Backyard Bucket List: Tackle Mount Tamalpais by Bike
The ride up Mount Tam is a bucket list trip for many road cyclists.
Poking out above the fog, Mount Tamalpais looms over the San Francisco Bay like a beacon. Known by the locals as Mount Tam, this 2,571-foot peak towers above its neighbors as the tallest point in the Marin Hills of the California Coastal Range. Owning the horizon just north of San Francisco, it’s tough to think of a better vista point anywhere in the Bay Area than this standalone summit. When you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with a remarkable panoramic view of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the sparkling waters of the Bay, as well as the East Bay Hills unfurling for miles.
Those already in the cycling scene might recognize Mount Tamalpais as the birthplace of mountain biking. But road cyclists have reserved a special spot on their collective bucket list for the climb up Mount Tam for decades—and rightfully so. The ride earns its rank amongst the three crown jewels of Bay Area climbs, by many accounts beating out the other two, Mount Diablo and Mount Hamilton, as the best of the best.
Vistas and reputation aside, summiting this iconic peak is an experience where the joy is in the journey. Along the way, you’ll cycle through dense redwood forests, rolling hills, and wide-open fields, and then enjoy a descent with perfect curves. If that sounds like cycling heaven to you, this guide will give you an inside look at the how to tick this epic ride off your list.
The classic ride to the Mount Tam summit covers about 40 miles.
There are several options for road cycling Mount Tamalpais. To reach the prized East Peak summit, take the 3-mile-long East Ridgecrest Boulevard to the end of the road. There are a couple ways to approach the ridge and make a loop ride around the mountain. The classic route combines the Alpine Dam Short Loop (about 33 miles) with the out-and-back spur to the summit, making for a full-value ride of nearly 40 miles with roughly 4,700 feet of elevation gain.
Bonus points for cyclists who break south from the loop in Mill Valley to tag on the extra seven miles (one-way) of riding through Sausalito and across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco.
The Alpine Dam + Mount Tam Route
The fire lookout tower on Mount Tam offers an excellent view of the Bay Area.
With the route being a loop, cyclists can choose a convenient start and end point. We’re opting to start the ride in the charming town of Fairfax, which gets you climbing right away and lets you cruise on back with about 10 miles of descent and another 10 miles of mostly flat terrain to the finish. When open, you can park in a lot in the center of downtown Fairfax between Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Broadway, across from Fairfax Coffee Roastery.
From downtown Fairfax (home to the Marin Museum of Bicycling), head south down Bolinas Road, tackling one of the toughest climbs of the day while you’re still amped on the morning caffeine. The delightfully winding road quickly leaves town behind and ferries you into a quiet world of shadowy oak and redwood forests before starting the roller-coaster descent to Alpine Dam Lake. Ride Fairfax-Bolinas Road for about 10 miles total until the junction with West Ridgecrest Boulevard.
At the junction, turn left onto West Ridgecrest and enjoy riding the Marin spine with uninterrupted views of the ocean on one side and the serene grasslands on the other. Savor the knowledge that you’re earning your views on one of the most filmed roads as you tackle a series of relatively steep rollers, affectionately known as the Seven Sisters.
After about four miles you’ll reach the Rock Springs parking lot and intersection, turning left onto East Ridgecrest Boulevard. The moderately steep, three-mile climb curves around Mount Tam’s West Peak and Middle Peak en route to the visitor center at the East Peak (you can fill up on water here). Make the quick hike up to the fire lookout and soak in the most iconic viewpoint of the Bay Area.
Return down East Ridgecrest Boulevard and bear right the Y intersection onto Pantoll Road, which ends at the junction with Panoramic Highway (turn left here). Smile your way through the delightfully banked corners of this 10-mile descent to the town of Mill Valley.
Finishing the loop takes a fair bit of navigating for 10 miles on mostly flat—save for one climb on Camino Alto—town roads, passing through the quaint Marin communities of Larkspur, Kentfield, Ross, and San Anselmo on the way back to Fairfax.
Insider Tips for Cycling Mount Tamalpais
- Downloading a GPS file can save you a lot of headache while navigating through the towns.
- Wear some cycling shoes you can walk in—it’s worth it to make the short summit hike to the fire lookout.
- Be prepared for all types of weather along this route. It’s common to have dense fog as well as 20-degree temperature changes between different locales around the mountain.
- Sections of the ride can involve heavy traffic, particularly near the summit and through San Anselmo and Fairfax. On weekends most of the traffic will be heading up the mountain until mid-afternoon, so aim to make the descent while the cars are still going against you. Weekdays see significantly fewer cars up Mount Tamalpais, but heavier traffic in the towns.