Mount Tamalpais (locally abbreviated to “Mt Tam”) in Marin County, just north of Golden Gate Bridge, is considered the birthplace of mountain biking. Renegades and daredevils from the cycling community in the late 1960s and early 1970s bombed down the mountain’s flanks, the third-highest in the Bay Area at 2,571 feet, on their heavy “clunkers”, vintage single-speed bikes with balloon tires. Decades later, the idea of the gravel bike was born, heralded by many as the all-in-one bike, fit to take the rider on whichever adventure, no matter if dirt or tarmac.
Living just across another bridge in the East Bay, it only seemed fitting to use my experience from previous bikepacking adventures to explore this area’s history-laden fire roads and dirt trails. In addition, I was in search of yet another experience immersed in nature—in a metropolitan area of close to eight million people, of all places.
My car parked next to a popular bike trail in affluent Mill Valley, the morning air misty and even a tad too cool for my liking. The journey started by riding up Old Railroad Grade Fire Road. Built by hand in six months in 1896, it is a legacy of the “Crookedest Railroad in the World”, taking tourists up to the summit for recreation in steam locomotives, enjoying picturesque views along its twisting and turning route up the mountain. Today, given its relatively gentle grade and non-technical gravel terrain, it is the preferred alternate route up the hill for many mountain bikers and gravel riders. Just two weekends prior, I enjoyed majestic views of San Francisco in the distance from this road. Still, today everything beyond the closest line of trees remained in a thick veil of fog.
About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, the West Point Inn is the ideal location for a more extended break. Built in 1904, it was a stop along the scenic railway, connected to Stinson Beach on the Pacific Ocean further west by stagecoach. Today the Inn is managed by the Friends of Mt Tam nonprofit, offering amenities to hikers and cyclists and providing a handful of cabins to rent for overnight stays. Continuing on the dirt road, cracks in the misty layers around me appeared. Finally, as I reached the paved parking lot and rest area just underneath East Peak Summit, the sun showed its face, while a blanket of clouds covered the lower elevations.
A speedy descent, first on the main road, then on forested Lagunitas Rock Spring Road, took me back down the north side of the mountain. Via Bon Tempe Lake, I found my way to a connection of fire roads running along San Geronimo Ridge. A couple of sections turned out to be too rocky and steep for my skill and comfort level, so hiking with the bike for a few minutes was what needed to happen. The road first weaved back and forth through a section of Pygmy Sargent cypress forest, stunted “miniature” trees, growing in this area of high humidity but relatively poor soil conditions. Close to Kent Lake, the path enters into a Redwood forest before dropping down into a valley to join with the Cross Marin Trail, a multi-use trail connecting Shafter and Tocaloma.
From here, things got interesting. I had researched a path through the aptly named Devil’s Gulch on a trail in Samuel P Taylor State Park. However, given that the alternative meant riding on a paved country road all the way to Point Reyes Station, my overnight destination, I figured another gravel & dirt detour would be a more enjoyable option.
I was wrong.
I made my way east on the initially well-maintained trail, only to observe the path getting narrower and overgrown as I proceeded. First, I passed two gates, both unlocked and giving no indication that I would be stepping onto someone’s private property. Then, suddenly, the trail widened to what I took for a forest access road and soon after that ended at a three-foot-tall stop sign, affixed to a chainlink fence. The notice “private property, no trespassing” shattered my idea of making it through this section and linking up with another road on the other side.
Instead of backtracking all the way, I foolishly convinced myself there was another way. I pedaled back the path I came from for about ten minutes to a Y junction I had ignored earlier. There, I decided the other fire road heading east would be my way out of this. My new track of choice soon turned into a heavily overgrown, steep path up the flanks of the nearby hill. Judging from the condition of the terrain, I was convinced not many folks had seen this part of Marin County to this date. My calves started to burn from pushing the bike up the seemingly relentless incline. Riding was unthinkable. I passed two more gates, both with “no trespassing” signs affixed to their posts, visible only from the opposite side of travel. This, oddly, suggested I had been on private property for probably the previous two hours. Eventually, I found what looked like a forest trail pointing downhill. A cautious descent later, the track, to my relief, dumped me out onto Nicasio Valley Road, not too far from where I had hoped to exit this wilderness. Rarely before was I so happy to encounter tarmac underfoot.
A proper adventurous episode now behind me, the rest of the way to Point Reyes Station went by relatively uneventful, battling some annoying northwestern headwind as I circled around Nicasio Reservoir and eventually found Point Reyes Station late afternoon.
