Gaining the Summit

Any collection of tales regarding the trails that run about, up, down and around Mt Tamalpais must include at least one about ascending the summit. Old Railroad Grade is just such a trail, running from somewhere near the base of the mountain in Mill Valley to somewhere near the three peaks that sit atop the loom of this storied mountain. Sometime around the turn of the last century, a stage coach ferried people up to the mountaintop where they could board the so-called Gravity Train.

This contrivance allowed the adventurous to ride down the mountain slopes powered only by the inexorable effects of gravity. A relic of these halcyon days sits in a small park down in Mill Valley. There is naught but a hand brake for accoutrements, the idea being the car would find its way down the mount on its own. This must have been a hellish manner of generating excitement on a Sunday afternoon.

Old Railroad Grade passes by West Point Inn on its way to and from the summit area. This doubtless was the primary destination for a lot of those aboard leaving the summit to the more adventurous among them. Besides, the sweeping panoramas available from there were nearly as glorious as they were from the top and at the least there was comfortable porch side seating.

Old Grade comes to its terminus just below East Peak, the highest of the three that constitute the summit of Mt Tam. This trio includes West Peak, Middle Peak and East Peak. West Peak, the least of the three, sits alone and austere. Contrastingly, Middle peak, the penultimate in altitude, has a massive white globe perched atop its rise, erected there by the FAA to assist in aircraft navigation. On clear days, this globe is visible for miles around the Bay Area.

East peak, the highest of the three, has a small structure at its top, encircled by a wooden foot path. Below this is a small parking lot where the less physically inspired can leave their conveyances after motoring to the summit. The more peripatetic can access the summit by smaller trails that lead up the side of the southern slope.

One of these, Millers Trail, follows a small steam as it courses through the tall trees that drape the southern face. In early spring, the trail is nearly washed away. Once, when descending by this route, I came upon a washed out stretch, near the base of the trail.

Too far down and fatigued after a long day of hiking to contemplate retracing my steps back up to the top, I tip-toed along what was left of the muddy track, fearing it would collapse beneath my weight. Clinging to nearby trees in hopes of steadying my weary, quavering steps, I finally found my way down to the safety of the fire road.

Millers Trail was actually a cut-off rendering redundant the numerous switchbacks in the meandering fire road. The other summit accessing trail, Templar Trail is more direct, descending (or ascending, as the case may be) precipitously along the steep slope. Picking one’s way up or down this near sheer incline can prove to be a tricky business.

Numerous rocks and roots provide welcome footholds in the sere, sun parched terrain. During the winter rainy season it is best to avoid this approach altogether. This trail, however, has the one advantage of being the most direct and by extension the shortest and most timely approach to the summit.

Once atop the mountain, there are vistas galore in which to bask. To the east, Mt Diablo looms majestically over the East Bay, much as Mt Tam does over the western side of the blue expanse of San Francisco Bay. To the south, The City spreads before from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate and beyond over the vastness of the Pacific.

In between lie the southern Marin County villages of Sausalito and Tiburon nestled in the deep blue of the bay and the pine forested greens of the contiguous hills. Scattered among them are Angel Island and Alcatraz, which in turn are surrounded by skittering sail craft. On particularly windy days, these are tossed about on the myriad whitecaps looking as near to capsizing without actually doing so.

On the backside of the mountain, there are vistas not seen from the other flanks. Far below, Lake Lagunitas sits alongside Bon Tempe Lake looking like large sapphire gems set in the emerald setting of the adjacent forest. On days when the fog rolls in, thick fingers of mist penetrate from the coast and settle in the valleys. As the day progresses, these burn off leaving their cooler clime only a memory in the sun roasted countryside

Out toward the west, the thickly carpeted grasslands interspersed with densely forested patches roll away to the sea-green expanse of the broad Pacific Ocean. All over the mountain, there are innumerable aeries that afford spectacular panoramas, practically every turn in a trail or fire road holds prospects to quicken the heartbeat or shorten the breath of a peripatetic soul but none compare with the vistas proffered by the views from these summits making the effort required in gaining them all the more satisfying.

© Stephen Alexander 2008

Gaining the Summit

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

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Ascent to the summit of Mt Tam

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