How Alpine Traditions Have Created a Modern Community on Mt. Tam

The Tourist Club clubhouse (All photos by Michael Lax)

Above Mill Valley, the Sun Trail diverges from the Dipsea, skirting a ridgeline of quaking grass, California poppies and ocean views. Most folks, en route to Stinson Beach, bypass this turnoff and the Tourist Club, which is nestled into the mountainside at the trail’s end. Those who spot the dark brown chalet with carved balcony balusters, green window trim and painted flower designs might briefly experience disorientation: Am I on Mount Tam or in the Alps?

In the Tourist Club’s library, an original room in the 1917 structure, Gareth Loy, the club’s historian, is at ease among the hand-painted alpine landscape murals adorning the walls — from the Matterhorn to Half Dome — and the black-and-white photos of the group’s founders. “These guys were serious alpinists and they had come over to help San Francisco rebuild [after the 1906 earthquake],” says Loy of the founders. Along with many immigrants from the Alps region of Europe, they were among those spending weekends in Marin’s familiar mountain landscapes at the turn of the century, bringing along alpine activities, traditions and community that continue to the present day.

A year after the San Francisco Tourist Club’s establishment in 1912, the California Alpine Club (CAC) was established, later building its Alpine Lodge on a property purchased in 1925 just a bit farther up the ridge. The Mountain Home Inn in the same area is also from a legacy of alpine sensibilities, started by a Swiss-German couple who had an eye for the perfect mountain location in 1912. “The owners camped all around. They wanted a place where the views and the weather were optimum,” says Susan Cunningham, owner of the inn.

These organizations and lodges gave rise to communities centered around Mount Tam: “like-minded people in terms of getting outdoors and having this lodge,” says Steve Quarles, CAC historian. As people did nearly a century ago, groups of hikers still abscond to the Alpine Lodge after a foggy-day excursion to Muir Woods, gathering for coffee and conversation around the lodge’s fireplace. “In general, the purpose of the club hasn’t really changed over the years,” says Quarles. Both the Alpine Lodge and Tourist Club offer overnight lodging to members and carry on numerous social traditions, such as an annual New Year’s hike and meal. Likewise, the Mountain Home Inn, which has long served as a gathering place on the mountain hosts a locals’ night on Wednesdays.


the Tourist Club


As Marin developed, these alpine groups kept Mount Tam as their central focus, contributing to Marin’s robust access to protected nature. For the S.F. Tourist Club, “Berg frei,” the slogan of the Nature Friends parent organization established in 1890s Austria, still inspires the club’s ethos and commitment to experiences in the outdoors. “Berg frei, which roughly translates as ‘the mountains must be free,’ has been our cry ever since,” says Loy. The CAC has also rallied around access to nature throughout its history. “As a club member you become more aware of the efforts that it took to preserve some of these lands for our use today, and I think our members were pretty good advocates for that,” says Quarles. While its original members contributed to maintenance of nascent trails, many current members are involved with the conservation efforts of OneTam. In addition, the club’s philanthropic foundation provides grants for outdoor education, trail maintenance and conservation, advancing long-standing ideals.

Even today, the alpine traditions and mountain culture of yesteryear open a connection with local history, community and a respect for the mountain. “The history, the relationship to the mountain, it should never be lost,” says Cunningham, who features numerous historical photos and paintings in the Mountain Home Inn. In much the same way as a century ago, an evening on the deck at the inn (with an order of bratwurst, surely), attending one of the Tourist Club’s annual fests or even joining one of the organizations are moments that transcend time.

With a dunkel lager on the table, Loy looks out from the Tourist Club’s deck, admiring the redwoods below and mountain peaks on the horizon. Stepping outside the bustle of everyday life in Marin, he considers Mount Tam: “There is also the need for this to exist, for us to have complete lives.”


black and white portrait of a man
Portrait of Alois Rohrauer, past president of Naturfreunde in Austria