The Mountain

While in San Francisco a couple weeks ago I spent one afternoon riding Mt. Tamalpais. Mt. Tam is probably the closest mountain to San Francisco, located about 20 miles north of the city in Marin County. This was the fourth time I’ve ridden it and it holds a special place in my heart as the first mountain I ever rode on a bicycle.

I started in downtown San Francisco and made my way out of the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge (which I rode 5 times during the trip). It was so foggy that day I literally couldn’t even see the bridge until I was on it. As I was approaching the bridge I passed two tourists on rental bikes intently studying a map, looking around, and pointing different directions. As I passed I called out to them, “Are you looking for the bridge?” They replied, “Yes.” I responded, “It’s this way.” I have been there several times before, but no matter where I travel I always seem to be the one who gives directions to other tourists, despite the fact that I don’t actually live in these places.

Once over the bridge there is a nice little descent into Sausalito. There are a lot of bikes in this area as well. One of the popular routes for tourists on rental bikes is to cross the bridge to Sausalito, then take a ferry back to San Francisco rather than ride back (it’s a little hillier than the average tourist can handle). The route to Mt. Tam follows the bay for a few miles before shooting inland.

Mt. Tam is a little over 2500 ft high. The main climb is 10 miles long and averages around 5% gradient (though this includes a few downhill sections, it’s mostly steeper than that). It starts on a very curvy section California Highway 1 at Tamalpais Valley Junction, just slightly above sea level. These first two miles can have a fair amount of traffic, depending on the time of day. Fortunately, this road is also heavily travelled by bicycles, so nearly all the cars behave sensibly when they encounter a bike. There wasn’t a whole lot of traffic on the afternoon I chose.

After turning off California Highway 1, there really wasn’t much traffic for the remaining 8 miles. Once I reached about 1200 ft of elevation I broke through the fog & clouds and it was perfectly clear and sunny. In fact, once I got to about 1600 ft the sun was absolutely blistering. I was sweating profusely and going through water like it was… er, water. I even got sunburned. This was not what I was expecting when I left town, given I could only see a couple blocks ahead of me.

I had been looking forward to this ride literally for months, so you can imagine how I was feeling when halfway up I entered Mt. Tam State Park and saw this:

Audrey, when they close the road they put up big signs, like this one

I was pretty devastated. I stopped riding and walked across the road to the ranger station. I found a map and started to plan the remainder of my ride (I still had a few hours to kill). Maybe I wouldn’t get to ride all the way to the top, but I would still try to find somewhere interesting to go. As I was standing there I overheard a couple of hikers chatting with the ranger. The ranger was telling them it was okay for them to go hiking up on the mountain. Hmmm. After they left I walked over to the ranger and asked about biking. I was delighted to hear that the road was only closed to automobiles, and bikes were quite welcome to continue up the road. So I can just walk around the gate and keep riding? Apparently.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because there was no auto traffic on the road for the last half of the ride. I was basically all by myself (well, there were some horseflies).

From 1800 ft I could look down at the clouds rolling in from the Pacific

From 2500 ft (west peak) I could see the downtown skyscrapers over the clouds

Mt. Tam has three peaks (west, middle, east). The east peak is the highest, though the road doesn’t go all the way to the top. The west peak is slightly lower, but the elevation of the road is the highest there (a little over 2500 ft). The two steepest and hardest sections of the entire ride are right as you reach the east peak and right as you reach the west peak. Go figure.

The Pocket Rocket at the east peak

At the top I filled my water bottles and ate a couple Clif Bars. There was a soda machine which appeared to have cold lemonade for $1, which sounded perfect. I reached for my wallet only to discover a lone $20 bill. Damn. I made due with water.

Now the hard work was over, it was time to coast for 40 minutes (okay, there were a few small uphill sections on the descent). The first 8 miles of descent were traffic free. About a quarter mile after turning onto Highway 1 I caught up with a car (yes, I was going significantly faster than the cars downhill) and had to follow it the remainder of the way down (there was no room to pass). I broke my $20 bill for a bottle of Gatorade at a gas station at the bottom of the descent. Then I made my way back to the city.

What a great ride. The best part was seeing how well my little Pocket Rocket held up. Not only was it great at climbing, it handled amazingly well at around 40 mph on the descent. It truly is a no compromises travel bike.

I got one last view of Mt. Tam as I was flying out of the San Francisco airport. If you follow the wing all the way to the end, then look up you can see Mt. Tam.

Ride Information
Date: 2008-06-13 1:24 PM PDT
Mountain: Mt. Tamalpais
Road Elevation: 2492 feet
Climb Distance: 10.0 miles
Climb Ascent: 2492 feet
Climb Average Grade: 4.7%
Climb Maximum Grade: 20%
Ride Distance: 49.5 miles
Ride Total Ascent: 5685 feet
Ride Maximum Speed: 37.4 miles/hour
Ride Start: San Francisco, CA (0 feet)
Ride End: San Francisco, CA (0 feet)

One thought on “The Mountain”

  1. Loved traveling with you and the pocket rocket up the mountain!!!!! what absolutely awesome photos!!!!!! You REALLY should consider ‘entering’ them in something??? like a travel guide book,?>?? or something equally informative!!!!! I think it is amazing the views you capture, as you ride your bike!!!!!!! Next trip, carry a few ones!!!!!! then you can have that lemonade!!!!!!! Thanks for the journey….. luv ya, nan

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