Distance: 38-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3350 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
The first half of this route is covered thoroughly in words and pictures at toughascent.com. It’s referred to by locals as “the Alpine Dam ride,” to distinguish it from other ways of approaching Mt. Tam, and it does cross that most unprepossessing of landmarks.
Once in the weeks before I went to Italy on a cycling vacation, I took a friend who knew Europe well on this ride. As we were passing over one of the more spectacular legs, he turned to me and said, “I hope you aren’t going to Europe to find better riding than this, because there isn’t any.” I second that emotion. Mt. Tam is a Bucket List ride if there ever was one, one of the 5 best rides in Bestrides.org, and the best ride in our list for grand vistas. (Remember to click on the following photos to see them full-screen.) It’s a lot of climbing (the elevation total above is Mapmride’s little joke), but there are only two serious pitches: right off the bat, and just past Alpine Lake. (The Mapmyride elevation profile is also very misleading, by the way.)
This is a pretty complicated route in the half after the summit. It wends its way through several busy Marin communities. So you’ll want to have a Garmin with the route loaded or carry your Marin Bicycle Map (see the section Introduction). And, because it goes through the most popular recreation area in the Bay Area, you’ll see a lot of cars. But two things will save you: all the traffic is on one side of the mountain (the south side), so for the first half of the ride you’re nearly alone, and all that traffic is coming toward the mountain when you’re leaving it (assuming you started in the morning), so it’s all on the other side of the road. But if the traffic or the urban navigating puts you off, in Alternate Routes below I’ll show you two ways to ride the mountain that avoid both.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
Begin in Fairfax, another one of those extremely attractive Marin enclaves that seem to combine the best features of city and town. It’s a lovely place to hang out. There’s a good artisanal ice cream shop a few feet from your starting point, good bike shops to your left and right, and one of my favorite taco shops ¼ mile down your route on the L. There is also the Marin Museum of Cycling and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame (same building), well worth a visit. There’s free parking for just long enough for you to do the ride comfortably, in a parking lot smack in the divider in the middle of main street. If it’s full, riders park in the Whole Earth parking lot down the street to the south.
Head down Fairfax-Bolinas Rd. Almost immediately you do a climb that will definitely get your attention (I always do twenty minutes riding the flat side streets heading south out of Fairfax to warm up first). When you see the golf course, the bulk of the traffic you’ve been fighting should be over (such is the nature of golf courses) but the climbing continues on for some time. You summit, then give most of the elevation gain back via some nice descending curves, then roll through very pretty woods to and along Alpine Lake. If you like dense, shadowy forest, this will be your favorite part of the ride. There are some big surprises in the way of potholes and launch ramps in the road surface through here, and the occasional car, so have a care.
At the far end of the lake there’s a sudden R turn and you’re onto the second and most demanding climb of the ride. It’s something over 2 miles, about as steep as the climb to the golf course, and through nice woods. The surface is poor, not poor enough to disturb the climb but poor enough to spoil the descent, which is one reason why I don’t recommend returning by this route. When you reach the T at the obvious summit, turn L onto West Ridgecrest Blvd. (there is no sign). Bolinas-Fairfax Rd. goes off at 1 o’clock and drops down to the ocean (more on that in Added Miles). Ride past a massive gate that may be closed (to keep out cars, not you) in fire danger season or during the filming of car ads.
Ride W. Ridgecrest along the Marin spine separating the ocean from the rest of Marin. From here to the Tamalpais summit is one of the scenic high points of your cycling career. Take your time, stopping often to drink it all in. You’ve actually seen the ridge road before, because it has appeared in more TV car ads than any other road on earth. I seem to encounter film crews about every other time I’m riding there. You’re riding a ridge road, so there are views on both sides, and it’s all big rollers, so you’ll do more climbing than you expect—there’s about 500 ft of gain from end to end going this direction. It makes the return ride easy, if you come back this way.
