Mt. Tamalpais Loop

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Mount Tamalpais loop


My favorite early fall hike starts from the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais. A fairly strenuous five-mile loop on Eldridge Grade and Northside, International, Lakeview and Middle Peak trails takes you through variety of habitats from chaparral to a beautiful spring and redwood grove. The incredible views start right when you get out of the car at the East Peak parking lot.

From the parking lot walk down East Ridgecrest Boulevard to Eldridge Grade. The combination of downhill and loose rock make the start of this fire road a place some people like to have their hiking poles.

Fall, when oaks have their acorns, is a good time to learn the oaks. On this trail you can see interior live oaks, which have thin acorns with deep caps; canyon live oaks with their more barrel-shaped acorns and caps like berets; and tan oaks with their distinctive spikey caps. Another tree I especially enjoy is the California torreya, a tree with sharply pointed needles in the yew family. Female trees still have some nuts in October, and since the peeled nut looked very much like a nutmeg it is sometimes called California nutmeg although it is not related to the tropical nutmeg. Be sure to smell the covering of the nut. Citrus? Pine? Though distinctive, the scent is hard to describe.

Soon you’ll have a good view of Bon Tempe Lake, a reservoir built in 1948. It has nothing to do with good weather (bon temps) or Indonesian fermented soy beans. For many years the Bautunpi brothers ran the Lagunitas Dairy Tract. Their name became Anglicized to Bontempi. They sold the land to the Marin Water Company in 1878, and when the dam was built the lake became Bon Tempe. As views open up to Larkspur and Corte Madera the bird’s eye view makes clear the changes in the Bay. It is easy to see how many houses have been built on landfill, and how little remains of natural wetlands. Indeed, the San Francisco Bay has lost about 95 percent of its wetlands since the Gold Rush, along with the many benefits they provided. Fortunately, recent years have also seen some areas returned to wetlands, opening up new habitat for wetland species, some of which are endangered.

Ignore a few unmarked side trails and continue until you see an old wooden sign pointing to Ross and Mill Valley. The main fire road makes a right here. Instead, go straight where the sign says Northside Trail, Collier Spring — Potrero Meadows. At the top of a small rise you come to Inspiration Point. A particularly lovely canyon live oak stands at this junction. As plants have grown over the years, you have to be tall to get a peek at the inspiring view below, but I never mind as there are so many inspiring views on this hike.

Follow the shady Northside Trail through oaks, madrones, California torreya and Douglas firs. When you see the first redwoods, you know Colier Spring is near. This lovely redwood grove, fed by Colier Spring, is a delightful place to rest or have lunch. The day I visited a usually shy Pacific wren put on quite a show hopping about the spring, and California tortoiseshells stopped at the spring as well.

Just past Colier Spring Lower Northside forks right, and you stay left to take Northside Trail. At a tall sergeant cypress, make a right on International Trail. At this junction the serpentine rocks are shiny, polished by many generations of hikers’ feet. International Trail goes up to East Ridgecrest, where a sign informs you Lakeview Trail is 36 yards to your left. Lakeview Trail continues uphill until it meets Middle Peak Fire Road. This descends to East Ridgecrest, where you cross the paved road and take a paved road that does not allow cars. Some stairs up to the parking lot to complete the loop.

From Highway 101, take the Stinson Beach/Highway l exit in Mill Valley. In 2/3 mile turn left, staying on Highway l. After 2.6 miles, bear right at fork, onto Panoramic Highway (sign says Mt. Tamalpais). After one mile, at the four-way intersection, take the high road, Panoramic (sign says Mount Tam). Continue 4.5 miles to the junction with Pantoll Road. Turn right and drive about 1.5 miles to the “T” at Ridgecrest. Turn right, and drive three miles to the end of the road. Paid parking $8 or $7 for seniors.

Wendy Dreskin has led the College of Marin nature/hiking class Meandering in Marin since 1998, and teaches other nature classes for adults and children. To contact her, go to