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 micro-climate.
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. “Which weather will finally win out?” you wonder, approaching your Mount Tam trailhead of choice – and there are a plethora of hiking and running paths carved into the hillside. It changes so fast that you’re left without the foggiest idea.
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.
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Highlights include the flat, shaded Matt Davis Trail; the (anything but) Easy Grade Trail, a 1-mile uphill; a loop around Mountain Theater; the rolling Rock Springs Trail; and the ascent to the summit along the Old Railroad Grade.
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 1 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.
Route: 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.
Water and toilets: Yes, at Bootjack parking lot and at Mountain Theater.