The first half of the following day was dedicated to exploring Point Reyes Peninsula. Extensively used for dairy farming in the late 19th and early 20th century, most of it today is set aside as a National and California State Park. Shortly after I turned away from Tomales Bay and towards the Lighthouse, I found Mount Vision Road. This single-lane paved road snaked its way up to the ridge, allowing expansive views of the western parts of the peninsula. In the distance, I could make out both Drakes Beach and Limantour Beach. Dense bishop pine groves, evergreen trees with a flattened crown that can grow up to 80 feet tall, provided shade as I ground my way uphill. A radio transmitter used for aircraft navigation installed at the highest point marks the transition onto Inverness Ridge Trail. Twisting back and forth through the forest, this single track eventually ended at Limantour Road, from where a speedy descent took me back into the valley at Olema on Highway 1.
Bolinas Ridge Trail did not live up to the hype, at least at first. I had gotten the apparently mistaken impression that I would be enjoying a gently inclining path through a shaded forest landscape from my research. Instead, I initially found a fully exposed, washboard-y, and bumpy mix of trail and dusty dirt road. My body slowly started to protest, and I resorted to pushing the bike up the steeper inclines, appearing around corners without warning. West of Kent Lake, the path finally delivered on its promise. Moisture started to fill the air as I entered a dense Redwood forest. Pine needles covered the damp and sometimes even muddy forest floor, the majestic trees protecting me from both sun and wind. This was pleasant riding. I followed the Ridge Trail all the way to Ridgecrest Blvd, connecting back to familiar Pantoll Road, the main roadway taking visitors up to the top of Mt Tamalpais.
What would a bikepacking trip in California be without a ride along Pacific Coast Highway? So I sped down two-lane Panoramic Highway to Stinson Beach for a roughly six-mile section along the twisty two-lane coastal road. Ocean views to my right under overcast skies, waves crashed against rocks and cliffs underneath. It was late afternoon on a Friday at this point, which meant I had to contend with a good amount of car traffic.
At Muir Beach, I crossed over to the north side of the road and found the well-hidden trailhead of Dias Ridge Trail. As a final uphill challenge of this journey, I put the bike in the lowest gear and switched back and forth up the exposed hillside. My body signaled that it would very much appreciate an end to this ordeal, as I labored up the modest grade. Forty-five minutes later, the trail dropped me back onto Panoramic Hwy. All that was left to do was cruise down Highway 1 and ride the last half mile on the Mill Valley Sausalito Bike Path back to where I had parked the car.
I was, however, hoping to deviate from it a bit to make it slightly more adventurous – which got me to a dead end at a private property and an hour of hike-a-bike up a steep incline. Based on that experience, I slightly shortened the first day for a more direct route to Point Reyes Station.
The route is also available on Komoot.
Mill Valley seems like the ideal start and end point for this adventure and also provides plenty of opportunities to stock up on items before heading out.
There are also plenty of other outdoor opportunities in the area and it is also close enough for a day or two of exploring San Francisco either before or after the ride.
I did this ride during the Covid-19 pandemic and certain water sources that would normally be available were shut off for fear of virus spread.
My recommendation would be to fill up in Mill Valley before heading out and then filling up whenever possible.
For food, one could stop in Lagunitas (a few places along Sir Francis Drake Blvd) on day 1 and then refill at Point Reyes Station ahead of day 2.
- Bike: Trek Checkpoint ALR5
- Tires: WTB Riddler 700×45, Panaracer GravelKing SK Plus, 700×43, both tubeless
A gravel bike seems overall the right choice, given the mostly non-technical gravel and dirt roads and quite a bit of riding on tarmac.
The first part of Bolinas Ridge Road proved challenging without suspension, the surface often washboarded/very bumpy.
- XPDTN3: Weekend in San Francisco. The XPDTN3 post this tour is based on.
- Point Reyes Station Inn. Overnight stop for this route. There are also a few more B&Bs available at Point Reyes Station as well as a campgrounds in Olema and in Samuel P Taylor State Park.
- Marin Museum of Bicycling. Documenting the (mountain) bike history of the area. Worth a visit in conjunction with this ride.
- Full Circle: The Genesis Of Gravel Riding. GCN visiting the headquarters of WTB and explore some of the very trails featured in this trip.
- The Roots of Dirt | How The Mountain Bike Evolved From Clunker to Global Phenomenon. Short video piece from Wired on how the mountain bike became a global phenomenon.