6.6 mile partial loop tours middle slopes of Mount Tamalpais above Mill
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This trailhead accesses some steep fire roads and trails, but this 6.6
mile loop hike is moderate, with about 1300 feet in elevation change.
Trailhead elevation is around 230 feet. The featured hike climbs to about
1200 feet on a gradual grade, then descends back to the trailhead.
Mostly shaded at the start and end, mostly exposed in the middle.
Dirt trails and fire roads.
Nice year round.
From US 101 in Marin County, exit Tiburon Boulevard/East Blithedale. Drive
west on East Blithedale about 2 miles, to the junction in downtown Mill
Valley with Throckmorton. Continue straight on West Blithedale, about 1.1
miles, to roadside parking near the open space gate on the right.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(unavailable at this time -- hope to get a reading next time on the trail)
at this time -- hope to get a reading next time on the trail)
(* based on Google
Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, phone, stores, and restaurants back in Mill Valley. No camping in the
Very few spots on the sides of a narrow one-lane road, just before and after
the open space gate. No parking or entrance fees. No facilities. No designated
handicapped parking, and trails are not well-suited to wheelchairs. There
is no direct public transportation to the trailhead, but several buses access
downtown Mill Valley, and you could walk to the trailhead from there.
Most trails are multi-use, but a few are signed hiking only. Dogs are permitted
on this page's featured hike: they are allowed on leash on trails; off leash
under voice command on fire roads. Dog owners must have a leash for each
dog. Open dawn to dusk.
The Official Story:
Map Choices/More Information:
Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
Download the Baltimore Canyon/Blithedale Summit pdf
map from the MCOSD website.
Trails of Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands, by Gerald
this map from Amazon.com) is essential.
Mount Tam Trail Map, published by Tom Harrison Maps (order
from Tom Harrison Maps). Comparable to the Olmsted map.
Tamalpais Trails, by Barry Spitz (order
this book from Amazon.com), has a simple but detailed map, and the book
is particularly helpful if you plan on exploring the tiny paths on this
side of the mountain.
Hiking Marin by Don and Kay Martin (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a good map and descriptions of this hike.
Open Spaces: Lands of the Marin County Open Space District,
by Barry Spitz (order
this book from Amazon.com) has some simple maps and descriptions
of the MCOSD trails.
Read more at the Mount
Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway website
View photos from this
hike through Marin County Open Space
land and the Marin Municipal Water District features one of the bay area's
easiest and most relaxing climbs. Thanks to the easy pitch of Old Railroad
Grade, an ascent from the lowlands of Mill Valley to the slopes of Mount
Tam is within reach for even beginning hikers. It's a pleasant hike all
year round, but I prefer to visit in winter, when the trails cross small
waterfalls, sweet-smelling blossoms dangle from manzanita shrubs, and
clear weather brings long views.
The only stress I've encountered on the
southeastern slopes of Mount Tam has been finding a place to park. A handful
of narrow and winding Mill Valley streets provide spectacular access to
the very base of the mountain, but offer very little parking. Every time
I visit the West Blithedale trailhead, I seem to snag the last available
parking spot. You
can also begin this hike further up the mountain on Fern Canyon Road (shown
but unfortunately not named on the Olmsted map), which is reached via
Summit Avenue. Fern Canyon Road hosts a few legal roadside spaces, all
clearly marked with white paint.
From the West Blithedale Trailhead fire
roads climb to Blithedale Ridge, and from there you can explore the trails
of the adjacent MCOSD preserves Baltimore Canyon and King Mountain. These
preserves all abut Mill Valley, Corte Madera, and Larkspur neighborhoods,
and you'll probably see quite a few runners and daily walkers on the trails.
