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Conquering Mt. Tam

2005-01-16 9 min read Tours marco

Mt. Tamalpais, a.k.a. Mt. Tam

joomplu:9475When you drive on Highway 101 from San Francisco North, there is this huge mountain looming on your left. It stays with you from Sausalito to Novato, a landmark whose view makes real estate prices jump.

Someone had come back with pictures from the summit. An expansive view of the whole Bay Area from Napa to the City seemed possible. You could see the Golden Gate, and Alcatraz, and the Marin Headlands. It had to be the most spectacular vista in the whole Bay Area. And there was a road that leads all the way to the top.

Failed Attempts

Ever since I moved back to the City and started riding again in Marin county, I wanted to do Mt. Tam. It’s gotta be a fun ride for a methodical climber like me, I thought, and I set my mind on taking off one Saturday morning and not come back until I had seen the view myself.

Cartographic material on that area was scant here. The usually excellent Gazetteer had only a bundle of trails and roads that nobody could have followed; the Bay Area Road Atlas ended conveniently in Mill Valley; the Bay Area Trail map didn’t know about the existence of the mountain at all.

Long story short: I got lost twice on my way up. The first time, I gave up at the parking lot of the school in Mill Valley. The second time I got there and turned left – ended up getting higher and higher, but unfortunately to a dead-end (Fern Valley road). Turns out Summit Avenue doesn’t actually lead to the summit. What a shame.

Saturday, 4/10/04

joomplu:9430A wonderful spring day. I had slept just well, the weather was just right, and my legs were burning to be burnt. I had enough knowledge of all that I had done wrong, and I knew I was going to make it. Too beautiful a day to miss it!

I drove out to the Presidio and parked in the East Battery lot, right by the bridge. There was a lot of activity going on, and I feared crossing the bridge would be a major undertaking.

The fog was enveloping all of us. It was too cold to be in a skinsuit only, but I knew that was going to change soon. The good cyclists surprised me by going slow (I learned something), and I passed them just to be passed after the bridge. Too bad. Not making friends, here…

Through Marin

After the bridge, you have to climb the little connector to Conzelman road and turn right, towards the river of cars that descends towards the bridge. Someone is bound to cross without observing the stop sign, and someone else is bound to make some smartypant comment about me stopping.

joomplu:9469Go down Alexander avenue all the way through Sausalito. A friendly fisher town in its days, this first little city in Marin turned into a tourist hotbed, with cafes and t-shirt shops and art galleries all over. You can stop and get a good espresso if you are not in a hurry.

After exiting downtown S., you’ll get to the Bay Trail. It’s not really marked well, but you’ll see a lot of cyclists on a rough road without car access. You can either join them, or you can continue on the main road.

Regardless, you will have to get to Miller avenue. On Miller, a trafficked road that connects Sausalito with beautiful Mill Valley, you will have to go until you hit downtown Mill Valley itself. You will see a Whole Foods market on the left, and a stop sign right in front of you.

Turn left at the stop sign. You’ll be on Montford avenue, that winds to the top. The first major incline, by the way, is the worst of the whole trip. After that, Mt. Tam is as docile as they get.

Panoramic Highway

Just as Haleakala taught me, climbing a mountain is an act of will and of legs. Never give up, don’t stop if you don’t need to, and always think of life as something that must be wonderful while you are not climbing.

Montford turns into Molino turns into Edgewood turns into Sequoia Valley drive. Other people show up around you, and this is definitely the better way to climb. (See later for the lesser alternative.)

You get to the top (at least that’s what it feels like) and you turn right, onto Panoramic Highway. A short downhill stretch allows you to worry about having to climb all of that up again. But by now the traffic has died down, and there are lots of cyclists around you. That got me all excited.

Side bar: don’t take the very tempting Throckmorton Ridge trail. Looks paved, isn’t.

joomplu:9490The ride is now mostly inside the forest. Once in a while you will get a precious view of the Headlands, but all in all it is warm and shady. Groups of motorbikers pass you on their Harleys, numbing your ears and waving at you. Other cyclists are on their way up and you chat with people you will never see again.

Close to the next turn, Carlo chatted with me. He is from the Midwest but spent time in Italy, trying to become a pro, only to be kicked out because he exceeded the quota of foreigners allowed. I had no heart to tell him that’s no worse than what I got here in the States, but he was a really good sport, just like the many you meet cycling around here.

