Mill Valley, California is a Hiker's Paradise
Nestled among the redwoods north of San Francisco, Mill Valley is the home base for two incredible parks for hikers: Mt. Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods National Monument. The two parks are home to a number of trails that meander among imposing redwood groves and offer magnificent views of the bay.
Mt. Tamalpais State Park
The East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais, known locally as Mt. Tam, is the highest point in Marin County at 2,574 feet above sea level, with the West Peak close behind at 2,563 feet. This translates to breathtaking views from East Peak of the surrounding land, San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean below.
Mt. Tam is home to a wide variety of microclimates, from redwood and Douglas fir groves to grassland and scrubland. Rockhounds will be able to spot serpentine outcroppings near the summit.
The park features hundreds of miles of trails that hikers of all abilities can enjoy.
The Verna Dunshee trail is an easy loop just over half a mile long around the East Peak. Much of the trail is paved, making it suitable for strollers and wheelchairs, but hikers should be aware that there are some steep, unprotected drops along the trail’s edge. Always be careful and aware of your surroundings. Platforms offer sweeping views of San Francisco and the bay, making for stunning photo opportunities.
Another short but more strenuous hike leads up to the East Peak summit.
If you want a more challenging trek — and want to avoid the scary drive up to East Peak — Railroad Grade Trail is the path to take. The trail begins across Panoramic Highway from the Mountain Home Inn, accessible by car or bus. It’s a six-mile round trip up to the East Peak summit up the Old Railroad Grade, where the “crookedest railroad in the world” used to haul visitors up to the top of Mt. Tam from Mill Valley.
The West Point Inn offers a place to stop on the trail for a drink and a rest. Railroad Grade travels mostly through oak groves and brush, but offers incredible views along the way.
For more information about this trail, the Mt. Tamalpais State Park website offers an excerpt about Railroad Grade from John McKinney’s Day Hiker’s Guide to California State Parks.
Of course, these are just a few of the dozens of trails available in the park. Not sure where to start? Friends of Mt. Tam hold several guided hikes each week. They also have trail suggestions on their website.
The road up to the East Peak is narrow and winding, with sheer cliffs on one side and a long drop on the other. It’s a frequent destination of thrill-seeking mountain bikers as well. Drive slowly and with extreme caution, or use public transportation.
Muir Woods National Monument
Despite the crowds — and there are always crowds — stepping into Muir Woods is like taking a vacation from civilization. The towering redwoods, ferns and creeks create a mysterious environment where it’s easy to forget about the hustle and bustle of the world outside the park.
Muir Woods is home to six miles of boardwalk and asphalt trails, which are wheelchair accessible. The unpaved upper trails that lead into the surrounding Mt. Tamalpais and Golden Gate parks can be narrow, steep and much more challenging.
The boardwalk loops through Muir Woods’ famed groves of old growth coastal redwoods, including Pinchot Grove and Bohemian Grove. Placards along the trail offer information about the area’s ecology and history.
The Ocean View Trail/Lost Trail/Fern Creek loop is a more challenging but much less crowded hike. The trailhead starts on the boardwalk, and the path leads through redwoods and Douglas fir trees up the canyon walls into Mt. Tamalpais State Park, where it climbs to an outcropping next to Panoramic Highway that offers a stunning view of the Muir Woods canyon and the ocean beyond. From there, head back down into the woods to connect to Lost Trail, then Fern Creek Trail, which loops back down to the boardwalk. The entire hike is about 3.5 miles.
Ready for a bite to eat? Take the boardwalk back to the Muir Woods Trading Company Cafe, where you can buy a patch, pin, T-shirt or live redwood seedling to remember the trip.
And if you’d rather end a long hike with sunbathing and a swim, Ben Johnson Trail connects to the famed Dipsea Trail, which wanders seven miles, crossing Redwood Creek, meandering through forest land and wildflowers, and leading over Webb Creek before ending at Stinson Beach. It’s a long trek — especially since it takes hiking a few miles of other trails in the park to reach Dipsea — so be sure to start early and arrange for transportation at the end.
Parking at Muir Woods is extremely limited. However, from late March until late October, a shuttle is available to take hikers from Mill Valley to just a few feet from the park’s entrance. Catch the shuttle at the Pohono Street Park and Ride, located at 100 Shoreline Highway in Mill Valley.