If you're looking for solitude, a few hiking-only paths climb the forested
and chaparral-lined slopes on Mount Tam, but you're advised to
take Tamalpais Trails as a guide, for Temelpa, Vic Haun, and Wheeler
Trails can be difficult to find and follow from beginning to end. Many
cyclists begin in downtown Mill Valley and make an out-and-back journey
all the way to East Ridgecrest Boulevard (a short distance from the summit
of East Peak) via Old Railroad Grade. The trip, more than 13 miles, (from
the open space gate at the West Blithedale trailhead) is a bit much for
most hikers, but a shorter 10 mile out-and-back trek to West Point Inn
is actually not difficult because of the grade.
The trail we now know as Old Railroad Grade
once was part of the Mill Valley and Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway Company.
Constructed in the late 1890's, before paved roads crossed the mountain,
the railway transported tourists and locals from Mill Valley to Tam's
summit. Double Bowknot Junction was a transfer point where passengers
could switch trains and descend to Muir Woods on Gravity Cars. The railway
operations in 1930, a victim of the depression and increased auto traffic.
No rail segments remain on the trails, but the cement transfer platform
still sits near Double Bowknot, and there are plans for a Gravity Car
Barn and interpretive site managed by MTIA
at Tam's East Peak.
Start at the open space gate at the West
Blithedale Trailhead. Wide multi-use Old Railroad Grade begins an
easy ascent through a forest of redwood, tanoak, and California bay. A
few clusters of big-leaf maple are pretty in autumn, but by winter all
their colorful leaves are plastered to the ground by rainstorms. Seasonal
streams flow downhill from Blithedale Ridge, emptying into Corte Madera
Creek, and the trail follows along, heading into Blithedale Canyon. At
0.11 mile, H-Line Fire Road departs to the right at an unsigned junction.
Continue straight on Old Railroad Grade.
A few houses are still visible on the left
side of the trail, but most of the sights and sounds of Mill Valley are
blocked by tall trees and rushing water. Look for huckleberry, hazelnut,
toyon, monkeyflower, and madrone on the sides of the trail. At 0.59 mile,
Railroad Grade makes a sharp turn to the left, and unsigned Horseshoe
Fire Road heads uphill on the right. Continue on Old Railroad Grade,
which makes a transition into Marin Municipal Water District lands.
The climb remains steady and easy as the
trail ascends up out of the canyon into a mixture of plants, most prominently
Douglas fir, chinquapin, California coffeeberry, manzanita, chamise, coast
live oak, California bay, madrone, coyote brush, and toyon. Look for pink
flowers on chaparral pea shrubs in late spring. Some small redwood groves
nestle in the creases of the hillside, where small seasonal streams develop
into winter cataracts. Jaw-dropping views stretch uphill to Tam's East
Peak, and south past Mill Valley to the Marin Headlands and San Francisco
Bay. At 1.87 miles, Old Railroad Grade reaches a gate. A few steps later,
the trail shifts to patches of pavement: Summit Avenue. Although there
are houses and driveways to the left, you might still feel you're on a
trail, until, at 1.96 miles, where you'll arrive at a signed street junction
and solid pavement. Turn right onto
Fern Canyon Road.
Views south are awesome along this narrow
paved road. A few pricey houses perch on the hillside to the left, but
on the right there's nothing but an uninterrupted carpet of chaparral
sweeping uphill toward Tam's summit. At 2.20 miles, unnamed but signed
Temelpa Trail heads into a dense thicket on the right. Continue on
Fern Canyon Road. If you can tear your gaze away from the views, you
might notice large hand-painted letters spelling out "Go Away"
on the pavement. At 2.62 miles, the road ends and once past a gate you'll
be back on dirt and Old Railroad Grade. There's one last house on the
left, and then civilization fades again, replaced by oaks, manzanita,
chinquapin, chamise, madrone, and Douglas fir on the sides of the trail.
It doesn't seem possible, but the views just keep getting better and better
as you ascend. On a clear day, you should be able to see Mount Diablo
and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the east, the Bay Bridge, Golden
Gate Bridge, and downtown San Francisco to the south, and the ocean to
the west. Old Railroad Grade snakes uphill, reaching an unsigned but obvious
junction at 2.97 miles. This is the start of the double bowknot. Turn
right, and after a few feet, at 3.00 miles, you'll arrive at another
junction, this one signed. Gravity Car Grade descends, left, to the Mountain
Home Inn, but turn right and remain on Old Railroad Grade.
