Magical Mount Tam


Alameda Magazine

September/October 2006

Hoofing it to the West Point Inn

west-point-inn-0906I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. But then, travel writers rarely keep secrets. There’s an incredible place to stay in Marin for just $35 a night: Rustic and hidden, the West Point Inn is perched on the side of Mount Tamalpais-and getting there is half the fun.

Cars aren’t allowed at this inn in the woods, unless cleared by the West Point’s custodian, so you earn your stay by hiking a 2-mile trail from the Pantoll ranger station. Peaceful and scenic, the trail ascends gently past waterfalls and brooks, over wooden footbridges and past lush ferns and wildflowers. On your way, take a sandwich from your backpack and sit on a rock as you breathe in the fresh forest air-it’s surprising to think you’re just minutes away from the stress of the big city.

At this moment I realized, it’s not about
the money-it’s about the experience.

Visitors have been coming to the West Point Inn for more than a century. It was built in 1904 as a stopover on the famed Mount Tamalpais Railway line. Dressed in their finery, folks took the train up the winding mountain track to what felt like the top of the world. The West Point Inn was a respite, overlooking San Francisco, Marin and the East Bay. The view is even more stunning today.
On a balmy summer night, I sat with friends on the wraparound deck that tickles the nearby pine trees. We’d spent the day hiking the trails on Mount Tam and had worked up a monstrous appetite. Someone uncorked a bottle of wine, and suddenly cheese and crackers appeared, along with salsa, chips and even a plate of sushi. It’s amazing what you can fit in a backpack! Someone even brought a guitar, and the music echoed softly through the pines as the conversation ebbed and flowed.
Years ago, there was a restaurant here for travelers, but these days you’re on your own with the cooking. The kitchen has two big stoves, refrigerators and an abundance of pots, pans and plates. You bring up the food and drink and, of course, you’re responsible for cleanup, too.
The accommodations are sparse, but well maintained, and (thank goodness) there’s indoor plumbing. There are seven interior rooms with lighting and heat and five outdoor cabins with neither. Needless to say, it’s warmer indoors, although the rooms are smaller. The outdoor cabins work better for families and can accommodate up to eight people. There is also a handicapped-accessible cabin. There are blankets and spreads on the beds, but you need to bring your own linens or sleeping bags. And you’re really not supposed to bring pets-the house cat, which has free rein of the inn, doesn’t appreciate the competition.
The West Point Inn is run mostly by volunteers, so be patient when making reservations. It could take a couple of days for them to get back to you. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, year-round, and rates are $35 a night for adults and half price for kids under 18. Groups of 20 or less can book the entire inn for $700.
It was after dinner, as we relaxed under the canopy of trees and a brilliantly sequined sky, that it hit me. I could see maybe a million twinkling lights in the valley below, people going about their busy lives, while I had transcended to this heavenly place in the stars. At this moment I realized, it’s not about the money-it’s about the experience.

Getting There

From Oakland, take the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge to southbound U.S. 101 to state Highway 1/Mill Valley/Stinson Beach exit. Follow Shoreline Highway about 1 mile to the junction with Almonte and turn left, driving about 2.5 miles to the junction with Panoramic Highway. Turn right on the Panoramic Highway and continue for about 1 mile to the junction with Muir Woods Road. Go straight on the Panoramic Highway 4.5 miles to the junction with Pantoll Road and turn right onto Pantoll Road. The trailhead is near a small pullout on the right. If it’s full, park at the nearby Pantoll ranger station (415-388-2070; $6) across the Panoramic Highway from the Pantoll/Panoramic junction. For information on the West Point Inn or for reservations, call (415) 646-0702.

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