This article on Mount Tamalpais adventures is brought to you by our friends at INNO Racks. Their mountain bike roof racks are designed to be as rugged as your rig, to safely transport your gear to all the bucket-list trails.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t Moab that invented mountain biking, or Crested Butte, or even Bend. Mountain biking as we know it got its start on the fire roads that criss cross Mount Tamalpais, in the garages of a few high school kids in rural Northern California looking to spice up their mid 1970s summers with a little adrenaline.
It started out with beer and bud and some 30-year-old steel-frame bikes that lacked gears or especially powerful brakes. By the end of the decade however, mountain biking had become a distinct sport in its own right, thanks to the experimentation and grit of those teens on Mount Tam, and a heart-pounding race that came to be known as Repack.
The Larkspur Canyon Gang, as those Mount Tamalpais kids were known, weren’t the only ones zipping around public lands and tinkering with bikes until they could do totally new things. They picked up ideas from other Californians who were curious about how your basic bike could be rigged into something that could handle faster downhills, tighter turns, and rougher terrain, like adding gears to single-speed fixies and adjusting the frame to accommodate big balloon tires.
The Beginning of the Repack Bike Race
What cemented Tamalpais in MTB history wasn’t just the evolution of road bikes into downhill mountain-ready machines. It was the Gang’s wild race down the face of their favorite mountain, a rough ride down the riotous Cascade Canyon Road, which drops 1300 feet in under two miles. The descent was so fast and hard it would burn all the grease from your brakes, forcing you to take them apart and repack them with lubricant at the finish line.
More and more Californians who had been playing with new ways to build bikes started coming to Mount Tamalpais to test their rigs and their riding skills. So two cyclists, Fred Wolf and Charlie Kelly, got a clock and a Navy chronometer and held an actual time trial. The race eventually made Mount Tamalpais the destination for a new sport called mountain biking.
Where to Camp Near Mount Tamalpais
Mountain bikes have come a long way since teenagers were welding motorcycle brakes to their clunky Schwinn Excelsiors, and there are many more places to ride now than there once were.
Mountain biking has blown into a hugely popular outdoor sport enjoyed all over the world. But if you want to get back to the roots of your favorite past time, load up your mountain bike roof rack and head for Marin County. There you can experience those classic, 1970s vibes for yourself at five wonderful campgrounds.
Start on Highway 1 near Marin Beach if you want a chance to bike into Pantoll. Wind your way along 14 miles of Mount Tam’s slopes until you get to the Pantoll Ranger Station and this nearby campground. Stick to the fire roads, though, if you venture off specified mountain bike trails. Many of the trails on Mount Tamalpais are limited to hikers and equestrians.
The Dyrt Ranger Asher K. writes that it’s a solid, if slightly cozy, campground. He notes, “First off the campground is really nice and has an organized check in building with a separate bathroom facility. We didn’t see any showers but there are flush toilets and sinks.”
Not only are the amenities reliable, tent campers might appreciate that Pantoll is RV-free. Disabled campers will enjoy the views from wheelchair accessible Verna Dunshee Trail at East Peak, as well as the fact that Pantoll Campground boasts accessible campsites.Camp Here
If you don’t mind camping somewhere that isn’t right on a bike trail, Steep Ravine offers some of the very best views of any campground near San Francisco. The entire Mount Tamalpais watershed is within a 30-minute drive from this location, giving you plenty of nearby cycling opportunities, including the gnarly Alpine Dam Loop which traces the circumference of Mount Tam’s base.
If you like to mix up your bike rides with hikes, there are a few excellent foot trails that join from the coast all the way to Mill Valley and central Marin within walking distance from this site.
Steep Ravine trail may be open only to hikers, but The Dyrt Ranger Asher K. writes, “It is one of the most amazing hikes I have ever done. We were constantly stopping to take pictures and check out all the trees and you can make it a great loop by starting on the Matt Davis trail then coming back up Steep Ravine.”
The campground itself has incredible views from the headlands down to Stinson Beach. On a clear day you can even see the lonesome Faralon Islands miles out to sea.
Cabin #1 and environmental campsite #7 at Steep Ravine are handicapped accessible. Whichever cabin or campsite you pick, however, you’ll want to book far in advance. This close to San Francisco and this gorgeous, sites can be booked six months or more in advance. That said, the wait will be worth it. Especially once you find the secret hot springs that pocket the beach below at low tide.Camp Here
This spot is named for an early Canadian botanist who first visited Mount Tamalpais in 1891 and fell in love with its trails and wildflowers. Alice Eastwood campground is ready to handle big groups of 25-50 tent campers. Amenities include tables, plumbing including flushing toilets and working sinks, and barbecues.
You’ll have easy access to the Sierra Trail, Eastwood Trail, Plevin Cut, Fern Creek Trail, Camp Eastwood Trail, Bootjack Trail, and Lost Trail, too. The Laurel Dell fire road provides 2 miles of scenic mountain biking, hiking, and horse trail through meadows, which links to numerous other paths on Mount Tamalpais. One of those is Rock Springs Lagunitas Road, which is open to mountain bikes, and courses fromMount Tamalpais to Lake Lagunitas. Both are ideal for beginners or intermediate riders.
If you take the Bootjack Trail to the Redwood Trail, you’ll wind up in Muir Woods National Monument. You don’t have to hike all that way to see splendid redwoods though— you’ll be nestled amongst them at Alice Eastwood, too.
Haypress Campground makes up for its limited amenities with a price tag that suits anyone’s wallet: it’s free.
It’s also a little quieter and more secluded than the bigger, busier campgrounds in the area. A mile hike in from the parking lot weeds out the car campers but isn’t such a challenge that it will turn off beginning backpackers and bikepackers. Just don’t forget to make a reservation at the ranger station.
You can ride into Haypress easily enough and down to Tennessee Beach, named for a mail ship that wrecked here in the 19th century. A whole network of mountain bike trails connect near here, linking Tennessee Beach to Marin Beach, including the Miwok Trail, Middle Green Gulch, and the Coastal Trail. Take the Dias Ridge trail to reach Mount Tamalpais from the coastline. It’s almost six miles of fire road converted to single track, with a thousand feet of elevation gain.
Back after a 40-year hiatus, Bootjack campground is now the little brother to the popular Pantoll Campground. First come-first serve, these fifteen campsites boast fire rings, grills, bear boxes, and nice bathrooms with showers. It’s only been back in business for about five years, so everything still feels new.
You’ll be in the perfect spot here to enjoy the 3-4 mile hike to Cataract Falls, as well as the programing at the nearby Mountain Play Outdoor Theater. The later is a stone amphitheater built in the 1930s that features entertainment ranging from productions of Mama Mia to outdoor dining experiences. You can also keep it quick and simple and order a beer or a glass of wine before you head back to your campfire.Camp Here
After you’ve loaded up your mountain bike roof rack, but before you leave Mount Tam, don’t forget to stop at the Marin Museum of Mountain Biking in Fairfax. There you can learn all kinds of fun facts and stories about the cycling pioneers who made Marin County synonymous with biking, from the first riders who pedaled penny-farthing bikes up the first road to the summit to the earliest mountain bikers like Joe Breeze and John Frey.
Don’t forget to swing by Iron Springs Pub & Brewery and Marin Brewing Company, either. The only thing better than hugging steep curves on single track is swapping stories over a beer afterwards, just like the Larkspur Gang.
You can win free gear from INNO Racks and 19 other outdoor brands by reviewing campgrounds on The Dyrt. Share past camping experiences, photos, and videos to earn points towards monthly prizes in The 2018 Great Camping Giveaway!