Overlooking San Francisco Bay and Marin County, Mount Tamalpais was thought by the Miwok Indians to be the home of their god, Coyote. They considered it a place of reverence.
The first recorded ascent of Mount Tamalpais was made in the 1830s by a trader, Jacob Leese. He wanted to establish an initial survey point on its peak but his Indian assistants refused to accompany him. They thought nobody would survive a visit to the sacred summit. When Leese returned unscathed, Chief Marin, after whom the county is named, climbed to the top and enhanced his reputation among his people as the bravest man in the world.
According to linguists, the name, Tamalpais, is a combination of the Miwok words tama,l meaning coast or west and pais, meaning hill. It is also sometimes known as the sleeping princess.
It is not a huge mountain, 2,604 feet to the peak, but Mount Tamalpais rises directly from the beach in the west and the San Francisco Bay in the east. In 1896 a railway track was built from Mill Valley to the summit. During its first year of operation the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railroad carried 23,000 passengers up its eight-mile track. At the end of the track was a luxury hotel. When the railway was extended to include Muir Woods, the downward trip was made into a gravity ride; no engine was needed, but lots of braking force was applied. It was reputedly an exciting ride, not as fast as a roller coaster, but still quite a thrill. The motor car proved too fierce a competitor for the train and in 1930, the railroad was closed while the hotel was demolished in the 1950s. The track is now a hiking trail.
Most of the trees on Mount Tamalpais were logged between 1840 and 1870. Fortunately, one stand of redwoods in Sequoia Canyon was fairly inaccessible and was left untouched. In 1905 the canyon was for sale and it seemed inevitable it, too, would be logged. William Kent, a conservationist and land developer who owned much of the area, wanted the Mount Tamalpais Park Association to buy the canyon. They could not raise the money, so he bought it himself. He deeded it to the United States government but it was still not out of danger. Two years later a local water company wanted the canyon floor condemned for a reservoir. Kent appealed to the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, sending him photographs of the redwoods to make his case. Roosevelt declared Sequoia Canyon a National Monument and named it Muir Woods.
Mount Tamalpais was originally inhabited by mountain lion, bobcats, black and grizzly bear, coyote, elk and deer. The last recorded bear was caught in a trap in Muir Woods in 1880. Mountain lion are still very occasionally sighted on the mountain. Hunting was a popular pastime until Mount Tamalpais was declared a game reserve in 1917. This did not affect the large watersheds of the Big and Little Carson creeks, where hunting continued until 1971, when the Marin Municipal Water District cancelled the lease of the Redwood Gun Club.
The Marin Municipal Water District, established in 1912, bought up the drainage of Lagunitas Creek east and north of Tamalpais. Kent gave additional land at Muir Woods, a right-of-way easement for the Panoramic Highway and 200 acres at Steep Ravine. In 1930, with land bought by the Mount Tamalpais Park Association and the state, Mount Tamalpais became the first state park in California. Over the years its boundaries have been extended until, in 1973, the National Park Service bought more land to bring the park to its present size of 6,301 acres.
Thousands of hikers enjoy more than 200 miles of trails on Mount Tamalpais, which wind through redwoods, chaparral and grasslands. Some years its slopes are covered with masses of lupine and California poppies. Over 700 varieties of plants have been counted. The circular path near the summit has panoramic views that extend from San Francisco and the Bay Area to the Pacific Ocean and Napa County.
It is possible for the entire Bay Area to be cloaked in thick fog when high on Mount Tamalpais are blue skies and sunshine. One is floating over a layer of clouds feeling sorry for the shivering millions below.
Many of the trails, bridges and present-day picnic sites on Mount Tamalpais were constructed or significantly improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps which was started in 1933 to provide jobs during the depression. The CCC was also primarily responsible for building the Mountain Theater. Five thousand boulders, weighing from 600 to 4000 pounds, were brought in and buried in rows so that only a small portion of their bulk showed. A massive rock wall with interlocking boulders made a level stage. Chinquapin and natural vegetation was planted to serve as entrances and to screen behind-stage activities. The amphitheater seats 4,000 and hosts six performances every year.
Mount Tamalpais is the shining summit of the Bay Area and west Marin.
© copyright Kathleen Goodwin