The winding, undulating, motion sickness-inducing drive from Mill Valley up, up, relentlessly up Mount Tamalpais on the Panoramic Highway offers nothing less than a tutorial on that curious meteorological phenomenon the Bay Area microclimate.
Make one turn, and you are enveloped in morning fog. Round the corner, and you are bathed in brilliant sunshine. Damp and dewy. Dry and dusty. Fleece-wearing chill followed by tank-top warmth. You wonder, approaching your Mount Tam trailhead of choice and there are a plethora of hiking and running paths carved into the hillside which weather will finally win out. It changes so fast that you're left without the foggiest idea.
Those of us from mono- climatized Sacramento, where summers range from hot to scorching hot to Dantean hot, would root for cool and cloudy, of course. But as we ascended Panoramic Highway to the parking lot that intersects the Matt Davis and Bootjack trails, the sun exerted its hegemony and burned brightly.
Had we chosen a more popular trail starting down mountain, either in Stinson Beach or Mill Valley, we would have experienced the sensation of being alternately shrouded and singed. But we picked an up-mountain route, above the fog line, because we wanted to ascend to the summit. Yeah, it's only a 2,571-foot peak on Mount Tam, not exactly Everest or even Shasta, but a humble and noble effort nonetheless.
The other goal was to sample something of a combo platter of trail options mossy and forested, rocky and smooth, flower-blossomed and grassy and take in a few of the mountain's historical points of interest.
And, as always in our Great Treks, we wanted options to add or subtract mileage depending upon one's motivation and skill level.
That's the great thing about Mount Tam: You can mix and match trails to fit your needs and whims. Be advised, though, that this also is a good way to get lost, despite the fact that the major trails are clearly marked.
So our trail du jour was an 8.8-mile trek that will tax your heart rate. It begins benignly enough at the confluence of the Matt Davis and Bootjack trails. We began running southwest on Matt Davis (the Bootjack Trail is on the other side of the Panoramic Highway and is closed for repairs now, anyway) and runs above and parallel to the road for the first half mile.
This is the least enjoyable segment you can hear the traffic whooshing by, and foot traffic is high, too, because the Pantoll Ranger Station is close by but it goes by fast and is soon forgotten.
The first junction comes within sight of the ranger station. You make a sharp right onto the Easy Grade (ha!) Trail, the most comically misnamed path in existence. It's a heart-pounding one-mile steady climb. While you're panting, try to remember to notice the oak woodland surrounding you.
(A longer alternative, but no less strenuous, to Easy Grade is to continue on Matt Davis a bit longer and turn right onto the Old Mine Trail. You still have a hard, steady climb, but without the oaks.)
Once the climb ends this climb, at least you emerge at the excavated bowl that is the 3,500-seat (stone bench, rather) Mountain Theater. It's officially called the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Theater, built in 1913 and reconstructed in 1930, but everyone just refers to it as Mountain Theater. The latest offering this spring was John Waters' "Hairspray."
The theater provides a good resting place to gather strength for the climb to come. Those hard-core aerobic maniacs can do stair-climbing repeats while we have a picnic.
Since the Easy Grade Trail ends at the theater, and signage is scarce, it takes some prior knowledge to determine just where you pick up the next segment, the Rock Spring Trail. The best way to get to Rock Spring is to follow the exit row at the top of the amphitheater clockwise, stage right. That will lead right to the Rock Spring trailhead.
Weather permitting, Rock Spring gives you the first hope of panoramic views on the trek. On this 1.5-mile stretch, featuring gentle rolling hills and a descent near the end, it's conceivable to see San Francisco and portions of the Pacific Coast. Conceivable, we say, because the aforementioned fog down below blotted out all civilization.
Rock Spring ends at the West Point Inn, another historical gem. This was the restaurant and way station for passengers on what was dubbed "The Crookedest Railroad in the World." It started in Mill Valley and wended through 281 curves to approach the summit, where passengers transferred to stagecoaches to travel down to Stinson Beach.
Today, the West Point Inn is open most days for people to purchase drinks and snacks. There are some rooms to rent. (Mountain bikers were squatting there on the morning we passed by.) Walk up the stairs to the porch of the inn and you can catch a glorious view of Larkspur Landing and the Bay Bridge. The cloud cover, alas, wouldn't cooperate.
By this point, even people as foggy-brained as us figured out we wouldn't get that Kodak-moment view once we reached the summit.
So did we bag it and start heading back down?
No, we did not.
We forged ahead on the approximately two-mile out-and-back at a 5 percent to 8 percent grade on mostly wide fire roads with the occasional Douglas fir providing cover. This is the Old Railroad Grade, and the path can get a bit rocky at points. Eventually you'll reach an iron gate leading to the paved East Ridgecrest Road. Cross the road, veering slightly left to another iron gate leading to a dirt fire trail. This is the final climb to the summit.
At last, we made it. We stopped, took big gulping breaths and did a Julie Andrews-in-"The-Sound-of- Music" twirl to catch the 360-degree view. We saw ... mostly mist and clouds.
The trip back down the Old Railroad Grade to the West Point Inn was swifter, if more jarring on the joints. You'd better be ready for more quad-thrashing downhills because the half-mile, boulder-strewn Nora Trail is next (the sign is at the front of the inn).
You'll be happy to see the sign for the Matt Davis Trail. Redwoods shade the last few miles back to the Bootjack parking area, and the trail crosses several creeks that will instantly turn your shoes from dusty to muddy while posing enough short climbs to keep things interesting. You know you're almost at the end when you start hearing the traffic whoosh by on Panoramic. In minutes, you'll join the conga line of automobiles descending back into the fog, then the sun, then the fog ...
Segment: Matt Davis Trail to Mountain Theater to summit
Trail: 8.8 miles
Elevation change: 1,300 feet
Directions: Take Interstate 80 to Highway 37 in Vallejo to Highway 101 South. Exit at the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach/Highway 1 exit. Travel one mile to Shoreline Highway. Turn left and follow 2.5 miles. Turn right on the Panoramic Highway. Drive 1 mile to a four-way intersection. Go straight (the middle road) about 3.5 miles to the Bootjack Trail parking lot. Parking costs $10, but many cars park for free along the highway.
From the parking lot, turn away from the street and start on the Matt Davis Trail going southwest. After less than a mile, turn right on the Easy Grade Trail. The Easy Grade ends at Mountain Theater. Make a circle around the theater to the Rock Spring Trail. Rock Spring ends at West Point Inn. Make a left and travel clockwise around the Inn to the fire road, the Old Railroad Grade, that leads to the summit. Cross the paved East Ridgecrest Road, look for a gate leading to a dirt road for the final climb to the summit. Return down Old Railroad Grade to the inn. Take the Nora Trail downhill to the Matt Davis Trail. Turn right and return on the Matt Davis Trail to the parking lot.
Easier route (5 miles)
Eliminate the summit out and back.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous (summit trail), moderate (shortened route)
Water and toilets: Yes, at Bootjack parking lot and at Mountain Theater
Poison oak probability: Medium
Will there be blood? There are lots of exposed roots, jutting rocks and steep downhills. Watch out for the slippery moss, too.
Probability of getting lost: Slim
Make a day of it: Head down to Stinson Beach to enjoy the ocean. Head north to Bodega Bay for sight-seeing or go to the Point Reyes lighthouse. Or, heading Bayside, stop at the Dipsea Cafe on Shoreline Highway in Mill Valley for breakfast, including whole-wheat pancakes. There are lots of shopping opportunities in downtown Mill Valley, but you might need to take out a second mortgage to afford it.