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Length 12.5 miles
Time 3 hours
Total Climb 2300 feet
Fun Rating
Scenic Rating
Aerobic Difficulty
Technical Difficulty 

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Mount Tam (Old Railroad and Eldridge Grades)

This is a climb from around 200 feet of elevation to the peak of Mount Tamalpais. The ride consists almost entirely of fire roads. It provides a sampling of spectacular views in every direction from high on the mountain. If it's a clear day, it's like the view from a plane. If it's a foggy day, you enjoy the unique experience of climbing through clouds to reach views of distant Bay Area ridges jutting out of a "white and fluffy ocean".

There is very little parking available at the suggested parking spot referenced by the link on this page. It's just a roadside pocket where three or four cars might fit. So, you should either plan to show up to park there really early in the morning and hope to find a free spot before everyone else, or have a backup plan. On the positive side, there are multiple other small pockets of parking along West Blithedale Avenue, but make sure you don't take up or block parking spaces that belong to a residence. My preferred fallback option for parking is actually the stretch of West Blithedale Avenue that is between Cottage Avenue and Eldridge Avenue. Those few blocks are the closest part of Blithedale that is wide enough to afford street parking on both sides. Other than that, your next best bet is to park around downtown Mill Valley and bike in from there.

The climbing portion of the ride is on Old Railroad Grade. This is the route of the railroad that used to reach the peak of Mount Tam. The most interesting part of this trail is its history. You get to see a rare "trail" for which hills have been cut through, get to see the site of an old station (which you'll know by noticing a "sidewalk" on the side of the trail), visit the historic West Point Inn, and see the Double Bowknot (a series of four hairpin curves of the old railroad). Since this used to be a railroad, it also has a very steady average grade of around 6%. So, this may be the easiest way to climb up a mountain in its entirety on a bike.

I should also point out that you have roughly a half-mile segment of the ride that takes place on paved public streets on your way up. This begins from the intersection of Fern Canyon Road and Summit Avenue, and follows the former. It's not exactly a navigation challenge (simply stick to the right all the way through and you'll automatically be back on trails soon). It's not much steeper or flatter either. It's just something I wanted to put out there in case anyone doing the ride has expectations of staying completely out of the way of cars and traffic on this ride, though traffic on these streets is nearly non-existent anyway.

Once you reach East Peak, you might want do a quick stroll on Verna Dunshee Trail before you head back down. This is a hiking-only trail, so you'll have to leave your bike behind (which means it would be a good idea to bring a bike lock with you on this ride). It's a short loop, just shy of three quarters of a mile in length, circling right around the peak and providing views like an observation deck all along the way. By the way, the maps, GPS track, and the elevation profile available on this page include this "hike portion" of the route, but none of the stats do.

The hike on Verna Dunshee Trail is only one of several attractions at the peak. You will also find a tiny visitor center and gift shop here that's still large enough to provide books, maps, a diorama, and a documentary video. Next to that, you will find a reconstructed "Gravity Car Barn". You will see plenty of historic photos of the mountain and of the railroad there, as well as have any questions answered by a docent. The centerpiece of the Gravity Car Barn, however, is the replica of a "gravity car", the likes of which used to carry passengers down the mountain using nothing but gravity (and good brakes) back in the day. Note that both the visitor center and the Gravity Car Barn are open during limited hours and only on weekends. And, last but not least, there are restrooms and a water fountain there.

Much of the downhill part of the ride is on Eldridge Grade, one of the rockiest fire roads you can find in the Bay Area. It may make hardtail riders wish they had full-suspension bikes. It's described as "not for beginners", and the trail used to be open only to uphill mountain bike traffic in years past. So, basically, it's a blast!

To find your way back to the beginning of the loop after Eldridge Grade, you'll need to make three right turns on your way down and bypass one or two others. In other words, it's not going to feel as natural as coasting down the hill the way water would flow. On your first time doing the ride, you'll therefore need to study the map a little in order to know which turns to take, unless you're being guided by someone who knows the way. If you'd prefer to memorize the names of the trails you'll need to follow instead, it goes as "Eldridge Grade, Indian Fire Road, Blithedale Ridge Fire Road, and Horseshoe Fire Road".

The other thing about the descent is that, once you leave Eldridge Grade behind (which, despite being quite rocky, has a pretty mild grade), things start getting noticeably steeper. This is just enough to be fun for seasoned riders, but less experienced riders might start feeling skittish around these parts, so they would do well to be a little careful around there. There are only a handful of short segments that are steep, but each of these is a bit steeper than the last. Most significantly, there is one steep descent shortly before turning onto Horseshoe Fire Road that even advanced riders will notice. Based on my GPS data, I'm pretty sure its grade is steeper than -30%. Inexperienced riders should definitely be on the lookout for that one.

If your thoughts, like mine, turn to having a sunny lunch at a nice spot after a Marin ride like this one, you could try one of my habitual post-ride eateries for this area: The Depot Cafe & Bookstore in the Mill Valley town center. It's pretty much what its name implies; a bookstore combined with a cafe that used to be the train depot at the beginning of the railroad whose course you followed on this ride. More importantly, it features a sizable menu of good lunch items in addition to a variety of edible and drinkable temptations, and it has numerous outdoor tables looking out at the "town square" and affording a resort-like, laid-back lunch atmosphere.

© Ergin Guney


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