This past year has involved a series of injuries in our family that have left us on group outings looking for trails that we can all navigate successfully. On a recent August weekend, we looked for the millionth time at Mount Tamalpais and decided that the 0.7-mile Verna Dunshee Loop trail around the east peak was just what we needed: a beautiful (if winding and long) scenic drive that would end with some out-of-doors time that we all could enjoy.
We also encountered an unexpected but welcome history lesson during our visit, and those of us who could took some short side trips on spurs spiking off of Verna Dunshee. It was a perfect day with what are hands-down some of the best views in Bay Area, a crowded and competitive field.
The 360-degree journey around the eastern peak of Mount Tamalpais offers views from on highest of fog sliding into the San Francisco Bay, San Pedro Mountain and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge all the way to Mount Diablo, Bon Tempe and the surrounding greenspace, and the beloved slopes to the west. Photo by EJ Willingham
The views more than make up for the brevity of the distance relative to our usual outings. It also gave us an opening to dawdle over the views in a way that we don’t usually do with double-digit distances. This paved trail features so many viewpoints that I really did stop every few steps to take it all in and take a few pictures. Benches placed at intervals offer a rest and respite for those who need a break, sometimes sheltered in the shade underneath an impossibly blue sky.
The last time we visited this trail, we had small children. Back then, they were enamored with the madrone berries and freshly green acorns emerging for the season, and we were busy keeping a close eye on them, given their proneness to tumbling at untoward moments. On this recent visit, they quickly outpaced us, leaving us to linger on the stunning viewing platform and then take approximately 1,000 pictures of Bon Tempe Lake, which was visible in the far distance to the northwest.
The 360-degree journey around the eastern peak of Mount Tamalpais gave us views from on highest of fog sliding into the San Francisco Bay, San Pedro Mountain and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge all the way to Mount Diablo, Bon Tempe and the surrounding greenspace, and the beloved slopes to the west. On the eastern side of the trail, a short, rocky spur invites a slightly edgier experience, with some fun rocks to clamber on for those with the intestinal fortitude for the altitude.
Where the trail begins and ends is the Mount Tamalpais Gravity Car Barn, where we got a short education in railroad doings in this area during the early 20th century. The “barn,” open on weekends for a few hours and staffed with docents, features the history of “the crookedest railroad in the world” and the gravity car. Tourists back in the day could take the steam train up, dine and dance at the peak, and stroll the Racetrack Trail, later to be named after visionary Marin conservationist Verna Dunshee.
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Those who were feeling adventurous could take the gravity car on a coasting downhill journey, tugged by gravity, back to the mountain’s base. The road to the top of the mountain meant the end of the train but not of the history of this period.
Our usual preference with such journeys is to use our feet. But we were glad this day for the road and the accessibility of the parking lot and loop trail access. For those who’d like a bit of an add-on at the top, there’s also another short, uphill jaunt to the Gardner Fire Lookout on the East Peak. This trail is not accessible for people using mobility devices, but it is worth the trip for people who can navigate the rocks and a couple of steep steps. The fire lookout was built in the 1930s but remains in active use during fire season. It was quite a popular destination the day we visited, but it was possible to find a solo perch on one of the rocks and take the time allowed by a short journey to enjoy the long views.
• Getting there: From Highway 101, take the Highway 1 exit toward Stinson Beach, then onto Panoramic Highway. Panoramic takes you up the mountain to Pantoll Road, where you’ll turn right. At Ridgecrest Boulevard, take a right, which will take you to the parking lot. There are signs along the way to guide you. Parking is $8, and dogs on a leash are allowed. There are facilities, picnic tables and a wheelchair accessible ramp from the parking lot.
Emily Willingham is a Marin science journalist, book author and biologist. You can find her on Bluesky @ejwillingham or Instagram at emily.willingham.phd.