U.S. Day Trips: Mt. Tamalpais
There are some travel moments, whether near or far, that simply stand out above the rest. My latest was the last of 2011, a day trip to Mt. Tamalpais, just across the Golden Gate Bridge and north from San Francisco. Upon moving to San Francisco, I received a lot of "must-visit" recommendations of what to do on a weekend. These were really just a short list of the same places being recommended over and over again, such as Big Sur, Monterey, Napa, and Sonoma. Mt. Tamalpais was rarely mentioned except by long-time locals.
Nonetheless, with a weekend rental car and a holiday weekend to myself, I was resolved to check off another destination off my Bay Area bucket list. After exiting off Highway 1 at the Mt. Tamalpais exit and winding for miles as I followed the signs, I finally stopped off at the first large parking area, which seemed a little further from the top of the mountain than I expected. I parked the car and reluctantly paid the $8 park fee, muttering something to the effect that this better be the best damn hike I've ever been on. With no cell coverage and no map, I crossed the road and took the first trail I came to that pointed toward Mt. Tam. What began in the wide open space, quickly became densely wooded. I took a photo of a tree, but that was about all that invoked any type of fascination over the first part of the hike. I couldn't help but think to myself: Is this it? However, I resolved to giving myself at least another 30 minutes of this before I turned around and just drove back home.
15 minutes later and an ordinary hike had turned into much more. All of a sudden, I turned a corner and it was like I was in a whole new world. I wasn't sure if I had stepped into a scene from Little House on the Prairie or The Chronicles of Narnia. I stopped dead in my tracks, looking back at the thick woods I had just exited and turning around to see the rolling hills rising above me and meadow in front of me. Just to my left, sat a lone tree on top of one of the hills, which I ran to and climbed up until I found a branch that could bear my weight while also giving me a good enough view.
This was one of those rare moments. I'm not sure what kind of rare moment, but this was one of them. The sun beaming down on the calm ocean waves far in front of me, the wind whistling through the tall grass of the meadow, waves crashing onto the shore of the bay to the right, and a hawk hovering just above me. Not only that, but I could see the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, and even my own neighborhood! Here I was on the top of a mountain, sitting perched in a tree in a meadow, an hour from home, and I can see my neighborhood! San Francisco, crashing waves, rolling hills, and wildlife all in one spot. It was as if my greatest loves had intersected in one place.
Having arrived to Mt. Tam early in the afternoon and with intentions of seeing the sunset from a few miles down the road at Stinson Beach, I was presented with a choice: I could stay perched in my little tree and take this moment in longer or I could follow one of the many paths to some of the higher hills behind me. Considering it was just a 20-mile drive to Mt. Tamalpais, I chose to soak up the moment and write about my experiences, and thus hold off on the higher elevations for another visit.
During that half-hour of writing and reflecting about the hike, I came to realize that the rare moment this felt like, was one of those moments in time where you just want it to stand still. You don't want to have to eat, for the sun to set, or for deadlines to loom. You want those moments to linger forever. It invokes a childlike wonder that is hard to reproduce as we get older. It's moments like those that we hope there's someone we love next to us to share it with, so that when we write a blog post about it, others don't think we're just a hopeless romantic. But alas, I was alone and that was just fine by me.
- Arrive early in the day. There are more trails than you can shake a stick at, but if you want some time to take it all in and hike more than just one trail, plan on arriving before lunch.
- Start from the visitors center. As you're coming up on Mt. Tamalpais from San Francisco, you'll see a visitors center on the left. This is a good starting point as several of the best hikes start there.
- Consider what day you hike if crowds are a concern for you. Evidently, summer weekends can be crowded on Mt. Tam, especially the trails that leave from the visitors center. Since I was hiking on Christmas Eve, I encountered only a handful of hikers.
- Take the Matt Davis trail for an easy hike with lots of scenery. This is the trail I took. It was only a couple miles, but it could have been longer and more strenuous had I taken some of the trails that went up to the higher elevations.
- End the day with sunset at Stinson Beach. Stinson Beach is just a few miles from the visitor center and is a nice little beach town. After my hike, I took a short walk on the beach and watched the sun drop behind the Pacific Ocean.
- Have a camera with an excellent zoom and hope for a clear day if you expect to get photos of San Francisco. San Francisco really didn't come out in any of my photos. The afternoon was a little hazy, plus Mt. Tamalpais is 20 miles away. Plan accordingly if you want photos from your hike of San Francisco.
What's your favorite hike in the world?