Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Up and away on Mount Tamalpais

Seems the only times I set foot on Mount Tamalpais these days are during trail races, where I’m either hyperventilating and hypoxic or moving swiftly and trying (often unsuccessfully) not to trip over roots and rocks on steep descents.

In other words, I’m hardly immersed in contemplate-nature mode, a state of being that the man for whom the towering redwoods in this park are named advocated as the cure to humanity’s ills.

So, for this month’s Fresh Tracks, I decided to turn off my watch, silence my GPS, even deviate from my anal-retentive reliance on the map. I would wander and wonder, soak up the sights, sounds, smells of Muir Woods National Monument and, surrounding it, the gorgeous trails of Mount Tamalpais State Park.

In particular, I wanted to traverse the famed Dipsea Trail – site of the nation’s oldest cross-country race, as well as the masochistic Double and Quad Dipsea runs – without fretting about getting “chicked” by 70-something women or humiliated by 9-year-old snot-nosed kids in the age- and gender-handicapped race. I would take my time, reconnect with nature at a saner pace and with utmost deliberation, because, as John Muir himself said about repairing to the woods, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home.”

There are scores of trails from which to choose on “Mount Tam,” but starting at Muir Woods just seemed right. Plus, any innate compulsion to take off at a brisk pace when stepping foot on the trail would be tempered by the crowds that flock to the monument to stare at the big trees. There would be time enough later in the trek, on the lush single-track trails, to break into a trot, but the nearly mile-long main trail (called, not coincidentally, Main Trail) starting at the visitors center is either paved or lined with wheelchair-accessible wooden boards and footbridges.

And, believe me, this place is always busy. As early as 9 a.m., tourist buses rumble up and disgorge Bermuda-shorts-wearing tourists with cameras around their necks. They come to see redwoods – this site is about as close to a major metropolitan area as you can find them – and learn about how a businessman, of all people, William Kent, had the foresight to spare these stands of coastal redwoods from the logger’s blade. Kent purchased the land, trees and all, for $45,000 in 1905; guess the seller, the Tamalpais Land and Water Co., didn’t know the place was priceless.

Visitors, too, marvel at the vertical majesty of 500-year-old trees in Cathedral and Bohemian groves, pushing to upward of 300 feet into the sky, reach out and touch the spongy bark sodden with dripping fog, sit and rest their legs on bulbous burls that certain nefarious furniture makers would love to turn into coffee tables. They crane their necks and pinch the screens of their iPhones to zoom in for shots.

What struck me most, though, was looking down at the profusion of downed trees and hollowed logs where, even in death, they serve a purpose by providing cover for the rich soil to nourish roots. Usually, I’m annoyed by downed trees on the trail, an obstacle to be overcome. Maybe I will begin to think about them a different way – but probably not.

It takes discipline, you know, to slow down and notice, really notice, nature. In these warp-speed times, we aren’t wired for it. I kept thinking the Main Trail Loop, because it’s paved, was somehow artificial, not an authentic enough nature experience. Those thoughts were banished when I saw the smile on the face of an elderly wheelchair-bound man, as he pulled up near the railing and gazed at the massive girth of the Pinchot Tree. OK, I get it now: Lose a little untouched earth, gain universal access.

Slightly less than a mile down the Main Trail, just before it loops around Redwood Creek for the return trip to the visitors center, I was ready to leave the crowds and explore on my own.

My plan – hey, I never said I wasn’t going to check a map before embarking – was to veer right onto the Bootjack Trail, which rises approximately 1.4 miles before flattening out at Van Wyck Meadow, where a three-pronged junction gives plenty of options. I could turn right on the Troop 80 Trail and keep turning right on other trails to loop back on the Ocean View Trail. Or I could go left on the TCC Trail and catch the Dipsea Trail all the way back to the Muir Woods parking lot. Or I could keep climbing on the Bootjack to Mountain Theater and then find my way back.

I would decide once I reached this Robert Frost, The-Road-Not-Taken junction. First, I had to traverse Bootjack to get there.

Now, the word “bootjack” conjures images of militaristic punishment, a hard slog on an unforgiving path. And, yeah, that’s about right. Except it was a beautiful slog. After strolling on the Main Trail, I was in the mood to run briskly. The elevation gain of the trail had other ideas. Either running or walking, you work up quite a sweat on the Bootjack, somewhat surprising since it’s cool-to-chilly in the morning, even when the fog doesn’t roll in.

