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Near San Francisco, Riding High

By John Briley
Sunday, April 19, 1998; Page E02


Visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area who want to appreciate the region's rugged beauty firsthand should consider crossing the bridge and jumping on a bike. In tony Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, you'll find a number of mountain biking routes that take you into the rippling landscape of coastal hills and postcard views. A break from the city will refresh you, and scaling the heights of Marin will put the city's famed hills in some perspective.

The best place to start your journey is the deeply quaint and highly accessible Mill Valley. Eight miles north of the bridge, in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley appears at once as its true self -- a suburban nest for the low-profile, artsy rich -- and as a gingerbread village loaded with boutiques, restaurants and wine and coffee shops framed in dark wood. This civilized spot provides a perfect base camp for your ride.

Among the shops in the center of Mill Valley, you'll find a bike store called Start to Finish, the only place to rent mountain bikes. Call ahead if you plan to rent.

Any rider short of a serious biathlete will find plenty of challenge on the dirt roads of the Marin Headlands, a coastal ridge spilling down from lower Mill Valley to the ocean. From the center of town, pedal or drive south about 1A miles on Miller Avenue to Tennessee Valley Road, which is about 100 yards past the Stinson turnoff. Turn right on Tennessee Valley and enjoy the downgrade and the coastal flora as you wind toward the ocean. Driving this stretch from Mill Valley will save about 20 minutes in each direction but will rob you of the soothing curves that mark the first half of Tennessee Valley Road. If you drive, the asphalt turns to dirt about halfway to the coast -- you'll have to park there.

Once on the dirt, the descent quickens, with rolling sections hurtling toward the beach, which you will reach in about another 10 minutes. Tucked between salt-worn rock formations, the beach is about 200 feet wide yet does not seem to stay crowded, even on a 75-degree Saturday. Save a quarter-tank of energy for the ride back; it isn't long but does include two steep climbs. To distract yourself from your heart rate, take in the sea oats and grasses dancing in the valley on your right. If you fear the steep and nasty, don't panic: The grades are short enough to walk without putting too much distance between yourself and a more aerobically inclined riding partner.

For those seeking a longer, more intense ride, try Coyote Ridge Road, an unmarked offshoot about two-thirds of the way down the dirt section of Tenn-essee Valley Road. It is quite possible to ride Tennessee Valley to the beach, then double back and pick up Coyote Ridge if you have energy remaining. Bring your iron legs and lungs, because Coyote Ridge starts with a burning steep climb of B-mile before leveling somewhat. The rest of the trail, while uphill, is more sane. Your reward? A cliff perch 200 feet above the Pacific, with panoramic vistas of the coast. And, of course, the cruise down. Leave an hour for this round trip, from Tennessee Valley Road and back.

For a longer, more forested ride, a grunt up Mount Tamalpais from the north side of Mill Valley will offer all the burn of a Stairmaster session with none of the monthly dues. To start, ride or drive north on West Blithedale Road until you reach Blithedale Park (parking is available). Skirt the fire road gate (don't worry, it is legal) and settle in for an extended uphill climb. The road emerges from pine forest and snakes up Mount Tamalpais in a reasonable grade. Within a mile, you'll have impressive views of Sausalito, followed shortly by panoramas of the north bay.

Your legs may argue otherwise, but you should climb to the summit if you can for the view of the valley to the south and the ocean beyond. A lodge at the summit, the West Point Inn, has restrooms, picnic tables and placards of history. The round trip will take about two hours, if you bike out from the center of town.

Both the Headlands and Mount Tamalpais also appeal to hikers. Mount Tam offers an extensive hiking trail network, accessible at various points from the dirt road.

Either way, you're sure to come away with a genuine and hard-won souvenir from your trip: the memory, sure to linger in your leg muscles for several days, of the time you spent getting intimate with the Bay Area landscape.

Getting There: From San Francisco, take Route 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge and exit at Highway 1/Stinson Beach. Stay right when Highway 1 splits to Stinson, and you will be on Miller Avenue, which leads into downtown Mill Valley.

Lunching in Mill Valley: The Buckeye, a barbecue grill, is on Highway 1 near the Highway 101 overpass, $15 to $20 per person. The Dipsea Restaurant, also on Highway 1 near the overpass, specializes in weekend brunch and lunch, and is popular among mountain bikers and hikers, $12 to $18 per person. The Mill Valley Market, on East Blithedale, has a gourmet deli with sandwiches to go.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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