Long before automobiles provided easy access to Mt. Tamalpais, complex foot trails carried visitors into the mountain’s boundless spaces. Two segments of one of those trails still survive today, tucked into the mountain’s northern shoulder, mere fragments of a famous route built by Harris S. Allen almost a century ago. Allen was one of Marin’s active hikers and conservationists, an energetic member of the Tamalpais Conservation Club and its president in 1916. During 1923-1925 he enlisted a paid helper, as well as numerous friends and family members, to build a well-engineered trail that ascended from Larkspur along Mt. Tam’s eastern face. Harry’s trail was featured on popular hiking maps and provided a 3.7-mile “easy grade” approach to Phoenix Lake and beyond. The two sections that remain today on open space and water district lands are signed in his honor as the “Harry Allen Trail,” but although Harry’s name was perpetuated, most of his famous trail has been lost -- or has it?
A good foot trail should have a relatively consistent grade while being adapted to the topography and efficient in design. Harry’s was all of that; the surviving segment on open space land climbs effortlessly through redwoods and huckleberry from today’s Crown Road up to a notch in Windy Ridge, ending where a modern roadway (Phoenix Road) usurped its route. (The second and best-known remnant, not at all “easy,” tumbles down several precipitous switchbacks as it descends directly to the water district’s Phoenix Lake.) In 1916 Harry extolled the virtues of building a foot trail: “When I am at work on a trail planning low grades, smoothing the rough places, bridging the defiles, I feel twice blessed -- the joy of the job is exceeded by the vision that [the trail will be there] to use and enjoy when I am 60 or 70 or even beyond.” Trail construction was strenuous work; builders used brush hooks, pruners, mattocks, and shovels to force their way along the slopes. Harry and his helpers worked primarily on Sundays, but nevertheless managed to forge a route that a local newspaper described as “marvelous.”
Harry lived and worked in San Francisco, but was intrigued by a friend’s rustic cabin in Larkspur; he jumped at the chance to buy it in the summer of 1897. After his marriage to Alice Mayhew in 1900 they developed an eclectic family weekend compound in Larkspur’s Baltimore Canyon near the central roadway, Madrone Avenue. Harry was a lean and highly energetic man deeply committed to public appreciation of Mt. Tamalpais, and seized the opportunity that radiated from his own back door.
Harry’s new trail began near his home at a public trailhead on Olive Avenue, specifically designed to benefit hikers who arrived via the nearby Baltimore Park railroad station. (Harry also had a private connection in his backyard, complete with tiled sitting areas called “sit-a-roos”). The trail, as revealed by the California Room’s collection of early hiking maps, climbed north from his house then joined another route that came up from Larkspur’s downtown railroad station along what is now known as the Citron Fire Road. His combined trail then struck west-northwest, looping gracefully around the steep northern side of King Mountain and skirting below the ridgelines overlooking today’s Kent Woodlands. Designed to climb steadily between low saddles on the ridges, it crossed the famed Hoo-Koo-E-Koo trail from Kentfield near today’s intersection of Crown Road and Evergreen Drive, and from there climbed to Windy Ridge and dropped to Phoenix Lake.
The officially-labeled segments that persist today constitute only the upper one-third of the route’s original length -– what happened to the remainder? Clearly, middle parts of the trail were obliterated in the 1950s by new residential streets (and homes) that eventually utilized its route; portions of today’s Rancheria, Ridgecrest, and Crown roads in upper Kent Woodlands follow essentially the same route as Harry’s trail, itself chosen for its topographical efficiency. But the trail’s essential lower portion, in the vicinity of King Mountain, vanished mysteriously from hiking maps sometime after the 1950s, effectively erased as though it had never existed.
No definitive account explains the sudden de-publication of the lower parts of Harry’s marvelous trail. Its original existence depended on the explicit -- or at least tacit -- permission of private landowners, particularly the Kent family. (It wouldn’t be until years later that public agencies acquired some of the land utilized by Harry’s route.) But we know that around 1940 a San Francisco attorney named Adolph Tiscornia acquired much of the acreage behind Larkspur, including most of King Mountain. Local tradition has it that a watchman (and perhaps Tiscornia himself) patrolled those lands with a shotgun, actively discouraging trespass by neighbors or hikers; decades later a notorious chain-link fence compounded that exclusion. Under such circumstances Harry (and the mapmakers!) could no longer promote use of the trail, and the maps cryptically marked its former route as “private lands.” Closure of the vital approach routes starved the trail of its hikers; the resulting halt of maintenance and decades of weathering then buried the route under fallen soil and tree debris.
Fast-forward now to the 1980s-90s; controversial development proposals that would have enabled luxury home construction around King Mountain were resolved by a successful citizens’ campaign to purchase much of the land and create a new public hiking trail that would circumnavigate the mountain’s crest. In a delightful twist of fate, the resulting route -- the “King Mountain Loop Trail,” developed and subsequently managed by the Marin County Open Space district -- resurrected much of the long-deserted portion of Harry’s route!
Detailed comparison of early maps and the current Loop Trail show a remarkably close match, and on-the-ground examination confirms the persistence of Harry’s original creation. Even the best-engineered trails will fall victim to the forces of time, as little trees grow large, and landslides, soil creep, and uprooted trees alter the terrain. But the eastern and northern parts of today’s Loop Trial still display Harry’s signature steady grade through oaks, mature madrones, and redwoods as they gain elevation; steep wooden stairs at the northwestern end mark a necessary modern deviation from Harry’s original route. Although labeled with a different name, Harry’s trail emphatically is still there!
Harris S. Allen died aged 77 at his Larkspur house in July of 1947. It’s gratifying to know that Harry’s marvelous trail isn’t really lost, but simply has been repurposed and rearranged. In its day it provided vital public access to Mt. Tam’s extensive watershed, and its remnants remain now as a tribute to its dedicated and resolute builder.
This report was produced with substantial contributions by M.C.O.S.D. Ranger Mike Warner, and research by California Room Librarian Carol Acquaviva.