You’ll gain slightly more than 1,000 feet in elevation on this 1.4-mile section of Bootjack. Forgive me, John Muir, but I couldn’t help but turn on my GPS watch on this segment. Had to know how much “vert” I was doing, because it seemed steeper than even the most uphill sections of the famed Dipsea course. It starts out easy enough, but just after crossing a wooden bridge and looking down at all the fallen trees criss-crossing Redwood Creek, the climbing begins in earnest.

Much of the climbing is in the form of stairs to ascend. It might appear to be easier than going up without such sure-footing, but it’s actually harder. It could just be psychological, but it seems the stairs – the first set rocks set upon one another; the latter being wooden planks embedded in the dirt – make it more of an ordeal. The steps are not uniform in spacing, and those of us with short legs must increase our strides, unnaturally. I’d rather face a steeper uphill with packed dirt and rocks to dodge, because I can shorten my stride and get a rhythm going.

But I wasn’t going to let the stairs and the elevation harsh my mellow nature experience. The Bootjack is one of Mount Tam’s original trails, built around 1900, even before Kent bought the land and preserved it, and it is lined by redwoods – not the tallest, mind you, but the sheer number, fringed by lush foliage and topped by moss and lichen, makes it seem as if you’re in a forest far from civilization.

In reality, you are moving closer to Panorama Highway, the main twisting thoroughfare over the mountain, as well as the Pantoll Ranger Station and camping areas. But the dense woods muffle any sounds from automobiles that might spoil the nature vibe. At least, a couple of Toostie Roll-size banana slugs clinging to the sides of the trails didn’t seem to mind man’s intrusion.

Eventually, the climbing ends (I turned off my watch, promise) at the Van Wyck Meadow, which is flat and grassy and sunny, as meadows are. It’s a stark change, though, from the cool gloom that pervades the trek through the redwoods. A brown State Parks sign announces your arrival at Van Wyck and adds, cheekily, “Pop. 3 Steller’s Jays.” Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the three blue-winged, black-Mohawked birds flitting about, so I concentrated on where to ramble next.

I chose to go left on the TCC Trail, heading toward the Dipsea, mostly to avoid getting too close to Pantoll and the Panoramic Highway. The trail-marker post stated it was 1.4 miles to the junction with the Dipsea Trail, but the distance seemed to fly by. After the strenuous Bootjack, the TCC is mostly flat singletrack, skirting a ridge and mostly shaded. I hated to see it end. So I decided to keep going to where the trees shrouded the path – left, on the Stapelveldt Trail – rather than veer to the right on the TCC, which soon ends at the Dipsea junction.

That detour leads to a clearing, the junction with the Ben Johnson Trail. One arrow pointed to a straight shot, roughly 2 miles on the Ben Johnson back to Muir Woods. Another arrow pointed straight up the hillside leading to the Dipsea.

Actually, it wasn’t straight uphill; rather a series of well-groomed switchbacks that cut the climb into easily digested bite-sized nuggets. Once you reach the Dipsea Trail (somebody stole the sign, but kind, if spelling-challenged, trail users have written “Go Dipsey” with a double arrow) you can turn left and ramble 2 miles down to Muir Woods, or turn right and make the final brutal push uphill to the top of “Cardiac” – the high point and end of most of the climbing in the Dipsea Race. It’s only a 0.3 of a mile climb, but it’ll give you a feel for why people call the Dipsea a brutal race.

This stretch of the Dipsea Trail is called by some “the Rainforest,” because, as you climb, the fog gets heavier and the root-infested trail gets slick with fog-condensed water dripping from the leaves. On clear days, you get a nice view of the valley and ocean from the top of Cardiac. But not on this fog-saturated morning. A sign said it was 3 miles to Stinson Beach, a tantalizing prospect I briefly contemplated, before remembering that the 3 miles back to this spot is a brutal uphill.

So I turned around and immersed myself back in “the Rainforest” section of the Dipsea, which eventually gives way to the flat, grassy “Hogsback” section before plunging back a series of extreme switchback the locals dub “Dynamite.” It was here, nearing Muir Woods, that I first encountered other trail users, huffing and puffing uphill while I cruised by headed for the wooden plank that crosses Redwood Creek and Muir Woods’ auxiliary parking lot. Take a left on a dirt path parallel to Muir Woods Road and, in no time, you’re back at the visitors center and trailhead.

If you go early in the morning, as I did, you will be shocked by the change in the parking area upon completing the loop. At 8 a.m., just a few cars dotted the lot. At 9:15, the place was packed, and four tour buses clogged the road emitting plumes of diesel exhaust.

Would John Muir have wept at the sight? Or would he just be grateful that so many people burned so many fossil fuels just to be in the presence of mighty redwoods?