At the Y at the unmissable intersection/parking lot, which is called Rock Springs (there is an unobtrusive sign), go L onto East Ridgecrest Blvd. and ride to East Peak, the end of the road and the summit of Mt. Tam. Don’t skip this leg because you’re tired. The climb up East Ridgecrest is really pretty mellow (one short moderately challenging pitch coming and going), and the views from East Peak are a memory to be hoarded, as Breaker Morant put it. So go. Don’t just slog to the summit with your head down—as you climb, the views of Marin, San Francisco, and the coast to the south are ever-changing and magical, so stop often to drink them in.
At East Peak you’ll find a nice bathroom, water, a Visitor Center which may or may not be open, one picnic table, a lookout (locked up) on the actual summit just above you that’s reached via a surprisingly nasty footpath (but hike it anyway), and a paved circular path around the base of the lookout that’s closed to bikes (but walk it anyway). Take time to let what you’re seeing sink in. It’s one of the best views on earth.
You are now about to begin one of the great descents on the west coast—11 miles of mostly uninterrupted, glassy-smooth, perfectly slalomed and banked curves, sweet 20-35-mph stuff. I ache to think of it. This stretch is why you don’t want to ride this route clockwise and or as an out-and-back from Fairfax. It’s a very busy auto route, but as I said, assuming you’re riding it before 3 pm, all the traffic is going the other way, north, up the mountain or up the coast. The last time I did it, it was 2 pm on a beautiful fall Saturday, and I met one car—one—going my direction in those 11 miles.
Ride from the summit back to Rock Springs and go straight ahead onto Pantoll Rd. at the Y. This is the busiest leg for cars, so try to catch a lull in the traffic so you don’t get stuck behind some slow-moving vehicle. Pantoll ends at Panoramic Highway, where you go L. Now you will need a map or a Garmin. You’re going to get an back-door introduction to the great Marin communities—Mill Valley, Larkspur, Kentfield, Ross, San Anselmo, and Fairfax. There’s a reason why two-bedroom cottages in these places cost over a $1,000,000. It’s because these places are dang cool.
At the first big intersection, go L onto Sequoia Valley Rd (with an arrow for “Mill Valley” to the L). Panoramic actually makes a L turn immediately before the intersection, so you’re riding into a T. Take a moment to reflect on the fact that “sequoia” is a seven-letter word that contains all the vowels. Navigation from here on in requires constant vigilance, and I’ll just lay it out and you can find it on your map:
1. Sequoia Valley Rd. to Miller Ave (with several stop signs and slight turns—just keep going down).
2. R on Miller to Camino Alto
3. L on Camino Alto
4. Camino Alto becomes Corte Madera Ave., which becomes Magnolia Ave., which becomes College
5. L on Kent Ave. (where College forks—if you miss it, you’ll T into Sir Francis Drake in 1/4 mile), which becomes Poplar, to Shady Lane, to San Anselmo Ave., which runs into Fairfax and your car
When you see it on the map it’s pretty much a straight line. A lot of this route is through charming shopping districts with boutique restaurants. Feel free to stop and poke around.
If you do this ride on a weekday, the traffic around Mt. Tam is cut by 3/4, but the payback is that the traffic in the towns is much worse. From San Anselmo Ave on, things can get positively harrowing. There are a number of intersections where you’ll be keeping an eye on cars coming from 5 different directions.
Alternate routes: I promised you two ways to avoid the traffic and the navigating. One way is to ride the route to the summit as an out-and-back. The merits of going back the way you came are obvious: 1) you get to see West Ridgecrest again, this time in the easy direction: 2) the rest of the ride is good, familiar stuff; 3) you miss the traffic, the urban streets, and the navigation headaches. The two drawbacks are 1) the big descent from West Ridgecrest to Alpine Lake is too steep to be fun, with lots of blind corners forcing you to go slow so the one car that’s inevitably driving up this road for no reason doesn’t kill you, and the road surface is rough enough to spoil what fun there is; and 2) you miss the 11-mile slalom on the other side.
