Peak-ing Ahead: Glimpse into the Future (and Past) of Mt. Tam’s West Peak


By Michael Hsu
Director of Editorial Content & Strategy

Like many outdoor enthusiasts in the Bay Area, you’ve probably explored the much-loved East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais—wandered into the “Gravity Car” Barn, clambered up to the Fire Lookout, photographed the staggering 360-degree vista, and snapped a couple of selfies at the top of Mt. Tam.

But hold onto your hashtags—that’s not actually the top.

The “true” apex of Mt. Tamalpais, located about a mile to the west, is the 2,576-foot West Peak. And yet, despite its superior elevation, it’s also one of the more hidden spots on the entire mountain.


Aerial view of Mt. Tamalpais’ West Peak (photo courtesy of Marin Municipal Water District)

That’s because, unlike its more popular twin to the east, West Peak does not have visitor amenities or a well-developed web of trails. In fact, at first glance, the site features nothing more than a jumble of empty lots, crumbling concrete pads, lonely roadways, and staircases to buildings long gone.

They’re the vestiges of a radar station established in 1951. The Army Corps of Engineers took the top off of the 2,604-foot-high West Peak to build the Mt. Tamalpais Air Force Station (later renamed the Mill Valley AFS), which served as a key node in an early-detection system against nuclear attack.

At the height of the Cold War, the base featured—in addition to its main operations facilities—barracks for enlisted men, officers’ quarters, a dining hall, theater, swimming pool, tennis courts, and bowling alley. The rise of intercontinental missile technology rendered the station obsolete, and it was abandoned in 1980. Sixteen years later, most of the increasingly decrepit buildings were demolished.


Mill Valley Air Force Station, circa 1963

A vision to restore the site to a more natural state has inspired a number of prominent Marin activists and artists (including filmmaker Gary Yost, whose excellent documentary “The Invisible Peak” chronicles the West Peak story). Now, with the combined energies of the Tamalpais Lands Collaborative (TLC) organizations and public support behind the TLC’s One Tam campaign, there is renewed vigor behind the grassroots effort.

During the past 12 months, One Tam staff and consultants—through an agreement with Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD)—have been conducting a site analysis of the 100-acre area, looking at its potential for remediation and natural-habitat restoration, and also possibilities for trail improvements and visitor interpretation.

Their findings—as well as some alternatives on the future of West Peak—will be presented to the public during the From Base to Peak forum on Oct. 5. A panel of community members and experts will illuminate shared goals and different perspectives on the restoration of West Peak, and provide opportunities for attendees to share their ideas.

“This event is a great opportunity for the community to more fully understand the dimensions of the site, and express their hopes and wishes and visions for West Peak,” says Claire Mooney, deputy director of projects and design for the Parks Conservancy—one of the five organizations behind the TLC.


Visitors explore West Peak on a guided hike

Mooney also encourages the public to explore the site as it currently exists, by hiking up the Mountain Top Trail from the Quarry Parking Lot, just north of the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater.

Once at the top, she recommends (carefully) checking out the footprints of the old Air Force Station and then looking north—soaking in the expansive vista of the watershed below, while gaining a new perspective on the immense stewardship responsibilities of the MMWD and its One Tam partners in managing this landscape.

Visitors are asked to share their photos via social media (don’t forget the #westpeaking), and to give their thoughts and suggestions on the future of Tam’s “true peak” through an survey.

After feedback is collected online and from the Oct. 5 forum, the One Tam team will develop a “preferred alternative” in the winter of 2017–18 that will guide the planning process into the next phase of the project—and the next chapter in West Peak’s remarkable history.

“We’re thrilled by the range of exciting possibilities for West Peak,” says Mike Swezy, Watershed Resources Manager for MMWD. “We look forward to working with the community to chart a course that maximizes the restoration of ecological function with enhancements to visitor experience.”

At top: LINC youth leaders explore West Peak