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“Oh Tamalpais! He looks so grave
   With his brow in the cloud and his chin in the wave.”
   —Charlie Stoddard, Poems, 1867

The Coast Miwok lived on or near Mount Tamalpais, staying close to water sources throughout present-day Marin County. These Native Californians hunted small animals and deer, collected acorns, and gathered flora, marsh plants and shellfish. They made baskets and clamshell disk beads, trading them for locally unobtainable resources, such as high-grade obsidian from Lake County tribes. The Coast Miwok had a rich culture and a complex and intricate language. However, their way of life changed soon after the arrival of Europeans.

In 1770 two explorers, Captain Pedro Fages and Father Juan Crespí, named the mountain La Sierra de Nuestro Padre de San Francisco. This was later changed to the Miwok word tamalpais (tam-al-pie-us), which, roughly translated, means “bay mountain” or “coast mountain.”

Residents of San Francisco, whose population exploded after the 1848 gold discovery, used Mount Tamalpais for recreational purposes. Trails were developed, and a wagon road was built to the top of the mountain in 1884.

The Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway, completed in 1896, carried visitors to the mountaintop and the Summit Tavern, a hotel and restaurant. The slope from Mill Valley to the summit was so steep that the railroad had to negotiate 281 curves, equivalent to 42 complete circles, billing itself as the “Crookedest Railroad in the World.” In the section known as the “Double Bow Knot,” the track paralleled itself five times within 200 yards. In 1907 the “gravity car” was designed to transport visitors from the top of the mountain to the redwood-filled canyon of Muir Woods. Requiring only gravity and a brake, open-air rail cars carried passengers down the mountain to Muir Woods at an exhilarating 12 miles per hour. The railroad and gravity cars allowed sightseers to travel from Mill Valley to the summit, down to the Woods, and back to Mill Valley. The Scenic Railway’s famous gravity cars were popular until the advent of the automobile and the construction of Ridgecrest Boulevard in 1925. A gravity car replica is displayed at the Gravity Car Barn on East Peak.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the most popular of the New Deal programs created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide relief and a speedy recovery from the Great Depression. From 1933 to 1942, the CCC put some two million young men to work on a massive building program in America’s parks and forests. Roads and trails, campsites, social halls, amphitheaters, and visitor centers numbered among the many features constructed by the CCC that provided the public with unprecedented access to the nation's natural and historic treasures. The CCC, however, was more than just a make-work program.  It offered the enrollees a renewed sense of dignity and hope for the future. They were not only earning a living, they were doing something important for their country, and they knew it.

At Mount Tamalpais, CCC  workers built new trails, camping facilities, and the Mountain Theater. Also known as Cushing Memorial Theater, this huge outdoor amphitheater accommodates 3,750 people and is the site of the Mountain Play each spring. M embers of CCC companies occupied a Mount Tamalpais camp from April 1934 through April 1940; during that period, they built footbridges, camp stoves, 16 campsites, 32 day-use sites and the fire lookout tower at the summit. 

A self-guided tour of the CCC’s work in the park is available online. 

Over the years, millions have flocked to “Mount Tam” to relish the spectacular views and hike its trails. Generations of Mount Tam enthusiasts have worked hard to protect the mountain and keep it open to the public. The oldest of these citizen groups is the Tamalpais Conservation Club, organized in 1912. In 1928 William Kent, an ardent Marin County conservationist, and his wife donated 200 acres of land in Steep Ravine to help create Mount Tamalpais State Park. The park was later enlarged through the efforts of several hiking clubs, led by the Tamalpais Conservation Club. These organizations orchestrated a grassroots campaign to purchase additional land for the state park.

Now one of the oldest and most popular units of the California State Park System, Mount Tamalpais State Park has grown to 6,300 acres. Completely surrounding Muir Woods National Monument, the park is bordered by Marin Municipal Water District land on the north and by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on the northwest and south.

The Tamalpais Lands Collaborative, or One Tam, spearheads conservation efforts in the Mount Tam area today. Its five partners—California State Parks, Marin County Parks, Marin Municipal Water District, National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy—are working together to address region-wide problems such as invasive species, plant diseases, climate change, wildfire and drought. One Tam also provides funds and person-power to improve park facilities and trails.

One Tam’s Youth Initiative includes conservation programs for local students, including  “Teens on Trails” and “Restoration Youth Crew.” The organization also offers an internship program for teenagers and young adults. Positions involve restoring sensitive habitat, preserving historic features, improving trails, and educating youth—both inside and outside the state park.