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Mount TamalpaisMt. Tamalpais is the heart and soul of Mill Valley. It is the anchor that draws and keeps us here, the force that frees us from excess urbanity and the sentinel that watches over us and all its inhabitants. It is a history lesson of the peoples who dwelled here and the modes of transportation they used to visit the mountain. It is a source of enjoyment and serenity to humans, and nourishment and shelter to fauna and flora. It is the spirit of a county hell-bent on preserving its natural beauty and native wildness, in a world obsessed with concrete, capital and computer games.

Almost anywhere in Mill Valley - whether you're traveling up Miller Avenue, hiking on Blithedale Summit or working out at the Community Center - you can look upwards and view the majesty and beauty of Mt. Tam. Below is information about the mountain and a round-up of activities available to the public.

Mt. Tam covers about 25,000 acres. Mt. Tamalpais State Park, originally 200 acres when it was formed in 1928, now makes up about 6,300 acres and is managed by California State Park Rangers and volunteers. Other parts of the mountain are overseen by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Marin County Open Space District and the Marin Municipal Water District. A few acres are privately held.

Trail to Fire TowerThe East Peak of Mt. Tam, at 2,571 feet above sea level, is the highest point in Marin County, and affords a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. One of two fire lookout towers in the county is located at the zenith and is staffed 24 hours a day during the dry season to search for fires in this highly combustible county.

An abundance of life can be found on the mountain. Trees such as redwood, oak, manzanita, pine, fir, bay and madrone cover the flanks, and the Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association estimates that over 750 species of plants grow there. Bobcats, foxes, deer, raccoons, the occasional mountain lion and many other animals have been spotted on the mountain, and over 150 bird species, including red-tailed hawks, kites, turkey vultures, owls and woodpeckers feed and nest there.

Mt. Tamalpais lies on the western side of the North American tectonic plate, one of many slow moving plates that make up the earth's crust. The infamous San Andreas Fault - the source of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake - cuts up and down the coast just west of the mountain. Geologists believe the Coast Range, of which Mt. Tam is a part, was formed about 50 million years ago when the North American plate moved over the plate to its west, the Farallon plate, thrusting the land upwards and creating the mountain range.

The first known human dwellers on the mountain were the Coast Miwoks. For approximately five thousand years, these Native Americans primarily inhabited what is now Marin and southern Sonoma County. The Miwoks lived in small villages and fed on elk, deer, birds, fish and wild-grown nuts and berries. Miwoks lived in the same place for long periods and the cooked remains of shells and animal bones eventually blackened the soils in places where fires were built. Several of these dark mounds, called "middens," are still visible today.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the entire full-blooded Miwok population was killed off, victims of diseases previously unknown to their culture and immune systems (smallpox, measles, syphilis and others) and armed attacks by Spanish and American settlers when the Miwoks resisted attempts to force them into European and American cultures and religions.

Barry Spitz related in his book, Mill Valley: The Early Years, that one of the Miwok Chiefs who organized an uprising "was dubbed Chief Marin ('el marinero', the mariner in Spanish) because of his skill on the local waterways. He was captured [in 1832], escaped, recaptured, converted to Christianity, then died at Mission San Rafael in 1834. But his name lives on, attached to the County." Today, descendants of the Coast Miwoks have joined together to form the Federated Coast Miwok Tribe to foster ethnic pride, renew its culture and work toward official recognition by the United States.

Mt. Tamalpais became a well known recreation destination in the late nineteenth century, and the Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway was built in 1896 to provide transportation for the growing number of people frequenting the area.

The railway used steam engines to transport trainloads of visitors up the mountain, and gravity cars - so called because they used the energy efficient force of gravity - to take them down. Affectionately called The Crookedest Railroad in the World, the trains climbed the vertical half-mile up the southern face of Mt. Tamalpais on 8.19 miles of track, required due to the circuitous route needed to safely negotiate the average five percent rise to the top. In all, there were 281 turns on the route.
1906 Muir Woods Inn

The original Muir Woods Inn on Mt. Tamalpais, c. 1906. Alice Eastwood
Campgrounds is now located to the right of the photo. The Inn burned
to the ground around 1907. Photo © Mill Valley Public Library.

The Great Mill Valley Fire of 1929, the rising popularity of the automobile and the Great Depression tolled the death knell of the railroad, and service was discontinued and tracks torn up in 1930.

Nowadays, over half a million people from all over the world visit the protected mountain every year. Activities permitted on Mt. Tam include year-round hiking, biking, horseback riding and camping. The Cushman Memorial Theater, an open air amphitheater on a ridge near the top of Mt. Tam, hosts special activities such as the Mountain Play, musical concerts and astronomy lectures. Muir Woods National Monument, one of the last remaining old growth redwood forests, is located on the mountain's northeast slope. The route of the famous Dispsea Race, the world's second oldest running race, begins in downtown Mill Valley and winds its way over the slopes of Mt. Tam.

About 200 miles of trails crisscross the mountain, almost 60 miles of which are in the State Park. Bicyclists are allowed on fire trails only, and horses are permitted on fire trails and on certain other designated trails, as indicated by signs. Popular hiking trail loops begin at Pantoll Ranger Station, Rock Spring and Bootjack. Muir Woods provides a wheelchair-accessible path through groves of redwoods.

Campgrounds are located in Pantoll, Steep Ravine and Alice Eastwood Campgrounds. There is a day-use picnic area at Bootjack, and no-frills rooms and cabins for overnight stays at West Point Inn, a century-old getaway spot.

The major bodies of water on Mt. Tam are Lake Lagunitas, Alpine Lake and Bon Tempe Reservoir. Parking on the mountain is limited, and fee lots are below the East Peak and at Rock Spring, Pantoll Ranger Station, Bootjack Picnic Area and the Mountain Theater.

View from TamWhile the sight of "our mountain" from Mill Valley brings peace and a bit of humility to our lives, the view from the summit is breathtaking, no matter which direction you look. On a clear day, visitors can see San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, the Golden Gate, the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco skyline, the East Bay, Mt. Diablo and three bridges: the Golden Gate, Bay and Richmond-San Rafael. Foggy days can add mystery and beauty to the hikes and views.

Not every town has a mountain in its own backyard, and Mill Valley residents feel fortunate to be a short distance from the majesty and connection with nature that is Mt. Tamalpais.

Additional Information:

Mt. Tamalpais State Park
801 Panoramic Highway
Mill Valley, CA 94941

Related Web Sites:

California Department of Parks and Recreation
Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association

Tamalpais Conservation Club 
Muir Woods National Monument
Mountain Play
Dipsea Race
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Marin County Open Space District
Marin Municipal Water District

Written by Alan Nayer. Text and Photos (except where noted) are © Alan Nayer.

Last updated: 12/5/2007 3:27:50 PM