2.2 mile out and back hike through preserves bordering Mill Valley residential
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 2.2 mile out and back hike is easy, with about 250 feet in elevation
change. Trailhead elevation is about 330 feet. The hike dips to about 170
feet, then climbs back to about 350 feet. On the return, you'll face the
same, in reverse. There is one steep stretch. You can use this trailhead
as a staging area for long and more challenging Mount Tam hikes (via Camino
Alto Open Space Preserve), but there are other trailheads with more parking
and easier access to the heart of Tam.
Dirt trails and fire roads and one short sidewalk segment.
Good anytime, although often muddy in winter and early spring.
From US 101 in Marin County, exit East Blithedale/Tiburon Boulevard. Drive
west on East Blithedale about 0.8 mile, then turn right onto Camino Alto.
Drive north on Camino Alto about 1.2 miles, to a pullout on the right side,
about 120 feet from an open space gate on the right.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, pay phones, stores, and restaurants back around Camino Alto and Blithedale
in Mill Valley. No camping in the immediate area.
Parking for about 4 vehicles in a narrow roadside pullout (parking is only
available on the west side of the road, so it makes sense to approach the
trailhead from Mill Valley rather than Corte Madera). This trailhead can
be tricky to find. There are several likely-looking pullouts, but the one
you're after is the first pullout past a wooden guardrail dotted with a
multitude of reflectors, also on the right. If you miss the pullout (if
you reach the crest of Camino Alto and the Mill Valley/Corte Madera border,
you've gone too far), there is no parking available past the trailhead.
You'll have to carefully turn around (I've done this at Chapman, which is
the street just at the crest, and it's doable, but tricky), drive back downhill
to Overhill, turn right, and then head back uphill on Camino Alto and try
again. There are no parking or entrance fees. No drinking water, maps, or
restrooms. No designated handicapped parking, and trails are not wheelchair
accessible. There is no direct public transportation to this trailhead.
You could pedal from bus stops on either Blithedale in Mill Valley or Tamalpais
Drive in Corte Madera, but it's not a safe walk from either direction on
Camino Alto to the trailhead.
Dogs are permitted on leash on trails; they are permitted off leash under
voice command on fire roads, and dog owners must have a leash for each dog.
Two Alto Bowl trails are multi-use, but no bikes are allowed on Bob Middagh
and Horse Hill Trails.
The Official Story:
Map Choices/More Information:
Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
map pdf from MCOSD
Open Spaces: Lands of the Marin County Open Space District,
by Barry Spitz (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and detailed trail descriptions.
Hiking Marin by Don and Kay Martin (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a useful map and a suggested hike through
Friends of Horse
Bowl in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.
photos from this hike.
US 101 just beyond its eastern
border, Horse Hill has a very public face. Many travelers lift their eyes
from US 101 to the horse-dotted rolling hillside,
and when in the early 1990's the property was threatened with a housing
development, locals struck up a campaign to preserve the grassy knoll.
Today, Horse Hill is part of the Alto Bowl Open Space Preserve, and the
grazing horses are an historic link to a ranching legacy that's been mostly
shrunk and pushed to the northwest corner of Marin County.
While the hill itself is pretty, hiking
so close to the highway never really appealed to me. Luckily the west
side of Horse Hill is even prettier than the east, and much more peaceful.
Although the entire preserve is squeezed between parcels of private property,
Alto Bowl nicely illustrates the benefits of open space at the fringes
of residential areas. Grass
and oak woodland provide habitat for wildlife, and locals can take a daily
stroll, run, or dogwalk on trails rather than sidewalks.
Alto Bowl's trail network consists of two
trails and two fire roads, strung together from Camino Alto to Lomita
Drive. There's no parking on Lomita, so start a hike from Camino Alto
and turn back when you've had enough. Most likely you'll want to walk
all the way to Horse Hill, but if you happen to be stuck in traffic on
US 101, a short stroll out-and-back on Bob Middagh Trail will probably
perk your mood up considerably (and your dog's too). Evergreen trees along
the trail don't provide much punch in autumn, and the trails get muddy
in winter, but spring and summer are pleasant, particularly when
there are wildflowers in bloom.
Begin at the
pullout on Camino Alto. Walk north on the side of the road about 120 feet,
then turn right onto signed Bob Middagh Trail. A canopy of coast live
oak, California bay, and buckeye shade the narrow trail, open to hikers
and equestrians only. Beware of poison oak in the understory. Bob Middagh
Trail heads north just downslope from Camino Alto, and as you walk you'll
probably hear the "thump, thump, thump," of cars running over
the boxdots on the center line. The trail steps out of the woods and curves
right, while a shortcut path heads back uphill to Camino Alto on the left.
Descending gently, Bob Middagh Trail passes through grassland, with coyote
brush and broom dotting the hillside. On the left, groves of eucalyptus
tower over a hilltop at the border between Corte Madera and Mill Valley.
Look for California bays and oaks clustered around a rock outcrop on the
right. The trail drops with a bit more conviction, and houses come into
view straight ahead. Veering right, Bob Middagh Trail passes through a
damp area lined with thickets of willow and blackberry. Expect serious
mud and standing water in winter. The trail rises a few feet to a clearing
and unsigned junction at 0.46 mile. Turn right onto Alto Bowl Fire
The vegetation along the broad level, multi-use
fire road is a mixture of natives and escaped ornamentals. There's plenty
of red-berried cottoneaster, along with toyon, pine, oak, and broom. At
0.56 mile, the fire road ends at an open space gate. Just beyond, you'll
reach a cul-de-sac and some houses. It feels like a dead-end, but look
to the left for a diminutive wooden fence. One segment has a lowered board,
and this "stepover" is the unsigned beginning of Horse Hill
Trail. Turn left.
The initial climb is quite steep on this
eroded trail closed to bicycles. A few large houses sprawl to the right,
but the sloping hillside on the left is still undeveloped. Some coast
live oaks line the trail. At 0.72 mile, Horse Hill Trail crests and reaches
unsigned junction across from a power pole. Turn right to remain on
Horse Hill Trail.
The trail heads south through grassland,
with oaks on the right and houses on the left. Take a look back to the
north for impressive views of Mount Tam. You may be able to pick out Bob
Middagh Trail as well. There's a small pocket of coast live oaks where
you might see hound's tongue in winter, and then Horse Hill Trail reemerges
in grassland at a breathtaking viewspot. A fallen coast live oak, still
majestic but near death, lies prostrate in the grass. The west flank of
Horse Hill is visible. Although a likely-looking path heads straight along
a plateau toward an oak, Horse Hill Trail bends left, skirting the fallen
oak. The trail then angles across the hillside, squeezing through some
broom so close to a few houses that I could smell laundry tumbling in
someone's dryer. You'll reach a gate into the grazing section of Horse
1.00 mile. Watch your step, but it's nearly impossible to cleanly navigate
the horse poop-lined path, which splits around a tree. Take either fork,
and at 1.12 miles, you'll reach the crest of Horse Hill and the turn-around
point for this hike. On a clear day the view extends to the San Francisco
skyline. Traffic noise from US 101 is omnipresent. Horse Hill Trail ends
at this hilltop, and Horse Hill Fire Road continues downhill to the west.
(You can extend this hike downhill, but you'll have to climb back up when
you reach the end of the fire road.) When I hiked here in January 2002,
I was privileged to watch a pair of coyotes languishing in the grassland.
The horses didn't seem to mind, although the neighborhood dogs were barking
themselves into a frenzy. When you're ready, retrace your steps back
to the trailhead.
Total distance: 2.24 miles
Last hiked: Thursday, January 24, 2002
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