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Mt. Tamalpais

Railroad Grade, Fern Creek Trails

From Mountain Home Inn to East Peak summit is 6 miles round trip
with 1,300-foot elevation gain

For more than century, Bay Area walkers and visitors from around the world have enjoyed rambling the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. Glorious panoramas of the Pacific coastline and San Francisco Bay were attracting walkers to the mountaintop well before Mt. Tam was preserved as a state park in 1928.

If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll experience what some Bay Area walkers call “a Farallons Day”—one of those clear days when visibility is greater than 25 miles, thus allowing a glimpse of the sharp peaks of the Farallon Islands.

The Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railroad, known as “the crookedest railroad in the world,” was constructed in 1896; it brought passengers from Mill Valley to the summit via 281 curves. Atop Mt. Tam, the Tavern of Tamalpais welcomed diners and dancers.

Redwood-lined creeks, stands of Douglas fir, and oak-dotted potreros are just a few of the great mountain’s delightful environments. Thanks to the early trail-building efforts of the Tamalpais Conservation Club, as well as later efforts by the CCC during the 1930s, more than fifty miles of trail explore the state park. These trails connect to two hundred more miles of trail that lead through the wooded watershed of the Marin Municipal Water District, and over to Muir Woods National Monument and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Mt. Tam’s top, with its fire lookout tower ringed with barbed wire, itself isn’t quite as nice as the top-of-the-world views it offers. Motorists can drive to within 0.3 mile to the top, which often means a crowd at the summit.

Ah, but getting there is more than half the fun, particularly on trails like Railroad Grade and Fern Creek, which offer a little bit of everything: dense stands of laurel, open grassland, oak-dotted knolls, a canyon full of redwoods and ferns.

If you want to stay on the Railroad Grade all the way to the top of Mt. Tam, add 2.5 miles to the ascent plus 2.5 miles to the descent.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 1 in Mill Valley, veer right on Panoramic Highway, ascending a few miles to Mountain Home Inn and a parking area. The trail begins across Panoramic Highway. A bus stops at Mountain Home Inn, so by all means consider the bus a way to the trailhead.

The hike: Begin your steady ascent (7 percent grade all the way) on the Old Railroad Grade. An occasional view opens up among the brush.

Almost two miles out, you’ll reach a junction with the east fork of Fern Canyon. Take this very steep shortcut a long half mile to Ridgecrest Boulevard just below the East Peak parking lot.

(Dogged railroad buffs will ignore such shortcuts and stay on the Railroad Grade which visits the West Point Inn, originally built by the railroad and now owned by the Marin Water District and run by the West Point Inn Association. Hikers may pause on the veranda and buy some liquid refreshment. You’ll circle clockwise around West Point, heading north another two miles up the railroad grade).

Once you reach the summit parking lot and picnic area, catch your breath and join the 0.3 mile summit trail to the top of Mt. Tam.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at