Tam secrets

Marin County's best-known mountain still harbors a few mysteries

Lisa Taggart

Mountain explorations, outside and in

When I called for reservations at West Point Inn, I told the volunteer I was going to spend two days to "find myself." He roared with laughter: "I haven't heard anyone talk like that since the '70s." He continued with some ominous advice: "Well then, be careful. The way is dangerous and dark. You don't know what you will find."

By the time I got to the rustic lodge, the evening had settled into night. Right away I had to do some digging: An avid hiker there was reluctant to tell me his favorite hiking spots. Finally he mentioned Music Stand. "But I can't tell you anything more about it ― you have to discover it for yourself."

That was my goal the next morning as I hiked Rock Spring Trail, passing the quiet, 40-row stone-seat Mountain Theater, home to an annual spring show. There are many more memorials, official and illicit, along the mountain's trails ― testaments to the fervent affection the place elicits.

I hiked through exposed patches of greenish serpentine rock, up and over a ridge, and descended through a fir forest, stopping for lunch at a picnic table at Barth's Retreat, where a German composer and musician once had a weekend camp.

But apparently here is where I made my wrong turn. I descended to Cataract Trail instead of turning north, where I might have discovered the hiker's secret: a spot with a music stand at one of the most remote points on the mountain.

No matter: I made another discovery, following Cataract Trail alongside the eponymous creek, searching for the broken engine of a Navy Air Corps plane that crashed here on October 4, 1945. I found it, or at least found a dark hunk of metal sticking out of the water, near a bridge.

Two planes collided on that day in 1945. "There's a load of mystery surrounding the crash," Libby Smith, president of the Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association, told me later. "There are all kinds of things on the mountain that are not well known, not documented."

Giant latte morning

Sunshine slanted across the West Point Inn's weathered wood porch on my second morning, illuminating the dark green bunches of chaparral and the red dirt trail. But fog obscured the towns below, swallowing even the Marin Headlands and the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. I could see nothing beyond the pine peaks but scalloped white waves, as if someone had finally engulfed all of Marin in the foam of a giant latte.

I headed back toward Music Stand Trail, determined this time to discover its secrets. But the fog crept up the mountain, thickening, until I was hiking in a gray tunnel. Even if I found the spot, I wouldn't be able to see it. I gave up and turned back.

My time on Tam was coming to an end. I descended the Dipsea Trail, the mountain's most famous route. Though I saw no one else on the trail then, each June it's the site of the country's second-oldest footrace, 6.9 miles up and over the mountain. Exactly 676 steps concluded my journey as I descended the three sets of stairs that launch the Dipsea Race. I hadn't discovered all I'd set out to, but the remaining mysteries only add to the mountain's appeal.

Throughout early spring, the Cataract Trail is at its mossiest, greenest best.


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