70% SINGLETRACK2% FIRE ROAD28% ROAD
Camp Tamarancho is one of the few legal singletrack riding options available in Marin. Describing it merely in those terms would be shortchanging it, though, because the trails here can be a candidate for the best singletrack around the Bay Area. Given the usual aversion of Marin County to mountain bikes on singletrack trails, some trail signs you'll see at Tamarancho that read "bikes must stay on singletrack" express well the difference of Tamarancho's approach to trail use.
Camp Tamarancho is the private property of the "Marin Council" of the Boy Scouts of America. Riding here requires the purchase of a permit. A one-day pass costs $5 as of this writing. Alternatively, you can buy an annual pass for $25. You can purchase both types of permits (among others) online. Mountain bikers are required to have one of these passes present on their person any time they are riding on the trails here. If you happen to forget to purchase one online, passes may also be purchased in person from Sunshine Bicycles on the day of your ride, though it's worth double-checking that they still do that. Sunshine Bicycles is in downtown Fairfax, a couple of blocks southeast from the starting point of this ride.
The desirability of the trails at Camp Tamarancho will not be a surprise once you learn that they were built for mountain biking in the first place, opening some time around 2002, thanks to an initiative of the Bicycle Trails Council of Marin. Not counting a few connectors here and there to points outside the camp, the biking trails at Tamarancho make up mainly a single, simple, 6.5-mile loop, or at least they used to until the recent (May 2013) opening of the new Endor Trail. While the majority of the loop consists of fairly smooth forest singletrack, the frequent occurrence of technical trail features places the overall difficulty of riding here at a somewhat advanced level. On the other hand, while the trails are mostly narrow singletrack, they are almost never too narrow, and a few of the worst trail features are explicitly announced by signs and feature bypasses that are also clearly marked. Moreover, none of the tricky spots on the ride that I can remember arrive at treacherously steep grades. In fact, my GPS track shows no believable data points that exceed 20% grade anywhere on this ride, at least if you exclude the berms on Endor Trail.
There are no parking options directly adjacent to Camp Tamarancho. For that reason, unless you happen to live in the immediate vicinity of the property, your ride will have to include an "approach" portion from a more distant starting point in addition to the main singletrack loop. The most typical thing to do is to park in or near the Fairfax town center and pedal in from there, although entering the park from the north by getting at B-17 Extension Trail via Porcupine Trail and White Hill Fire Road through White Hill Open Space, or reaching it from the Pine Mountain side and entering it from the south via Blue Ridge Fire Road or Toyon Fire Road are additional possibilities. This ride starts from the center of Fairfax. My first choice for parking there is a lot between Broadway Boulevard and Sir Francis Drake that allows four hours of free parking. (It's the marker labeled "Fairfax Parkade" at the Suggested Parking link on your left.) Finding space there isn't always guaranteed unless you arrive early, though free street parking can be found throughout Fairfax, including along the approach portion of this ride route, but there can be rules such as parking being allowed only on one side of the street, so pay attention to the signs.
The route for getting to the trails from the Fairfax town center is not an immediately obvious one and might be a little tricky to follow on your first time doing this ride. However, you'll start seeing a few "bike route" signs pointing you in the right direction starting from northbound Broadway Boulevard, and will start encountering Camp Tamarancho signs as you get closer. As long as you can remember that you'll need to get to Iron Springs Road and follow it uphill, that should at least help you ask for directions in case you get lost. The distance from the parking spot of this ride to the trailhead is 1.5 miles. Almost all of this is a climb, but the grade is mellow, with an average less than 7%, though there's one short spot earlier on that touches 12%.
The singletrack begins when you turn onto Alchemist Trail at a trailhead you can't miss. You do a half-mile climb on this fun and technical trail via a number of switchbacks. This is the only segment on the trail portion of this route that feels like an extended climb, in my opinion. There are other portions of the ride where you'll be gaining elevation consistently, but those will be more frequently interrupted by flatter spots. I find Alchemist to be a very fun trail overall. In the climbing direction, its slope is reasonable (with an average grade of 8.5%, though the trail features will make you work harder than what the grade would imply), and its descent is playful enough to be a fun note on which to end the trail portion of the ride on your way back.
The route reflected here does the loop in Tamarancho clockwise, which I prefer because I think it has easier climbs. While this preference may not be universal, it's very common. There even used to be a trail sign posted here at one point that indicated this direction as the "weekend direction" (presumably to reduce the number of head-on encounters on the narrow trails), but that sign had been removed the last time I repeated this ride.
The first trail you'll use on the loop portion of the ride is Goldman Trail. The early stretches of Goldman Trail traversed on this ride don't have any technical trail features of note. The trail follows along at roughly the same elevation on average, though short segments alternate between mildly downhill and mildly uphill. As you get closer to Serpentine Trail, Goldman gains some elevation via a couple of long switchbacks, but the grade hardly ever exceeds 12%.
At a multiway junction, Goldman Trail gives way to Serpentine Trail. This trail starts gently enough with a bit of descent under open skies (though one of the trail features with a bypass arrives near the beginning of this descent). Then, as you re-enter tree cover, Serpentine Trail starts what is the longest unbroken uphill segment of the trail loop (three quarters of a mile). You gain almost exactly 300 net feet in this segment, amounting to an average grade of 7.5%—quite mellow, though you'll be struggling more against the trail features than the slope, because Serpentine Trail is where some of the trickier trail features of the ride start arriving. The most notable of these is a large boulder shaped roughly like a hemisphere that the trail goes right over, which is well known to all regular riders here simply as "the rock". It poses no threat to timid riders, though, because it involves no risk when approached in the direction of this particular ride (meaning they will have time to stop), in addition to having a well-marked bypass segment. By the way, Serpentine Trail is clearly not named for the meandering route it follows as it gains elevation but by its namesake type of rock formation that sports a characteristic greenish hue, which is common along this trail and even more common on Wagon Wheel Trail. In fact, some of the protruding pieces of serpentine rock on the surface of Wagon Wheel Trail have been polished to a nice shine by bike tires and look like pieces of green agate jewelry embedded in the ground.