Panoramic Toll Road

Carlo and I got to a fork in the road, and he continued on to Stinson Beach. I said good-bye and turned right and up, on my quest to get to the top. The slope was sweet, like the lower slope of Haleakala. There was no moaning, and I am sure I can crank up the speed in the future. For a first time, though, it was good not to have the S710 with me (whose battery is still dead).

From here on, the cyclists are slow. Clearly, the main route is down to Stinson Beach, following Carlo. The climbers are mostly people from the lesser orders of cycling: groups of chatty girls, middle-aged humans in ‘Team-in-Training’ jerseys, aggressive but overweight single males that can’t stand being passed.

{moszoomimglink:On the toll road, looking out to the fog}While it is called a Toll road, you actually don’t have to pay. At least in April, the summer may look different. You just have to soak in the views, particularly on a day of fog like this Saturday. You are well above the fog, anyway, and from here it all looks like a placid white ocean crashing in slow motion against the Golden Gate.

West Summit and Beyond

{moszoomimglink:West summit}There is going to be a first summit, marked by a strange ball. Probably either a radar station for the air force or a meteorological station. West summit is actually the highest of the three, I think, that conclude in the vista point. Nevertheless, the views are not as spectacular from here.

You follow the road, climb a little to the middle summit, then get ready for the real climb on to East summit. The road is excellent, in mint condition. On top, you’ll see a parking lot, restrooms, and lots of cyclists. Throckmorton Ridge trail or some other wilderness trail (mountain bike ready) joins us here, and there is a generic atmosphere of merriment.

The Final Climb

{moszoomimglink:The summit tower}Unlike Haleakala, Mt. Tam is not biker friendly. You actually have to walk for a third of a mile from the parking lot until you hit the summit. And cycles are not allowed.

I decided to risk it and propped Ti on my shoulders. The trail to the top was a sequence of wooden plank and looked manageable. And so it went for a short little while, to be replaced by a regular hiking trail on the slope of a mountain. My cleats (the only thing between me and the rock) suffered a lot. Instead of paying $4 parking fee, I’ll have to buy new cleats…

{moszoomimglink:Made it to the top}If you don’t have something fit for climbing, don’t do it. The views from the top are marvelous, but quite not worth destroying your shoes. The hike gets worse and worse, and soon you’ll scramble over sheer rock until you hit Gardner Lookout.

{moszoomimglink:Mount Diablo, the next peak to conquer}The views from here are magnificent. The City in the distance looks like a forlorn Atlantis waiting to sink in the fog. To the North, you have little Alpine Lake with it golf course. To the East, Mount Diablo behaves like the big volcano it used to be, while the urban sprawl of San Rafael suddenly comes to an end at the bridge and the penitentiary of Saint Quentin.


{moszoomimglink:Hills, rolling into trees}The good thing about climbing a mountain is that, after you made it, it’s all down from here. I had to scramble down the rock face, and the cleats were in really bad shape at the end. I saw a major group of cyclists enjoy their climb at the lot, but I was on my way down.

I checked out the view of the coast again. If you haven’t seen this section of the California coast, you really have to. Rolling hills, covered in perennially green grass, are perfectly round and bare – consequence of the fierce winds on this side. It is a fantastic scenery, you probably have seen it in car commercials.

Down, down, down. At some point, a group of three passed me, just to be stuck in front of me. Amazing how much faster you can go downhill if someone else shows you the way. I would go with this trio all the way down.

Highway 1

As usual, I wanted to try something different on the way down, and went through on Highway 1. Bad choice: the cars were slow, traffic horrible, and I was stuck behind a column that was slowing down for two cyclists of amazing slowness, riding next to each other.

The fast guy in the trio had tried to go down Sequoia, but the other two had gone ahead. While in the column, I heard him come in from behind, pass the driving cars like a madman, and then rush in front of the moronic cyclists, almost killing himself in the process. Not a smart move, I’ll say.

Sequoia and Everwood look like the better choice…

At the bottom, my trio reconvened with a bigger group. We rode through Sausalito (where, again, they were more considerate than I was, which made me very impatient). We crossed the bridge together (where, again, they were more considerate than I was, which made me very impatient). And that’s it.

All in all, this ride gets a really nice 8. Scenery and cameraderie were better than that, but the lack of directions for cyclists and the car traffic in Marin, well, you know…