Distance: 38-mile loop with out and back spur
Elevation gain: 4400 ft (RWGPS)
(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, and the best ride in our list for grand vistas. (Remember to click on the following photos to see them full-screen.) If someone were to say to me, “I have one day to do any ride in California—which should it be?”, I’d say this one. It’s a lot of climbing, 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 almost 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.
Take something to walk in—you’ll want to explore the summit on foot.
(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. (signed “Bolinas Rd.”). Immediately you do the longest, hardest climb on the route. Because of this, I always used to do twenty minutes riding the flat side streets heading south out of Fairfax to warm up first. But it’s easier to start in Ross and ride to Fairfax, which accomplishes the same thing but means you don’t end up in Fairfax—there goes the ice cream.
When you see the golf course, the worst of the climbing is over and the bulk of the traffic you’ve been fighting should be history (you shouldn’t see more than 1-4 cars between the golf course and Ridgecrest Blvd.)), but the climbing continues at a milder pitch for some time. You summit, then give most of the elevation gain back via some nice descending curves, then roll up and down and back and forth through very pretty woods to Alpine Lake Dam. If you like dense, shadowy forest and roller-coaster contour, this will be your favorite part of the ride. There are some big surprises in the way of broken pavement and launch ramps in the road surface through here, and the occasional car, so have a care. The Authorities have recently repaved most of the worst pavement breaks, but there are still enough to warrant your attention.
As you cross the dam, there is currently a great sign reading in its entirety “Next 6 miles.” At the far end of the dam there’s a sudden R turn and you’re onto the second most demanding climb of the ride. It’s something over 2 miles of serpentining through lovely woods, so it’s never a grind. 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 a sign). Bolinas-Fairfax Rd. goes off at 1 o’clock and drops down to the ocean (more on that in Adding 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 (if the weather is clear—see below). 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, fairly steep rollers (the so-called Seven Sisters), so it’s much more work than you expect—there’s about 570 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 a moderately steep 3 miles, but they pass quickly because 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, almost 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 a busy 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 millions. It’s because these places are dang cool.
At the first big, unmissable intersection (what locals call the Four Corners), go L onto Sequoia Valley Rd (note the sign some wag has altered to read “Chill Valley” marking the turn). 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. (which becomes Edgewood Ave.) 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.
Just when you think everything after the Mt. Tam summit is either down or flat, you discover that Camino Alto is a fairly long, steady, mellow-to-moderate climb followed by a short, sweet descent. Hey, I thought we were in the middle of a city! If you’ve burned all your matches on Mt. Tam, it can kill you.
Starting with Ross, a lot of this route is through charming shopping districts with boutique restaurants. Feel free to stop and poke around. From Ross to Fairfax, you can take large main arteries back to Fairfax if you’re tired of navigating, but the side streets that parallel those arteries are fun and I’ve mapped it via them.
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 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, a wonderful descent featured in our Muir Woods Loop ride . Go R on 1 to the (no sign, remember?) turn-off to Bolinas and your car. 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 the rewards of this route are substantial. 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.
Shortening the ride: I hate to give up any of this one, but if one must, one should think about what aspects of the ride are unmissable. For me, that’s riding Ridgecrest to the summit, and descending the Panoramic Highway. So I’d suggest 1) driving to Ridgecrest and riding Ridgecrest to the summit and back, or 2) starting in Mill Valley and riding to the summit and back backwards along our route. Schedule carefully to avoid traffic on the latter.
Riding from Fairfax to the Alpine Lake Dam and back is a less grand but lovely ride beloved of locals, and it will still give you a workout.
Adding miles: If the mileage in our loop isn’t enough for you (and chapeau to you if that’s true), you can add on about 14 miles by going R instead of L at the intersection of Pantoll Rd. and Panoramic Hwy and following our Muir Woods Loop route to Sequoia Valley Rd.
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 is a few miles south down Sir Francis Drake Blvd. from endless fine riding in the Marin dairy country, represented in Bestrides.org by the Chileno Valley Road ride.
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.
I cannot over-stress how extreme the weather changes can be on this ride. It can be damp and 45 degrees in Bolinas when it’s sunny and 90 degrees on Ridgecrest Blvd. It can be sunny and warm in Fairfax and white-out fog, with puddles on the road, and 55 degrees on Ridgecrest. I did this ride once where there was a 20-degree difference between one end of Ridgecrest and the other, with one end in cold drizzle and the other in hot sun.
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.
Great instructions for a great ride. Alpine Dam was a nice surprise. Next time, however, I’ll do it on a week day. Even on a slightly foggy Sunday morning there were many cars in both directions, especially in the last part of the ride.
Ironically, the traffic on the south side of the mountain might be lighter later in the day (1-3 pm), since everyone who’s going to Mt. Tam or coastal points north has gotten there by then.
About 3 miles past Fairfax the road is closed to the junction at Ridgecrest road due to a minor slide (that won’t affect cycling at all). Many cyclists on the road, but passed only one car from the water district. Although the sign at the gate prohibits all traffic including bicyclists, locals told me that cyclists were apparently tolerated (though one told me of someone who apparently was turned back).
Take this as you like. For me it meant virtually no traffic, including Ridgecrest road since I was there on a weekday. Only bad traffic was in the urban areas on the way back where I hit afternoon congestion. Not too bad though as the path follows mostly well signaled bike path or shoulders (with more under construction).
