The Bay Area’s Beloved Mecca for Outdoor Adventure

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Just north of San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais towers high above the Pacific Ocean with 6,300 acres of redwood groves, oak woodlands, grassland slopes, chaparral and rocky ridges. No wonder so many families scour its slopes on weekends. Mt Tam (short for Mount Tamalpais) is more than a great outdoors destination offering spectacular trails and campgrounds. It’s also a musical theatre scene, a magnet for pint-size train lovers and the only place where you can hike to a summer pancake breakfast.

When to go: Mount Tamalpais is a year-round park but avoid summer crowds if you want to visit Muir Woods.

How to get there: From Highway 101, take the Stinson Beach exit and follow the signs along Highway 1 up the mountain.

What to wear: Come dressed in layers as the fog rolls in fast from the ocean.

Hike the Mountain: Hiking is the best way to get to know Mount Tamalpais. Actually, the most popular trail of the entire Bay Area is located right on Mt Tam at the Muir Woods National Monument. The level boardwalk trail that snakes through the old-growth redwood forest is a magical stroll that every child should experience once, either on foot or in a stroller. The giant trees are so majestic that if you go far enough, you’ll reach a “quiet zone” where you can just stop and listen to the sounds of the forest – a pretty cool activity. If you go with older kids, don’t forget to print out the Redwood Discovery: Muir Woods Quest before your visit and bring a pencil.

From the 2,571 foot high East Peak, a short one-mile trail offers spectacular views of the nearby Pacific and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area that lead to the gravity car barn. A local legend for its infamous sharp turns and steep grades, the “crookedest railroad in the world” lead visitors from the top of the mountain to downtown Mill Valley depot or the Muir Woods station in 281 turns and as many thrills. With open air cars and powerful brakes to slow down the ride, the gravity car sure was the ticket of the day between 1896 and 1930. It’s no longer there but you can visit the small museum and hop aboard a car on weekends.

On select Sundays of the year, the Arts & Crafts West Point Inn hosts pancake breakfasts but here’s the catch. You’ll have to hike to get your maple syrup fix! From the shortest and almost level 2-mile to the longest and steeper 2-hour hike from Mill Valley, you can choose the route that fits your mood best. Don’t forget, what goes up will eventually go down on the way back!

Enjoy Musical Theatre: The Mountain Play is a unique Bay Area tradition where thousands enjoy each year. Set near the top of Mount Tamalpais in the outdoors Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, the Mountain Play features a yearly musical theatre play al fresco and 2012 will see The Music Man performed between May 20 and June 17. Come early, make it a day out with full-on picnic and friends, spread your blanket and enjoy the sun.
Camp Out: Fortunately for families, Mt Tam is a flexible camping alternative. Of course you can rough it up and pitch your tent at the Pantoll Campground but if you prefer the rustic walls of a cabin perched atop scenic Pacific Ocean bluffs, then you better book early to snatch one of the Steep Ravine cabins. Reserve your cabin here. Or say you want to try backpacking with kids but you’re not ready to haul all your gear? Book a cabin or room at the West Point Inn, only 2 miles from the closest trail head.

Where to eat: If you visit Muir Woods, the Muir Woods Café offers sandwiches, fresh fruit, salads, hot meal options (vegan and vegetarian options) and everything to satisfy a light snack or a hungry lunch craving. For an upscale experience in a boutique hotel perched on the mountain slopes, try the Mountain Home Inn dining room and for relaxed dining, downtown Mill Valley has a lot to offer.


— Laure Latham

photos courtesy of Creative Commons