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Mount Tam Quandary

Sometime you can make a discovery of a wonderful getaway - someplace full of visual beauty and fascinating history - a place you could love EXCEPT for one thing that tries to spoil the whole experience.

I can’t say enough about the West Point Inn up on top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. Perched with an enormous vista of the whole bay area the inn has been welcoming visitors since 1904. From 1896 to 1930 the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” twisted up from Mill Valley and travelers could stop and spend the night at the peak in the inn.

By some chance of nature it never burned down in the frequent wildfires that enveloped Mt. Tam. The inn offers a half dozen rooms upstairs and eight cabins in a facility with no electricity. Propane gas provides lighting and powers kitchen appliances. There is no vehicular access unless visitors are disabled, you hike or bike in. Parking is two miles away and you journey up the old stage road or railroad grade to the inn. It’s a step back in time.

Sitting on the wrap-around porch I watched a sunset cloak the bay area with the last shimmers of sunlight. You could see the sun’s ray reflecting on individual windows of buildings in the East Bay. The shadows of Mt. Tam spread across the eastern Marin lowlands and slowly the whole viewscape turned into a map of sparkling lights. It showed water features dark and every border of every landform in twinkling lights. The last time I saw such a splendor of bright lights was on a Nevada playa at the Burning Man festival.

So what spoiled the lovely scene? Something that people will never be able to correct or eliminate. Noise. INCESSANT traffic noise - a cacophony of freeways humming and horns honking and individual cars climbing up the Panorama Highway a mile or so below the inn polluted the atmosphere.

Perhaps it is quiet and peaceful on the north side of Mt. Tam where the forests and shrubs of the Marin Municipal Water District surround the slopes and no major highways shoot by, but the south side of the peak is a sounding board for every vehicular rumble multiplied by thousands as traffic shoots by.

Spending the night in a tiny tidy cabin with no electricity but a comfy bed (bring bedding or rent it there) I woke a daybreak, made a cup of coffee, and went back to the porch to watch the world wake up. It was very still with a barely perceptible breeze and a small dawn chorus of bird calls were audible. Hikers and bikers were already out using the old railroad grade as their pathway to their destinations. It was a beautiful early morning sunrise, even if the traffic noise never ever stopped.

A group of dedicated volunteers have preserved the West Point Inn since 1943. It has been lovingly restored and a fee of $50 a person for overnight guests, and pancake breakfasts during summer season, provide money for the upkeep for the 100 year old inn. The well equipped kitchen is available for “do-it-yourself” meals and the innkeepers are gracious hosts. Looking at the photos and displays inside and out is a lesson in Marin County history.

Check it out folks. If you can’t spend the night but like a hike have someone drop you off on the top of Mt. Tam. A four mile downhill hike on the level old railroad grade lets you visit the inn, then continue on down to Pan Toll Ranger Station where someone can meet you. To learn more the website is Even with the noise it’s still a magical place to visit.

One Comment

  1. Alice Chouteau March 19, 2016

    Thanks Katy, for reminding me of this lovely place. It is unique, and magical. Do they sell earplugs there?
    One reason I live out of town is my need to experience reql night time…the sounds only of nature, most of the time, and the absence of eternal urban lighting obscuring the stars.
    Alice Chouteau

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