A fantastic ride! It did take me more than 4 hours (the limit at the parking lot). Avoid a ticket by parking elsewhere. E.g. there is a big parking lot at the gate where the road is closed.
I don’t know if Fairfax takes the four-hour limit seriously or not. I suspect it’s more a guideline than a rule.
Driving up from SF – any reason not to start the ride in Mill valley and save a bunch of driving between Mill Valley and Fairfax and back?
None whatsoever. Actually, doing the loop starting at the south end makes a lot of sense, since you’ve have a good warm-up for the climb out of Fairfax. I like to start in Fairfax because I love the town and I like being there after riding, but I’ve taken to starting in Ross for the warm-up.
FINALLY did this today, epic as advertised—thanks, Jay! Also as advertised: major traffic on the descent back to Mill Valley. Mostly oncoming as, you said it would be, but still not pleasant. If at all possible I would return back down Fairfax-Bolinas Road, at least on a nice summer Saturday bound to draw crowds. Fairfax-Bolinas Road, Alpine Lake, and Ridgecrest make for an incredible ride—beautiful and almost no cars. Thanks again, Jay!
Mill Valley also tends to have easier parking. There are lots of spaces with no hourly restrictions on some of the side streets along Tennessee Valley Road. That being said, Fairfax is a really cool town. Gestalt Haus is a great place to end any ride.
Gestalt Haus brags of having been “voted worst restaurant in Marin five years running.” Known for its draft beer, sausage, and hot sauces, it welcomes bicyclists and may be an acquired taste.
Great ride from Fairfax to the summit. The remainder depends on traffic. I went out on a holiday (Labor Day) and the traffic really was not bad from Fairfax to the summit. There was a fierce ocean wind along Ridgecrest, and was glad I didn’t have deep section wheels. The haze from the numerous western region fires obstructed views – San Francisco was barely visible, so I would second Jay’s recommendation to pick this ride on a clear day.
The descent to Mill Valley would be fun without traffic, but once you hit Panoramic Hwy, there seems to be a fair amount of both local and tourist traffic. It was not dense and didn’t feel dangerous, but enough to keep you cautious all the way. The way back from Mill Valley to Fairfax is okay if you like small town / suburban riding. I would vote for the natural scenery and go out and back to the summit on any day with traffic.
May I suggest that judging any ride in California on a holiday will give a skewed view of the traffic?
If you start at the crack of dawn you can have Ridgecrest all to yourself, since the gate doesn’t open till 8 during summer. I’m partial to looping, so I go Fairfax to summit to Stinson, north to that lovely little climb Bolinas-Fairfax, suffer the Alpine damage descent, and giggle back past the golf course to Fairfax.
A reader writes: Basically, the descent on Highway 1 (I know) from its intersection with Panoramic to Muir Beach is absolutely fantastic. Super smooth, perfect curves that keep you engaged with the road, yet it’s still mellow enough for you to enjoy the stunning view of the ocean and the canyon. Traffic is obviously a problem, but on the two times I did this descent on weekdays, it was totally manageable and wasn’t a problem. Climbing back up Hwy 1 probably wouldn’t be that great, even on a weekday, but luckily at the end of the descent is Franks Valley road and Muir Woods road, a nice, challenging little climb back to 4 corners. I did this climb last Thursday and was passed by just two or three cars.
This route is now a Bestrides ride, “Muir Woods Loop.”
Whatever it takes, do this ride. If the climbing intimidates you, rent an electric mountain bike in Mill Valley—about $80 for a good one—and start from there. Coming down from the top of Tam, take Railroad Grade for a fast dirt ride back to Mill Valley—yippie!
E-bikes generally are a wonderful way to do rides that are otherwise beyond your abilities—thank the lord for them. But in this case I wouldn’t ride Railroad Grade down, even with a mountain bike, because you’re giving up a great descent for a merely good one.
The descent from Pantoll to Stinson Beach on the Panoramic Highway deserves much more attention that it gets in this write-up. It’s surely one of the best descents in Marin County. It’s about 3.5 mi, the first half of which is a joyride through mossy rocks and lush, gorgeous redwoods with pleasant contours, fun turns, and wide switchbacks on a surface that is literally perfect. After about 1 3/4 mi (right around halfway down) you exit the redwoods’ cover and are immediately struck with awesome views of Stinson Beach, the Bolinas Lagoon, and Bolinas bay, and those persist all the way down to Hwy 1. Below the tree line the road surface is chipseal-y and rough, but worth it.
Of course there are traffic concerns, since this is a major corridor from SF to the coast, so weekday or early in the morning is recommended.
Also excellent is Hwy 1 from Stinson Beach to Muir Beach (i.e. turning south from where your Hwy 1 loop hits Hwy 1). The surface is perfect the whole way and the scenery is magnificent—overall a better stretch of Hwy 1 than yours (Stinson to Bolinas). Again, high-traffic hours should be avoided, since the shoulder is sketchy.
Sam, you are absolutely right. I took your advice, and how those roads are part of the new Muir Woods Loop in Bestrides. Thanks for the tip.
I’ve done several of this website’s rides in the East Bay, Marin, and Peninsula, and this was hands-down my favorite and the most difficult. There were moments when I couldn’t help but break out into grins/whooping for joy.