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San Francisco's lush back yard

Marin County is not your ordinary suburb. Mountains, ocean and dark primordial woods mix with citizens' penchant for hot tubs, surfing and drive-up espresso stands

Saturday, September 21, 2002
Special to The Globe and Mail

MILL VALLEY, CALIF. -- The trail map for Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, Calif., looks like a bowl of spaghetti, dense with a century's worth of hiking trails and fire roads.

For those of us who read maps like they are novels, this is an especially gripping one, with a complicated topography of exposed ridges and thickly forested valleys, and elevations ranging from sea level at the Pacific Ocean to 790 metres at the summit of Mt. Tam, as the locals call it.

Ever since planning this long weekend to the outskirts of San Francisco, I've been thinking up hikes in my head. Now, our party of six has been climbing steeply on the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo trail for three kilometres through an old growth forest of impossibly huge redwood trees. At a bend where the trail opens up, we come upon a scene familiar from fairy tales: the princess (or the mouse, or the pig) comes over a hill to find a beautiful city glittering in the distance. Before us, San Francisco rises from the bay, its tallest buildings actually sticking through the fog, glistening in the sun. It is barely 20 kilometres away, but it looks like the Emerald City. We are hiking in the suburbs.

This is the thing about Mt. Tam: It feels less like wilderness than like the deepest corners of the city's back yard, a back yard full of mountains, oceans, and dark primordial woods. The point is reinforced eight kilometres later, when the trail merges with suburban streets before ending abruptly amid the boutiques and cafés of downtown Mill Valley, the town on its slopes. This is to be our essential geography for this short vacation: long hikes on Mt. Tam, eating and sleeping in the borrowed house of a relative in Mill Valley, and brief forays to the beach and San Francisco.

The combination is enough to make you wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere else -- anywhere with air less fragrant with redwoods, anywhere with light that does not break through the fog with magisterial aplomb, anywhere where the tomatoes are not nearly so utterly delicious. The weather is never too hot or too cold, the wine is cheap and good, the narrow winding streets smell of rosemary and wildflowers, and the people drink chai lattes in the town square with handsome dogs laying at their feet.

It strikes me that Mt. Tam, with Mill Valley at its base, is not only a suburb of San Francisco, it is a suburb of the actual. Real life is kept a short commute away.

Riding in from the San Francisco airport over the Golden Gate Bridge, there is the sense that the normal connotations of the word "suburb" won't fit. In The Graduate,it was the Bay Bridge that Dustin Hoffman drove over, but the feeling here is the same: the quality of light, the inexplicable need to listen to Simon and Garfunkel songs, the air so thick with oxygen it makes you jubilant -- all experienced, in true California fashion, through the car window. Dustin Hoffman drove an Alfa Romeo Duetto convertible; we had to settle for a rented mint-green Ford Escort, so to compensate I rolled down the windows and whooped and hollered.

Mill Valley begins like any other suburb with gas stations and mini-malls. But a few turns later and Miller Avenue, the main drag into town, follows the path of the old railway tracks that carried gold-rush era visitors from San Francisco. The most recent dot-com gold rush in these parts may have subsided, but the road still points straight toward the mountain. The old railway station is now a bookstore and café called The Depot, with a patio that spills out into the town square and wireless Internet access for customers. It seems that nearly everyone there has just come back from trail running or mountain biking, their status visible by the amount of mud on their spandex.

No wonder Marin County has gotten a bit of a reputation over the years for a particularly self-indulgent combination of hot tubs, alternative healing, German cars and organic food. The mountain bike was invented here and the hot tub popularized; The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia called Marin home until his death and John Walker Lindh, "the American Taliban," grew up just up the road in a town called Fairfax.

Clearly there is something in the air here. I suspect it has to do with the cold ocean breeze that spills over the hills from the Pacific. The water may not be visible from Mill Valley, but the town's connection with the ocean has been ritualized in the form of a 11.4-kilometre foot race called the Dipsea, which climbs over Mt. Tam to the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach. The race, run every year since 1905, has a reputation for being one of the most difficult in the world, not so much for the ups as for the downs: Racers tumble over each other as they jockey for position on a steep narrow trail with sections named Suicide, Cardiac and Insult Hill.

On Saturday, our group of six sets off on the same route, but with more leisurely intentions. We plan to take the public bus back. A few kilometres in, the trail passes Muir Woods National Monument, where tourists to San Francisco go for a taste of wilderness and redwoods. The parking lot is a carnival, packed with rented minivans. But it is less an annoyance than something to relish, if only as a reminder of that strange California mix of nature and culture -- or perhaps nature as culture. One man even asks us, surrounded by oaks and eucalyptus, "Is this the way to the trees?"

But the crowds drop off as quickly as they appear, and the forest opens up to exposed ridges of burnt grass and views of San Francisco. The range of landscapes make the ground between Mill Valley and Stinson Beach seem strangely expansive, a dense and complicated region unto itself. Several kilometres later the ocean comes into view, framed by the sandy crescent of Stinson Beach.

We dip our toes in the freezing cold Pacific, then backtrack into town for a beer. It is a simple town: grocery store, surf shop, drive-up espresso stand, Shakespeare festival. The unofficial town flag, seen on every car bumper, is a silhouetted shark in a red circle with a line through it. No wonder: The local competing armies of wet-suited surfers and great white sharks clash periodically, leaving the wounded (usually human) to be transported back over Mt. Tam to Marin General by helicopter.

The bus ride is a brush with death enough for me. Car commercials are filmed on the road over Mt. Tam, with its vertigo-inducing hairpins and steeply banked switchbacks. But its wildness is surely fitting for this suburb. Halfway up, we pull over to let an Alfa Romeo convertible zip by, with a surfboard sitting shotgun. Barely 25 minutes later, we're back on the relative flats at a bus stop in a field of mini-malls on the edge of the city.

If you go


Air Canada offers direct service to San Francisco from Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. The major rental car agencies share a facility at the airport. From there, Mill Valley and Mt. Tam are a 45-minute drive away.


The Mill Valley Inn has beautiful rooms, some with fireplaces, a block from the centre of town. Rates range from $170 (U.S.) to $400 a night. Phone: (415) 389-6608; Web: http://www.millvalleyinn.com.

On Mt. Tam itself, camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis for $12 a night, per tent. Web: http://www.parks.ca.gov.

Also on Mt. Tam, the Mountain Home Inn has luxury rooms with views of San Francisco Bay for $175 to $325 a night, including full breakfast. Phone: (415) 381-9000; Web: http://www.mtnhomeinn.com.

In Stinson Beach, the Sandpiper has cabins and rooms a short walk from the beach, with rates ranging from $95 to $195. Phone: (415) 868-1632; Web: http://www.sfbay.net/sandpiper.

Houses are also available to rent, some directly on the beach, from Seadrift Realty starting at $1,600 a week. Phone: (415) 868-1791; Web: http://www.seadriftrealty.com.

Near Highway 101 in Mill Valley there is a Holiday Inn Express with rooms starting at about $140 in the summer. Phone: (415) 332-5700); Web: http://www.marinholidayinnexpress.com.


Don and Kay Martin's excellent book, Mt. Tam: A Hiking, Running, and Nature Guide is available through the Marin Trails Web site: http://www.marintrails.com.


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