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As it winds up to the eastern peak of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, this picturesque trail offers an exhilarating combination of far-reaching views, history and challenge. The trail follows the route originally carved out for the Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway, which opened in 1896 and soon gained international fame as the "Crookedest Railroad in the World."
Boasting a total of 281 curves and 22 trestles, the route featured a unique feat of engineering called the double bowknot, a place where a track paralleled itself five times to gain elevation in a very small area on the mountain. Visitors flocked to the railroad, many to experience the "gravity cars," small four-wheel carts that whisked passengers down the mountain at 10 to 12 miles per hour.
Like the scenic railway that preceded it, the Old Railroad Grade is anything but typical. It is a steady climb to the 2,571-foot-high East Peak (the highest point on Mt. Tam), and you should expect a challenging—and rewarding—trip to the top.
The trail begins at the end of Fern Canyon Road, with ample street parking near the trailhead. If you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can begin in downtown Mill Valley, where the train once started, and ride up to this point. Soon you come to a fork; bear right and follow signs for the Old Railroad Grade from there.
At 2.5 miles, you arrive at the West Point Inn, the only surviving structure of the railway. A fine spot to take a break and re-energize, the inn offers world-class views that include parts of the East Bay and San Francisco, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.
You continue to wind up the mountain until you arrive at the East Peak Visitor Center, the end of the trail. From here, you can see parts of nine counties on clear days, including the majestic Sierra Nevada. In addition to the visitor center, there is a snack bar, restrooms, parking lot (you can also drive to the East Peak) and access to a number of hiking trails, including a 0.3-mile plank walk to the lookout tower at the top of the peak.
From San Francisco, take Highway 101 North across the Golden Gate Bridge. Continue on Highway 101 to the Highway 131/Tiburon Boulevard/East Blithedale exit toward East Blithedale Avenue. Continue on East Blithedale Avenue for about 2 miles. Turn left at Throckmorton Avenue, and soon after that turn left on Lovell Avenue. Turn right to stay on Lovell Avenue, then turn right again onto Summit Avenue. Make a sharp left onto Tamalpais Avenue and continue on Tamalpais. Make a slight right onto Summit Avenue and continue on Summit. Turn left on Fern Canyon Road. The trailhead is at the end of Fern Canyon Road; look for the gate. Park on the street.
I had one of the best rides of my life on this trail. The views were fantastic along this old cog railway right of way, especially at the West Point Inn, were you can even stay the night if you book ahead. The surface is mostly crushed rock and dirt so it is not appropriate for road bikes with skinny tires and is very tiring since it is an almost constant uphill ride on a rough surface; but, the views and the thrill ride on the way down make up for the pain. Not for the out of shape. Watch out for speeding cyclists coming down the mountain as you make your climb.
This trail features a nice long climb and great views of the Bay Area from the top of Mt. Tam (I ride it every Sunday). It's also fun and fast going downhill. Just be sure to have shocks on your bike.
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