6.4 miles // 1,400′ vertical gain/loss
This is a great run for:
-working on settling in to a long climb
-exploring the difference between windward and leeward flora on Mt. Tamalpais
Bay Area > Mt. Tamalpais > Pantoll Station
Arrive, via your preferred route, to Pantoll Ranger Station. Avoid the temptation to ask why there is an ancillary parking fee ($8, though avoidable) when California already has one of the highest income taxes in the country. Pantoll has restrooms and water pumps/fountains available.
From the parking lot, begin due south on a paved path. The trail, signed “OLD MINE TRAIL“, begins on the LEFT almost immediately (Steep Ravine goes RIGHT almost immediately. Good trail, just not the one you’re looking for). Old Mine trail (recently “improved”, in state parks parlance, though they actually did a decent job at it) winds through an often cool and damp old-growth mixed deciduous and evergreen forest. This trail itself would be a beautiful run were a bit longer.
Old Mine trail ends at a large open trail junction – the meeting of Old Mine, Coastal Fire Road, and two directions of the Dipsea. To gain Coastal Fire Road continue essentially straight, following a wide fire road down a grade. Soon you’ll see a big trail etiquette sign informing you (and, hopefully, others) who yields to who – walkers/runners, cyclists, and equestrians. This trail gets little midweek use in my experience, but cyclists outnumber runners easily 3:1 from what I’ve seen. This sign does indicate that you’re at the start of the Coastal Fire Road and gives mileages to both HWY 1 and the Heather cutoff.
So, here you are – this is about as straightforward as it gets in trail running: you’re gonna go straight down, hit the end, and come straight back up to where you’re standing. Enjoy. The trail itself has suffered a bit in recent years and the downhill running is marginally impeded by the trail condition. What it lacks in maintenance, it pays in views. There are wonderful stretches after rounding a hill with huge views to the Pacific, made more spectacular by the terraced nature of the hillside so that you often find yourself at eye level with soaring hawks and vultures. Jackrabbits, California quail, and other birds are found throughout. Possibly my favorite part of the run from a scenery perspective, though, is the incredible perspective it lends on the coastal environment. As the trail changes from windward to leeward sides of the hill, you’ll notice a wonderful change of flora: dense, lush, and diverse plants and bushes on the wet and fog-bound leeward side, with low, nearly monochromatic scrub on the scoured windward side.
Great views continue throughout. At about the halfway mark you’ll pass through a wonderful grotto of oak and elm forest. The final fifth or so is indeed the steepest, and ends – depending on your preference – either at the Heather Cutoff junction or all the way to the highway (0.1 mile additional, each way). I suggest simply turning around at the Heather Cutoff junction, as the trail can be overgrown for the final bit and the views do not improve as you descend to the highway.
Take a drink, marvel at where you are, and buck up for the climb. This is a great climb to learn how to “settle in”. A phrase more often used in cycling than running, settling in is a (somewhat nebulous) concept that encompasses finding a sustainable pace and (most importantly) letting your body mechanics become quiet – letting go of tension in unused muscles, focusing on efficiency in your stride, and just generally getting “loose”. A quick time back to Pantoll from Heather Cutoff is just sub-half hour, so good news: You’ve got plenty of time to work on it!
Easily the biggest grind of the whole trip home is the stretch through the trail junction between Coastal Fire Road and Old Mine Trail mentioned above. Strange, but Old Mine Trail is super flat and a good place to open up for the final stretch.
Afterwards, go eat at Grilly’s – a surprisingly decent burrito for Mill Valley!