Today’s easy drive to the top of Mount Tamalpais is a far cry from the difficulties experienced by early climbers. This article illustrates how visits to the top of Mt. Tamalpais grew from nearly none in the early 1800s to thousands per year by 1900.
It is not possible to know how many Native residents of Marin may have climbed to the summit of Mount Tamalpais before the arrival of the Europeans. Some historians believe that though Native Americans considered Mt. Tamalpais to be sacred, they also believed that it was inhabited by spirits and thus avoided exploring it. In any case, it’s probably safe to say that it was climbed by very few Native Americans.
During the first half of the 19th century several Europeans are believed to have made the trek but there is no formal record of these early climbs. Among the unconfirmed reports it was suggested that David Douglas, for whom the Douglas Fir is named, made the climb in 1833. According to Reed family legend, John Reed, the recipient from Mexico of the Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio land grant, placed a cross on the summit to celebrate the birth of his first son in 1837.
One of the best documented of these early expeditions to Mt. Tam was that of Captain Frederick Beechey of the Royal Navy. In 1826 Beechey piloted his ship HMS Blossom into San Francisco Bay. He conducted surveys of the Bay Area, including Mount Tamalpais which he called Table Mountain. His surveys charted a bearing of N 79.36 W from the Mt. Tamalpais to Point Reyes. This bearing proved so accurate that it was likely made from the summit of the mountain using a sextant or theodolite.
With Mexico ceding California to the United States in 1848, the U. S. Coast Survey assumed responsibility for mapping of the Bay Area. The 1852 Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey says that “The triangulation of San Francisco bay is nearly completed, and extends…. northward to the bay of Suisun and along the coast from Table mountain [Mt. Tamalpais] to the vicinity of Mount Clara.” It is likely that members of the Coast Survey made the climb to the summit of Mount Tamalpais with survey instruments as early as 1851.
The 1859 Coast Survey Report makes a more specific reference to the survey instruments used at the crest of the mountain. A survey crew lead by George Davidson reported: “In the primary triangulation, Table mountain [Mt. Tamalpais], a precipitous height which rises from the shore of Ballenas [Bolinas] bay, and Sulphur Peak ….were occupied as station with theodolite…” The conditions experienced by Davidson and his wife were recorded in Ellinor Davidson’s diary; she writes: “In January went into camp life with my husband on the top of Tamal Pais….where no woman had ever been and no habitation within miles. Snow on the ground and we lived in tents. At night could hear bears prowling around. Slept with pistol by my side….”
William H. Brewer, second in command of the California Geological Survey, published the first carefully recorded climb to the peak. His experience is well documented in Brewer’s Up and Down California, 1860-1864. He made his trek on a blustery March day in 1862. As he neared the top, he was confronted by snow and wind but as the clouds parted he described the view; “It was most grand, more like some views of the Alps than anything I have seen before --- those glimpses of the landscape beneath through the foggy curtains.”
In 1869 Albert Evans, editor of the San Francisco Alta, describes the route to the crest of Mount Tamalpais as a “cow trail through brambles and thickets that hardly anyone attempts.” By 1873 the trail up the mountain to the West Peak was improved due to the ever increasing number of climbers. The May 1, 1873 Marin Journal reprinted this description from Vischer’s Pictorial of California; “The ascent of Mount Tamalpais is but an easy pleasure [horseback] ride from San Rafael….” A few months later the Journal reported: “A jolly company of our young folks went up on Mount Tamalpais’ sightly peaks last Saturday, and had a day of rare and rational fun. They were all mounted a cheval [on horseback].”
The trail up the mountain led to the West Peak. There was an even more spectacular view from the narrow rocky apex of the East Peak, but the trail connecting the two peaks was difficult and over a mile long. As a result, the East Peak hosted far fewer climbers. By August 1874 a register wrapped in waterproof paper had been left in a crevice in the rocks on the East Peak. During the period August 30 through September 25, 1874, 25 individuals signed the register. From this it is assumed the East Peak averaged about one visitor per day or about 300 to 400 climbers per year and perhaps triple that number reached the West Peak in 1874.
Until 1884, the trail to the West Peak was steadily gaining in use, though that trail was used exclusively by hikers and equestrians. The first carriage road to the summit was the Eldridge Grade which opened in December that year. The County would not provide financial support so the road was privately sponsored with funds collected by Joseph Eldridge. Eldridge promoted the road as an attraction not just for Marinites, but also for visitors and residents of San Francisco.
The new road –like the existing trail- went to the West Peak but also allowed two-horse teams pulling buggies to make the climb. The popularity of the drive to the summit grew rapidly. In May 1885 the Journal reported “As many as one hundred people went up the Eldridge Grade last Sunday.” In 1887 the Journal described the ride as “one of the very finest mountain rides in the world….The road is good, the grade easy, and the views are magnificent beyond description.” By the late 1880s it is estimated that several thousand made the trip to the West Peak each year.
The Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway in 1896 provided relatively easy access to the more dramatic East Peak. Visitors could take a ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito, the narrow gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad from there to Mill Valley and then the Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway would take them to the Tavern near the summit. The railroad made access to the East Peak possible for almost everyone. In 1897, 23,000 passengers boarded the train for the exciting trip to the summit.
Visitation to the summit of Mount Tamalpais grew from barely a handful in the early 1800s to many thousands per year by 1900. The auto route to the top built in the 1920s opened the mountain to even greater numbers. Current visitation to the East Peak is estimated at approximately 400,000 per year.