Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Family backpacking trip to the West Point Inn on Mount Tamalpais

A cabin with a view. Photo by Frog Mom
The Mount Tamalpais' West Point Inn was one of my dreams for a long time - the historic stopover for passengers on the gravity car that snaked on the trails of the crookedest railroad in the world to the top of Mt Tam is a must on every hiker's to-do list. It may be called an inn, but you have to backpack in. You can't drive up to the inn - it's part of the tradition. The 1904 lodging provides shelter to visitors either as tiny rooms in the main building or as rustic cabins with cold showers outside on the deck. You bring your sleeping bag, food, clothes, toiletries and good spirits.

Follow the signs. Photo by Frog Mom
Last Friday, I was floored to find we were outnumbered by kids. For a backpack-in lodge, it's amazingly kid-friendly. That night, 20 cub scouts, 7 9-year-old boys, and our 3 girls from age 5 to 7 were more than a match for the handful of adults trying to cope with the noise and testosterone level. What a scene!

It was my second backpacking experience with my girls, the first trip having been two years ago when they were 5 and 3. Let me tellya, the Mount Tam experience is indefinitely easier than the sierras - no bear containers to store food, no tent to carry, and if you forgot your goose down winter jacket, you can warm up by the fireplace. It's by far the gentlest way to backpack with kids in the Bay Area. Even the trail is easy: 2 straight miles on a wide fire road. My friend Becky, who swam from Alcatraz with me last year, joined me with her 7-year old daughter.

Gummy cougar! Photo by Frog Mom
The plan was to leave San Francisco around 4 pm and hope to be at the inn around 6pm. In reality we didn't reach the trailhead at Pantoll before 5pm and we got to the inn at 6.45pm. By then the sun was low on the horizon and the girls' stomach was grumbling. Almost.

To spice up the hike, Becky created a game to boost the  stamina of our girls. She called it the "gummy cougar" and before knowing the rules, the kids had her attention with the name.

She hid big star-shaped gummy stars along the trail and the girls went on a gummy scavenger hunt to find them. Rocks, stumps, trail posts, were all good hiding places. To be completely fair to the 5-year old who wasn't as fast as her 7-year old counterparts, I hid a couple in my pants' pocket so she could partake in the sugary revelries.

Kids hiking. Photo by Frog Mom
Realizing that the girls were slowing down to look for more candy, we stopped the gummy cougar game and let them take the lead on the trail. I always find that kids walk better if they're not trailing behind. Somehow they forget that they're with adults and engage in lively conversations, moving along without effort.

In terms of backpacks, here is how we had shared the load with my girls. I carried 2 sleeping bags, our clothes, food (we shared dinner and breakfast duties with Becky), two water bottles, 3 headlamps and 3 battery-operated glow sticks, a book and toiletries.

On the trail. Photo by my 2nd grader!
My 7-year old was carrying her sleeping bag, a thermos and her jacket. My 5-year old was carrying her jacket, a water bottle and snacks. It seemed to work pretty well for everybody. Since I knew the trail would be easy, the kids were just wearing good walking shoes but they didn't need hiking boots.

Once at the West Point Inn, Pat, the guardian of the inn, greeted us, led us to the cabin #4 and gave us the spiel. "The cabins get a little cold at night. Feel free to use the extra blankets." At this point, he opened the plain wood double doors opening on the deck.

West Point Inn. Photo by Frog Mom
The dark cabin welcomed some sun light in and I looked at the floor . "Look! A mouse!" The cutest field mouse was crossing the space between two beds and scurried away quickly. We tried to find it later but it was gone. My girls love little rodents.

Pat grabbed the opportunity of the mouse to switch to another topic. "Talking about wildlife, there are two local animals that are dangerous and that you should be aware of: rattlesnakes and scorpions."

Cabin #4. Photo by Frog Mom
Rattlesnakes, we weren't going to see because the temps were too cold. It had snowed on Mount Tam that afternoon. Scorpions too but Pat said something that stuck with the girls until the next day: scorpions like to hide in shoes because they're warm. "Shake your shoes in the morning," he said, adding that the only scorpion he had ever heard of was seen in cabin #4 last year. It was on the ground. It looked like a leaf. A lady bent over to pick it up and OUCH!

Right then, my girls looked like they were going to melt down or cry or both. My second grader got close to me, looking upset. I thought she just wanted to cuddle up. In fact, she was afraid. Pat admitted later he should have saved that information for us adults. I agree, that would have been better.

Waiting for dinner. Photo by Frog Mom
Needless to say, the girls were eager to leave the cabin so we could prepare dinner in the main building. I vaguely unpacked my backpack to get the food and headlamps out, and we all headed over. The inn's kitchen is not small but it's not big either. Built in 1904, it has remarkably resisted to the passage of time and the cream color of the walls, the wood cabinets, the wall sconces and the heavy six-fire stove flanked by giant griddles lend it a certain period charm.

However with 6 to 8 parents preparing dinner to feed armies of ravenous young boys, space to navigate was sparse and we had to wait for our turn. The only smart thing Becky and I could do was ... uncork a bottle of wine - which we did! While our girls watched the boys play a game of cards, we squeezed our way in the kitchen and managed to warm up our dinner of roasted chicken and Thai sticky rice in the giant oven, next to the boys' lasagnas and pizzas.

Dinner time! Photo by Frog Mom
Finally dinner was ready and we all sat down. With the fire crackling in the hearth against the back wall, the room felt terribly cozy and warm. We secretly wished we wouldn't have to get out to go sleep in probably cold and damp cabin but hey, that'll be for next time.

After dinner we brushed our teeth in the kitchen - the restrooms were outside and we felt entitled to more "warm" time before bedtime, and cleaned up the plates. Staying at the West Point Inn is like staying at a youth hostel - you need to clean up after yourself and do a share of the daily chores. It's only after one of the girls fell asleep in front of the fire that we realized it was time to head out. We dashed back to our cabin, quickly changed in our PJs and tucked ourselves tight in our sleeping bags. Of course, we hung all shoes 5 feet off the floor and the backpacks too. Pegs, hooks and nails sticking out of the walls - we used them all! That night we all slept like logs. All of us people and one extra item. The next morning my 5-year old's first words were: "Mom, why is the chocolate bar all squishy?" She had slept with it, holding it against her as her lovey.

To spend the night
You can reserve by emailing or calling the reservation line 415-646-0702.

  • High season: Children: Age 2 to 18 - one half of the Adult Rate.   Babies under 2, Free.Non-Members : $50 per adult/night. ( Except Low Season  Tuesday-Thursday : $35 per person/night ). 
  • Low Season ~ Tuesday-Thursday: Rates are $700 up to 20 persons. Member Whole Inn Rentals on Premium Holidays*: Rates are $1000.00 up to 20 persons. 
All details are on this page.

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