California is known for its stunning natural spaces and bustling cities. It’s rare to find a place that perfectly blends incredible natural landscapes, ease of access, and views of the sprawling megalopolis of San Francisco. If this sounds like the perfect addition to your itinerary, look no further than a visit to Mount Tamalpais (pronounced ta·muhl·pai·uhs). However, you might be thinking, is it worth visiting?
Mount Tamalpais is absolutely worth visiting, and the peak is easy to reach by car and has sweeping views of the City of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the views, the park has miles of hiking trails and access to other great outdoor activities.
Mount Tamalpais’ vistas are unique and can’t be found anywhere else in the Bay Area. With some preparation, you can get more out of your Mount Tamalpais visit. We’re here to help, and you will find information on how to plan your trip, what there is to do in and around Mount Tamalpais State Park, and what time of year to visit.
Discovering Mount Tamalpais
Mount Tamalpais (also referred to as Mount Tam by locals) is a mountain located just north of the City of San Francisco in Marin County. The peak is part of the Northern California Coast Range. Mount Tamalpais is relatively short, standing at only 2,572 feet. To put this in perspective, there are fifteen mountains in California that exceed 14,000 feet. Despite its short stature, the mountain’s location gives it unmatched views anywhere in the Bay Area. Unlike the other famous Californian peaks, visitors can drive almost to the top of Mount Tamalpais, making it accessible for everyone.
The mountain is within Mount Tamalpais State Park, which is one of the oldest parks of the California State Park System. The park’s 6,300 acres are packed with various ecosystems, including open grasslands, wooded hillsides, and deep ravines full of towering redwoods and flowing streams and waterfalls. Plant and animal life are equally diverse. The park is home to 750 plant species, over a hundred species of birds, and mammals like foxes, black-tailed deer, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion.
Visitors can engage in a wide range of activities, including over 100 miles of hiking trails, hang-gliding, horseback riding, and mountain biking. The park also has a Greek-style amphitheater that hosts Broadway performances in the spring. But the crown jewel is the breathtaking view from the top of the mountain.
The drive to Mount Tamalpais State Park takes only about an hour from downtown San Francisco. The location makes the peak a perfect escape for Californians and tourists alike.
The History of Mount Tamalpais
Mount Tamalpais has been a significant part of Californian history, dating back to the Native Americans who once lived in the area. The local tribe was the Coast Miwok. The mountain’s name comes from the indigenous language meaning “west hill.” According to legend, the Coast Miwok refused to set foot on the mountain because they believed that it was home to an evil witch who lived on the peak.
By the late 1800s, visitors began flocking to the summit with the help of a railway system that began operation in 1896. The railway was called the “most crookedest railroad in the world” because of its 281 curves over 8 miles of tracks. By the early 20th century, the railway was decommissioned and replaced by a road.
For all of you railroad buffs out there, be sure to visit the Gravity Car Barn, a small museum where a replica gravity car is on display, plus you can learn about the railroad’s history from the volunteers that operate it.
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Bay Area Answers Fun Fact: Mount Tamalpais is widely recognized as the birthplace of mountain biking in the 1960s.
Can You Drive to the Top of Mount Tamalpais?
Due to the rise of automobiles, the railway system leading to the summit of Mount Tamalpais was disassembled and replaced with a more modern roadway. Today, the road stretches nearly to the top of the mountain. Visitors can take a quick hike the rest of the way. The view from the parking lot is still spectacular, so those who are not able to complete the hike can still enjoy the panorama of the area.
How Long is the Hike to the Summit?
The Verna Dunshee Trail connects the parking area with the peak of Mount Tamalpais. The 1.2-mile loop trail is easy and can be completed by anyone with moderate physical fitness in 30 to 45 minutes. If you are looking for a challenge, you can also hike the full height of the mountain from Stinson Beach. The entire 15-mile trail is strenuous and takes about 5 to 7 hours to complete.
How Far Can You See from the Top of Mount Tamalpais?
The Bay Area is known for its frequent thick fog. However, with clear visibility, visitors will be able to easily see downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and most of the San Francisco Bay. Looking west over the Pacific Ocean, you’ll be able to spot the Farallon Islands sitting 25 miles off the coast. On a rare occasion, the conditions will be just right to faintly make out the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains located an astounding 150 miles away.
Is Mount Tamalpais a Volcano?
You might hear rumors that Mount Tamalpais is an ancient dormant volcano. However, this isn’t true. Geologists believe that the peak was formed by tectonic pressure from the San Andreas Fault. A rupture of this infamous fault resulted in the massive 1906 earthquake that devastated the City of San Francisco.
Are Dogs Allowed at Mount Tamalpais?
Dogs are allowed in Mount Tamalpais State Park. However, they are not permitted on any of the trails. If you are traveling with a pet, you won’t have any problems checking out the views from the mountaintop parking area. You just won’t be permitted to finish the climb to the summit.
If your pet needs to stretch its legs, you can take them for a walk down the mile-long Old State Road. This road leads to the adjacent Marin County Municipal Water District Lands and has several pet-friendly trails.
Is Mount Tamalpais State Park Handicap Accessible?
The park is the perfect outdoor place for people who may have a physical handicap. The first half-mile stretch of the Verna Dunshee Trail is handicap-accessible, and portions of the Old Mine Trail and McKennan Trail are also accessible. The parking area has several accessible tables, restrooms, and drinking fountains. In addition to accessible hiking, the park has several accessible campsites. The park’s amphitheater has a wheelchair-accessible platform and hosts several signed performances and descriptive services at the beginning of each season.
Ask for help from a park ranger; they can direct you to these areas. And you can also pick up a park map, and they are clearly marked on the map.
Visiting the Mountain Theater
The park features the 3,750 seat Cushing Memorial Amphitheater. The theater was built from natural stone in the 1930s and hosts many outdoor productions of Broadway musicals. Check out the Mountain Play Association’s website for schedules and ticketing information.
What is the Best Time of the Year to Visit?
The great thing about Mount Tamalpais is that there isn’t really a wrong time of year to visit. However, there are perks to the various seasons. Springtime is the best time of year to see the mountain flowers in full bloom. Summer brings warmer temperatures that get up to a comfortable mid-70s. The winter is the coldest time of the year and the rainiest. While it rarely dips below freezing, the mountain may get a dusting of snow from time to time. On the plus side, this is when streams and waterfalls are the most active.
Does the Mountain Get Crowded with Tourists?
Mount Tamalpais receives approximately 800,000 visitors per year. Because of tourists, the summer months are the busiest. While you don’t need reservations or tickets to visit the top of the mountain, you should plan to arrive early to avoid having difficulty finding parking. If the main parking area is full, there are other parking options throughout the park. Just be mindful that some do charge a parking fee, so be sure to keep a little cash on hand.
Planning Your Trip to Mount Tamalpais
For the outdoor adventurer, a visit to Mount Tamalpais is an excellent addition to a San Francisco itinerary. While the mountain top views are the most popular feature, there are some other must-sees like the grove of redwoods or Stinson Beach. The park is also located very close to Point Reyes National Seashore, which makes Mount Tamalpais a great pitstop to and from Point Reyes.