Several clusters of pine loom over the trail.
The paved platform, where passengers boarded trains, remains on the left.
Old Railroad Grade curves left and passes a few coulter pines, with conspicuous
cones the size and shape of pineapples. Manzanitas thrive on the sides
of the trail, and you might see blossoms on these shrubs beginning in
mid-December. At 3.33 miles, you'll reach a signed junction. Turn right
onto Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road.
The wide multi-use trail begins a slight
descent. Chinquapin, huckleberry, manzanita, chaparral pea, chamise, shrubby
oaks, and golden fleece occupy the sunny chaparral, with redwood, California
bay, madrone, and ferns common along the more damp areas of the trail.
Old Railroad Grade is occasionally visible downhill to
the right, and you'll recross the same seasonal creeks (just at a higher
elevation) as you angle across the hillside, uphill from the old train
route. At 3.74 miles, you'll meet up with Temelpa Trail again, as the
old path crosses the fire road at a signed junction. Continue on
Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road.
Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road continues to descend
at an easy pace. Blithedale Ridge can be easily be picked out of the landscape,
looming just to the east. At 4.02 miles, another old steep footpath, Wheeler
Trail, heads uphill to the left at a signed junction. Continue straight
on Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road.
No trails cross the fire road for almost
a mile, but time passes quickly as Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Fire Road winds downhill
through chaparral and trees. At 4.93 miles, you'll reach a signed junction
with Corte Madera Trail. Turn right and steeply descend a few feet
on an eroded path to a second signed junction, this one with Hoo-Koo-E-Koo
Turn left. (Corte Madera Trail is a reasonable shortcut back to
Old Railroad Grade, but the steep hiking-only path can be a challenge
in winter, as it crosses a full creek several times, and the trail is
prone to storm damage.)
After miles on fire roads, it's an adjustment
to walk on narrow hiking-only Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail. Watch your footing
in wet weather, as exposed roots and rocks can be slippery. Initially
the trail descends easily through a forest of redwood and California bay,
but Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail gradually emerges out of the canyon into a mixture
of chaparral and trees. Look for sagebrush, chinquapin, toyon, coyote
brush, madrone, tanoak, huckleberry, silk-tassel, manzanita, chamise,
and oaks. The trail crosses an open hillside just below Echo Rock, where
you might see tiny waterfalls after winter rains. At a mostly level grade,
Hoo-Koo-E-Koo continues back to MCSOD property and an undersigned junction
at 5.40 miles. Turn right onto Blithedale Ridge Fire Road.
The multi-use fire road traverses the length
of Blithedale Ridge, with many steep dips along the
way. This segment is an uncommonly focused downhill, with madrone and
oaks lining the trail, but chaparral just beyond. There are excellent
views east to San Pedro Mountain, San Quentin, and the bay. At 5.67 miles,
just before an uphill stretch, unsigned Horseshoe Fire Road departs to
the right. Turn right. (You can also continue on Blithedale Ridge
Fire Road to H-Line Fire Road, and descend back to Old Railroad Grade
from there. This option confronts you with a short but steep climb on
Blithedale Ridge Fire Road, somewhat unwelcome at the end of a hike.)
Horseshoe Fire Road, open to hikers, cyclists,
and equestrians, descends sharply. You'll have one last view to Echo Rock
and Tam's summit as you head downhill through madrone, oaks, and California
bay. At 5.86 miles, a signed post marks a junction with Corte Madera Trail
on the right. Continue straight on the fire road. You'll be firmly
back under tree cover now, and at 6.00 miles Horseshoe Fire Road ends
at a previously encountered junction with Old Railroad Grade. Turn
left and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
Last hiked: Friday, December 14, 2001
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