Hiking with Kids in Marin: Mt. Tamalpais' East Peak
I grew up hiking on the trails of Mt. Tam with my family, and have fond memories of walking around the summit of the mountain and marveling at the fantastic views. The East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais is a great place to go for families looking to take a hike with small children, and it also offers what are arguably the most spectacular views of any hike in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it's a great spot to take out-of-town visitors, too.
The easy, paved, .7-mile Verna Dunshee Trail that circles the mountaintop is accessible and perfect for strollers, too, and it's recently been repaved and upgraded. In addition to panoramic views of the Bay Area, the East Peak has a small visitor center and gift shop, as well as a seasonal snack bar offering candy, hot dogs, ice cream, and sodas. It's always a great place to stop for a treat after a family hike.
You'll also find the Gravity Car Barn and Museum near the snack bar. Open to the public on weekends from noon to 4 pm, the Gravity Car Barn pays tribute to the long gone Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway, an excursion railroad that from 1896 to 1930 transported visitors up to the summit of Mt. Tam via steam train, and back down to Mill Valley by means of a free-wheeling gravity car, a replica of which is housed inside the gravity car barn and is rolled out when the museum is open.
The barn is staffed by volunteer docents and it displays, in addition to the replica gravity car, photographs and memorabilia related to the railroad and the Tamalpais Tavern, the inn and restaurant that was once a popular tourist destination on the East Peak. The museum is currently trying to acquire one of the original steam locomotives that worked the railroad, a Heisler engine that's currently on display in the lumber town of Scotia in Humboldt County.
The trailhead for the Verna Dunshee Trail starts on the right side of the parking lot. Follow the steps or the ramp down and head out on the trail. Along the way you'll see interesting rock formations, twisting manzanita trees, and wildlife like lizards, ground squirrels, and soaring turkey vultures. Benches placed along the way afford the opportunity to relax and take in the stellar views, which include all of the Bay Area, and can stretch to the Sierra Nevada mountains on a clear day. You'll also find numbered markers along the trail; pick up a free map in the Gravity Car Barn to learn what they have to tell you about the natural history of the area. The trail is a loop, so you'll end up back by the Gravity Car Barn and the snack bar at the end.
While the Verna Dunshee Trail is flat and easy and ideal for a hike with small children, keep in mind that you're on the summit of a mountain and there's a steep drop-off on one side of the trail. While a guard rail keeps everyone on the path most of the time, make sure you keep an eye on little ones at all times!
If you're up to it, you can also take the Plankwalk Trail up to the fire lookout station at the mountain's very top. This approximately half-mile trail starts out as a steep boardwalk which changes into a stairs and finally a set of rocky, narrow switchbacks. It's steep in places and probably best for more experienced hikers and older children, but you'll be rewarded with more amazing views from the summit.
If You Go
Mt. Tam's East Peak is located located in Mt. Tamalpais State Park. There's an $8 ($7 for seniors) per car parking fee at the summit parking lot, which you can pay for with cash or credit card. The day-use parking permit will allow you to park at other fee areas in the state park, like Bootjack parking lot.
To get there, take Highway 101 to the Highway 1/Stinson Beach exit in Mill Valley. Take Highway 1 west, then bear right onto Panoramic Highway (follow the signs to Muir Woods and Mt. Tamalpais). Follow Panoramic Highway north onto Mt. Tam. Turn right onto Pan Toll Road and then right on East Ridgecrest Boulevard at the Rock Springs parking area. Follow East Ridgecrest Boulevard to the East Peak parking lot. Expect the drive there to take 45 minutes to an hour over twisting mountain roads.
The trails here are only partially shaded, so make sure you slather on the sunscreen and wear hats. The mountain can actually be quite a bit warmer than the surrounding areas on hot days—on our last visit our car thermometer read 73º on Miller Avenue in Mill Valley and 94º at the summit. Bring plenty of drinking water, and you can fill water bottles at drinking fountains near the trailhead. Likewise, it can be much colder on the mountain during the fall and winter months, so make sure you pack along jackets and sweaters on cooler days.
Restrooms are available on site and there are plenty of picnic tables in the area adjacent to the parking lot and the visitor center.
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