The East Bay Regional Parks are a string of relatively small pleasures. Running north and south, east of San Francisco Bay, many of them consist of golden grasslands, canyons, and mixed forests of oak, madrone, eucalyptus, and some groves of second-growth redwoods. Redwood Regional Park is particularly appealing as are the grassy heights of Briones, (also a working cattle ranch with a Rawhide flavor). Mt. Diablo has a wild majesty when storms blow by or when the springtime flowers bloom. Yet, wherever I go, I sense the grim hum of urban sprawl, like a snoring odorous bear.
In summer, temperatures rise into the 90s by late morning: this area becomes dangerously uncomfortable. That’s when I turn my bootheels west, toward the coast, mostly to my favorite wonderland of all: Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais.
Though not as high as Mt. Diablo, you can see Mt. Tam from almost anywhere in the Bay Area. The 2,571 peak dominates the titular 6,300-acre-state park. It’s a short drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, a few miles past the Golden Gate Headlands. From 101, you take the Highway 1 exit to Stinson Beach for a long snaky drive until the road splits in two; you take the right up onto the Panoramic Highway for a snaky ten miles across the mountain’s south slope. Mt. Tam will loom at you on the first rise like a green tidal wave. Most California coastal mountains run north to south, following the coast and the major fault lines. But Mt. Tam is an exception: it runs west to east.
I briefly sampled Mt. Tam in the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, as I spread into middle-age and my skepticism toward city life deepened, I seized on hiking as the best way to cope with physical change and spiritual entropy. My first hike was to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay; the following weekend, I hopped the Golden Gate Transit bus right by my apartment on Post Street for the 45-minute ride (one transfer) to Mt. Tam’s steep piney slopes.
For over two years I hiked, clambered, climbed, and crawled the 50-miles of trails that braid the landscape, through its delightfully wide variety of ecosystems. Many trails are steep, often rocky, so I started out on short hikes then became more adventurous. The first time I hiked the nearly 3 miles from Stinson Beach up Tolkien-esque Steep Ravine to Pantoll, I raised my fists in triumph but I was really more like a toddler who'd just learned to climb onto daddy's chair.
Radically more daunting was the trudge up steep Willow Camp Fire Road (over 1,500 feet in 3 miles) to the Coast Trail, then over to McKennan Gulch Trail for a 2-mile trip back down, then a long loop back to Stinson where I found the path blocked by a gi-normous eucalyptus that had toppled across the fire road. I bushwhacked up a steep bank on my hands and knees to get around it. I was grateful to learn that I’m not especially sensitive to poison oak.
One Saturday, I started out from Pantoll (park headquarters and the start of most of the main trailheads) and hiked all the way around Mt. Tam’s north side: 8 miles in around 5 or 6 hours. Near the end, I stopped at the top of Wheeler Trail on the northeast slope and checked the map: it seemed to promise a quick trot down to the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail. “Easy,” I sneered and damn near broke my ankles on what turned out to be a rock-jumbled stream bed that would have made a snake weep. At the bottom, I collapsed and was mistaken for dead by several passing hikers. Another memory from that day: the taste of cold beer and watching the afternoon fog pour up over the ridge and down into Muir Canyon. (If you’re up for a truly Gothic experience, nothing beats hiking Mt. Tam in the summertime coastal fog.)
I took risks, but I took them prepared: map, first-aid kit, some food, compass, Swiss Army knife and always always more water than I needed. In those two years I spent most weekends on Mt. Tam, but I only got lost once. It happened like this.
I was single then and joining a hiking group seemed to be a good way to meet chicks. The Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association sponsors two kinds of hiking groups: nature lovers and power hikers. I tried the nature lovers’ Saturday hike first but it felt a little slow to me. The following Sunday, I joined the power hikers. And that was how I got lost.
Ten minutes into the hike, I knew I’d never want to go power hiking again. I may walk faster than the Saturday crowd, but I’m still a dawdler, a “oh-gee-what’s that-flower” kind of guy; sometimes I’ll lie down for a nap.
It was when we were stumbling along the foot of the very steep north side of the mountain, that our power hike leader stopped and turned: “Hey! I think we’re lost!” Not long after, as we fought our way back up through thick brush in the heat, she took a look at my beety face and asked, “Say, do you have high blood pressure?”
. . . which of course, did nothing for my blood pressure . . .
I left the group at that point and was led out on a shorter, alternate route by a forgiving veteran who eased my embarrassment with tales of his own stumbles into danger: “It happens to us all, even old-timers.”
For a year, I worked for the association as their volunteer publicist. Not long after, I met Elizabeth (I wanted to stage our wedding here, but it was unworkable). Now that we live in Emeryville, Mt. Tam is a circuitous hour-long drive away. A week ago Friday was the last time I’d visited in over a year. I drove to my favorite area, the west end around Rock Spring. A half mile southwest, overlooking the Pacific you’ll find the bench pictured below. Dad O’Rourke’s words are more eloquent than mine.
(All photos by author)