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Daytrip: Mount Tam and Mill Valley

The slopes of Marin County’s signature peak offer sky-high views plus fine food and films.

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  • Pork Tacos at Sweetwater Music Hall Mill Valley, image
    Photo caption
    Sweetwater Music Hall's elevated bar snacks include juicy pork tacos.
  • historic Gravity car in Mill Valley, image
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    The Gravity cars once zigzagged up Mount Tamalpais on an eight-mile track.
  • hiker on summit of Mt. Tam, image
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    A hiker takes in the view from the East Peak's Verna Dunshee Trail.
  • Mount Tam East Peak view, image
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    A couple looks out toward San Francisco from Mount Tamalpais's east peak.
  • Arctic char at Molina Mill Valley, image
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    Molina serves locally sourced seafood in dishes such as arctic char over farro and mushrooms.
  • CineArts Sequoia Theatre Mill Valley Film Festival, image
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    The Mill Valley Film Festival makes the CineArts Sequoia Theatre its home base every year.

 

Perched on the east peak of Mount Tamalpais, the Verna Dunshee Trail might offer the most views in the shortest stretch of any path in sight of San Francisco. As hikers wind their way clockwise around the easy, three-quarter-mile loop just below the craggy summit, they look out over a dense forest of Douglas fir that opens to reveal the rolling hills of Sonoma and the flats of San Pablo Bay. Then, turning south, the walk culminates in postcard-worthy views of the city itself and the glittering Pacific. Local historian Fred Runner calls it the “greatest variety of scenery that you can see in the whole Bay Area.”

At the nearby Gravity Car Barn, (friendsofmttam.org) curious sightseers can climb aboard a meticulously re-created train car of the kind that used to roll on the Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway, nicknamed the Crookedest Railroad in the World. From 1896 to 1929, the railway used steam engines to carry hundreds of people a day up an eight-mile track with 281 curves and switchbacks, then gave them the option of rolling back down in the motorless gravity cars. These early adventurers got more than majestic scenery when they reached the top; they also found the Tavern of Tamalpais, since demolished, where they ate, drank, and made merry.

This spirit of revelry continues today in Mill Valley’s inviting downtown plaza, 12 miles from the peak. The Sweetwater Music Hall (sweetwatermusichall.com) presents an eclectic slate of musical acts, from local favorites to superstars such as Carlos Santana. Outfitted with a high-end sound system and burgundy velvet banquettes, the sophisticated bar also offers seven types of sliders, including the especially satisfying horseradish-spiced filet mignon and Thai shrimp.

At Molina (molinarestaurant.com), Chef Todd Shoberg marries cozy and cool with stomach-warming seasonal creations and a unique nightly playlist, handpicked from a huge collection of vinyl records and printed on the back of each evening’s menu. The large wood oven turns out a bounty of dishes made with locally sourced seafood, as well as a caramelized country-style pork chop with Pink Lady apples and Manila clams that pairs surprisingly well with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

October 8–18, the annual Mill Valley Film Festival (mvff.com), takes over the art deco Sequoia Theatre and other venues around Marin. The town makes an ideal home base, says the festival’s founder and director, Mark Fishkin. “Mill Valley is engulfed on all sides by the redwoods and the mountains,” he says, “so it has the feel of a stage surrounded by an audience. And the people have proven themselves to be game for all kinds of film from day one.” Perhaps living so close to Mount Tamalpais’s grand vistas keeps the residents’ eyes open to all kinds of perspectives.

Photography by Fred Runner (Mount Tamalpais); Josh Miller (tacos); Marc Florito, Gamma Nine (arctic char); courtesy of Mill Valley Film Festival; Ben Davidson (hiker on Verna Dunshee Trail, Gravity car)

 

This article was first published in August 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.