The final portion of the climb on Serpentine Trail transforms into a series of switchbacks. Just as these taper off, you find yourself in a small set of tight, uphill S-curves that end right as you enter another prominent junction with a couple of fire roads. This is the junction where Wagon Wheel Trail begins. This is the sunniest trail on the loop and also arguably the rockiest. It's not that it's highly technical from beginning to end. It's not. Most of it is fairly smooth and swoopy. It's just that it has a few sizable rock gardens, which is more than what could be said about most of the other trails on this ride. You'll keep alternating between gaining and losing elevation on this trail, though the beginning is mostly a descent and the end is mostly a climb.
Wagon Wheel Trail ends at another prominent junction with a fire road that arrives at a saddle point atop Blue Ridge. To continue the ride, you head down the wide fire road descending on the other side of this saddle, though the fire road lasts only a few hundred feet before ending with a barricade where you pick up B-17 Trail on the left and return to singletrack. B-17 is mostly a mellow forest singletrack. This trail happens to be the first trail on the loop that ends with a net elevation loss. It also features the only segment on the ride where you find yourself going through a dense and shady redwood grove.
Barely before emerging from the densest portion of the redwoods on B-17 Trail, you reach a fork where you're forced to choose between B-17 Extension Trail and Broken Dam Trail. If you pick Broken Dam Trail, you follow the original path of the loop at Tamarancho. This particular route follows B-17 Extension Trail, which is the option that allows you to sample the newer Endor Trail.
As you start on B-17 Extension Trail, you'll almost immediately reach a clearing where numerous log rides and similar stunts are available (which, I believe, were built along with Endor Trail). This is a spot where Endor Trail comes literally within a couple of feet of B-17 Extension Trail. This ride follows the latter trail uphill in order to start Endor Trail from its beginning. Endor is a downhill-only trail and is the first "flow trail" built in the Bay Area. For anyone who hasn't tried this type of a trail before, it's quite a different beast. To give an oversimplified summary, the idea is to maintain your speed by "pumping" the trail through the numerous sharp humps and tight curves with extra high berms, without having to pedal at all or even brake much. Unless you're used to this kind of biking, you're likely to find yourself having to pedal at least a little bit over some of the humps. It's not a trail that could be recommended to inexperienced riders. That's not because the trail surface is technical; it's not (at least not in the sense of having rocks, roots, or ruts). In fact, it's extra smooth, to the extent that some of the bermed curves are actually fitted with sprinklers to maintain the integrity of the surface (and you may get a little wet). It's just that you need to be comfortable with the sensation of being on top of a 10-foot-high hump staring down a 40% grade at a highly bermed curve with a tight radius, and it takes a bit of riding aggresion in order to maintain the requisite momentum to complete the descent down the trail as you're supposed to.
In the end, the fun on Endor lasts for only a bit over half a mile before you're dropped onto a fire road. You follow this fire road for less than a quarter mile before getting on Broken Dam Trail to continue the descent. This trail is not particularly technical, though it's technical enough to be fun, as you initially descend through thinning tree cover before you start the ride's last sustained climb (though only for about half a mile) as the trail opens up to the sky. Then Broken Dam Trail continues almost flatly on average before ending after a quarter-mile of gentle elevation gain and handing you off to Goldman Trail at another one of those spacious junctions with a fire road.
This portion of Goldman is a short one, though it's as playful as the final stretches of Broken Dam Trail. It quickly brings you back to the junction with Alchemist Trail where you had started the loop. What comes after this is a repeat of Alchemist Trail in the more fun direction (i.e., downhill) followed by retracing your steps over public roads back to your starting point.
Considering this is a relatively short ride, looking for extension possibilities might be particularly sensible. If you wonder about your options for doing that, some of the more typical courses of action would involve following White Hill Fire Road out of Camp Tamarancho to San Geronimo Ridge and to Pine Mountain, or at least across Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to the Loma Alta Open Space Preserve. On the other hand, given the excellence of the singletrack at Tamarancho, what could make more sense is to do a second loop along the same route, as long as you have the time and stamina. Even more common than that is to repeat the descent down Endor Trail before you continue on with the rest of the loop. You can do this either by taking Broken Dam Trail back to the top, or hike-a-bike your way up the steeper but shorter option of following Dead Heifer Fire Road uphill from the bottom of Endor Trail.
Fairfax could be considered the closest thing to a pilgrimage site for mountain biking and, as such, there are a number of places in tiny downtown Fairfax for coffee, some drinks, or a meal that are frequented by mountain bikers. Some quick suggestions would include the Java Hut or The Coffee Roastery for coffee, and Iron Springs pub or Gestalt Haus for a quick bite. I'm also fond of The Sleeping Lady for a post-ride meal; their salads and burgers are impressive, they have good beer and outdoor seating, plus the Ukulele Jam they have going every Saturday between 2:00 and 4:00 is a cute form of entertainment you might not find elsewhere (though the participating age group has a bit of a geriatric flavor).
© Ergin Guney
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