Light on the Mountain: The Views from Tamalpais

It felt like I was on top of the world–or looking down from heaven. I remember the first time I visited Mount Tamalpais– its gorgeous west-facing ridges overlooking Bolinas Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The views, especially in the late afternoon, took my breath away. The approaching fog under the setting sun struck me into reverential silence. I felt light, as though I was flying.  My wife, Jean, says Mount Tam is where God comes to rest. I believe she’s right about that.

June 1992

I came here for the first time, thirty years ago, in 1990. It’s a half-hour drive from my home up to West Ridgecrest Boulevard. That’s where you’ll find the fabulous views, beside the undulating roadside. When I got there, I had to pull the car over every hundred yards to check out one spectacular view after another. Soon, I found a few treasured places from which to make photographs. I returned to visit and photograph from those places over the next thirty years. From summer fog through star-splashed midnight skies, I’ll show you the best ones I’ve gathered from memorable moments of light on Mount Tamalpais.
To see the complete series including a number of images not included here go to the Tamalpais Collection

First Photograph – The Flight Stone Circle
The earliest photograph is one I made in June 1990. I’d heard about a mysterious group of stones the locals call the Flight Stones, aka as the Stone Circle. I was at a lecture given on geomancy the speaker showed a couple of slides of the stones but would not divulge their location. He said, “if you’re meant to find them, they’ll call you.” I went up to Mt.Tam and I guess it was meant to be, because I quickly found the location. My interest in megalithic sites fueled my curiosity as I wondered if this unusual grouping of stones were placed by ancient peoples or a cataclysmic, perhaps volcanic event. The jury is still out on their origin.

In any case, once up on the mountain I looked around and was amazed to find other vistas that also “called to me.” I was soon drawn to photograph the lovely undulating and sensuous hills and ridge lines, especially in the late afternoon when the sun backlit and accentuated their shapes. In particular, a month after finding the stones, I photographed lovely god rays cascading over the ridges and made Dusk, Bolinas Ridge

July 1990

A Large Format Photograph
I returned the next summer with a newly acquired 4×5 field camera. I was inspired by the large format work of my hero, Ansel Adams, who used a similar camera to make his photographs. Summer Fog, Bolinas Ridge was made that June from the mountain slopes. I’m glad I made this large format film exposure before I became weary of lugging that heavy camera around the mountain.

Bolinas Ridge Triptych & Summer Solstice
In December 1991. during the winter solstice, I returned to a favorite promontory to make a 3-negative triptych of a broad view from Bolinas Bay to the Inverness Ridge, far to the north. This time I worked with a smaller camera which gave me more agility and the ability to act more spontaneously. The Bolinas Ridge Triptych was possible due to the maximum southern position of the setting sun. I learned that each location on Tam has its own best time of the year (and day!) to create photographs. The next summer, 1992, during the solstice, I made the photograph that tops this essay, Summer Solstice, Bolinas Ridge.

Above the Fog
Low-lying fog envelops West Marin county often, creeping in during the late afternoon. It’s a perfect time to go up the mountain and see if the sun is shining above. Jean and I headed up the Bolinas-Fairfax road to take a look on a September afternoon in 1999. What we saw and I photographed is indelibly etched in my memory. From where I had earlier stood to photograph the Bolinas Ridge Triptych, I witnessed a couple of life-time scenes. The first, Evening on Tamalpais, featured a stunning cascade of crepuscular sun rays streaming over the Bolinas Ridge. Obscured by the fog is Bolinas Bay and Stinson Beach. Take a look at this other photograph, Bolinas Bay Sunset, I made a few days later, to see what the fog has covered!

September 1999

September 1999

Then, turning the camera more to the north I made a second photograph. Tamalpais Ridges and Fog explores the heavenly beauty of the landforms stretching from Tam to Point Reyes, with a sweet whipped-cream fog creeping from the Pacific into the valleys below.

September 1999

I’ve taken fellow photographers to my favorite locations on Tamalpais during workshops and coaching sessions. In April, 2011 a small group of us got to photograph the light at the end of a beautiful day. Here we are working and here is what I shot before leaving the mountain.

April 2011

April 2011

It’s true you can see the Point of Point Reyes. As night falls you can even see the light from the lighthouse if it’s clear enough. Taken with a telephoto lens, this image shows the highlands of Point Reyes emerging from the fog.

March 2014

Starry Nights
It’s fitting that my most recent work comes from two walks I made under starry skies on Mount Tamalpais. In the summer of 2017, I ventured along the abandoned roads to make Midnight Walk to Rock Springs and Leaving Tamalpais for the City. I hope you enjoyed these stellar views. Be sure to visit the entire collection where you’ll find a number of photographs not mentioned in this essay.

May 2017

May 2017

3 comments on “Light on the Mountain: The Views from Tamalpais

  1. Great stuff once again, Marty! I liked the last one, “Leaving Tamalpais for the City” so much that I just ordered a print. Milky Way photos are fairly common these days, but this one is extraordinary in how you actually use the light from the city instead of avoiding it. Well played, sir.

    • John,
      Leaving Tamalpais… was difficult to make due to the ambient light from the metropolis. The road gave me the idea, the feeling of returning, going home from the mountain and I was able to find a place where the elements worked to express that feeling. Thanks for noticing what is going on there and also for ordering the photograph. I sent you an email offline letting you know I will work on and ship your print this week.

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