The other way is to begin the ride from the ocean side. Instead of starting in Fairfax, start in Bolinas, a town that has become a part of California mythology. The story goes that the citizens of Bolinas wanted to be left alone, so when the State put up a sign on Highway 1 marking the turn-off, they stole it. So the State replaced it. And they stole the replacement. And this went on, until the State gave up and didn’t replace the sign, and I believe to this day there is no sign marking the turn-off to Bolinas on Hwy 1. Despite all that, Bolinas is a friendly, open, charming little tie-dyed coastal village where you’ll find B and B’s, lots of easy parking, and inexpensive, unpretentious places to eat. Ride back to Hwy 1 and angle slightly to the R and straight across Hwy 1 and up Bolinas-Fairfax Rd. It’s the same road you took out of Fairfax, where it was called the Fairfax-Bolinas Rd. I don’t have to explain that, do I? Anyway, the road may look closed, and it may even be signed as closed, and it may be a bit full of debris, but it’s good for bikes, and it’s a fine, challenging climb up to the same intersection with West Ridgecrest we rode through on our old loop. From there ride to East Peak, same as before, and return to Bolinas the way you came.
If you like the idea of climbing up from the ocean but you want a loop instead of an out-and-back, when you return from the top of Tam to Rock Springs, ride back on Pantoll Rd., same as our mapped route, but now go R on Panoramic Highway instead of L and descend to the T at Hwy 1. Go R on 1 to the (unsigned?) turn-off to Bolinas and your car. Let me be clear: Panoramic and Hwy 1 can be hairy with traffic, now going your way, and there is no shoulder or easy passing. There may be some white-knuckling. But Hwy 1 goes through some fascinating topography in here, especially if you like birds and tidal habitats. As you ride along Bolinas Lagoon checking out the shore birds, you pass the Audubon Canyon Ranch, the birding society’s research center, open to the public. Great white herons used to nest there by the hundreds, but apparently they’ve moved somewhere else.
Adding miles: I’m no fan of bike paths, but Marin has a world-class one (or so it used to be—a reader tells me the surface is now poor). It’s called the Mill Valley-Sausalito Bike Path. It’s on the Marin Bicycle Map and you can google the route. When you’re on the Camino Alto leg of our loop, it’s running right beside you. It will take you all the way into Sausalito with no traffic except other cyclists and joggers, and it goes through some very interesting marshy country—this isn’t one of those bike paths that runs along the back of the local Pick and Pull. It’s a leg of our Golden Gate Bridge Loop ride.
Fairfax sits at the southern edge of endless fine riding in the Marin dairy country, represented in Bestrides.org by the Bakeries Ride. You can just head north up Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and keep going.
If you’re into mountain biking, Fairfax is the base for the famous Tamarancho mtb loop. Go to Sunshine Bicycle Center downtown to pay a modest trail use fee and get directions.
Afterthoughts: We’re doing this ride to see the astounding views of San Francisco, the ocean, and the Bay laid out at our feet along the route and at the summit. Without those views, it’s just another really good ride. So I’d wait for a day when the weather over the Bay is clear. Ocean fog isn’t a problem—the views to the west are still spectacular when the fog blanket is present, just in a different way.
Bring some sandals or hiking shoes and a lock for exploring the tippy-top of East Peak.
If you ride from Bolinas expect a huge temperature swing. It can be damp and 45 degrees in Bolinas when it’s sunny and 90 degrees on Ridgecrest Blvd.
Re: ttmetro’s comment below: the road from Fairfax to Ridgecrest Rd. is frequently under construction or suffering road damage, and at such times you’ll encounter signs marking the road as closed to all, including bikes. I’ve always ignored such signs (here and everywhere else) and have never been challenged for riding through them. Once a construction foreman actually laughed at me for taking the “no bicycles” sign seriously—”That’s just liability bullshit,” he said.