etc. don’t bring anyone around. Maybe my offers seem to good to be true, but even a free party for a peak goal didn’t bring in any peak baggers by the old peak section. Well, onwards and upwards, solo, as almost always!

Any thoughts?