The late-afternoon light was sliding into gentle gray as I set out for a two-day retreat on Mt. Tamalpais. Not 50 yards down the trail, a hunched shape ahead stopped me cold.
I panicked: I'm going to get eaten by a mountain lion! I knew this would happen!
But then my rational mind returned. The shape had a bushy tail and long nose. It was a coyote, solo, a dusk-and-cream creature 3 feet tall. It sniffed at me calmly, gave a canine-style shrug, and disappeared behind tanbark oaks.
I took this as a positive sign ― an omen that the mountain was willing to reveal its hidden side.
Tamalpais is Northern California's best-loved mountain. More than 1.5 million visitors a year hike, bike, ride horses, and stand awestruck in its redwood canyons. But, remarkably, the Marin County hillside still retains a good deal of mystery. There are wild canyons, hidden routes, and discoveries in its roughly 25,000 acres, from the ridgetop to the grassy slopes and beachside coves.
Tam's secrets can be difficult to unearth: Hikers jealously guard directions to their favorite spots. Institutions such as the West Point Inn and the Nature Friends Tourist Club beer garden shy away from publicity. An area official once sent me a lacelike Tam map with all trails scissored out, since "policy is to not aggressively publicize our trails," he wrote.
Even the mountain's two-lump profile changes, depending on where you're looking at it from. As a child growing up at Tam's base, I could never find the Sleeping Maiden shape traced in its ridgeline because, it seemed to me, East and West Peaks danced around each other as I moved. But as an adult, I was determined to discover some of the mountain's many mysteries.