January 18, 2022

McKenzielee Blog

Wicked Clever House Experts

Why Marin residents saved prime real estate for animals

4 min read

As I passed the Paradise Drive/Tamalpais Drive exit heading north on 101 recently, I glanced up and to the left to see not only Mount Tamalpais, but also something I didn’t expect — several horses silhouetted atop a smaller, closer hill. 

A lover of all animals, I wanted to know more about how these lucky horses got to live on prime Mill Valley real estate. Horse Hill Preserve is part of Marin County Parks, but the horses are privately owned by members of the Alto Bowl Horseowners Association (ABHA), which can pasture board up to 14 horses there at a time. But this park easily might not have existed if it weren’t for a community banding together to save the hill for the horses — and for us hikers.

In the early 1960s, prolific builder George C. Goheen owned the land, according to the Marin Conservation League’s history of Horse Hill. Goheen allowed fellow Mill Valley resident Jim Howe to keep his horse, Mr. Jiggs, there and later on, young Mill Valley 4-H club members started pasturing a number of horses here. 

Still, this land was extremely valuable real estate even in the early 1960s, and Marin Capital Company wanted to build 900 homes here. Mill Valley resident Aline McClain rallied the community to fight development on Horse Hill. The fight continued with other engaged residents throughout the 1980s, when two other developers proposed developments on this land.

A housing moratorium was finally put into place from 1986 to 1988 to figure out what should and should not be built on Horse Hill. As that moratorium expired, State Proposition 70 passed, bringing $776 million to California for the conservation of wildlife and coastal and parkland. Due to effective lobbying, $21 million of this went to projects in Marin County, and $1.6 million for Mill Valley itself.

While construction for one housing development started in 1989, a “Save Horse Hill” committee was formed to fight to keep the hill as open space. With the help of early donors like McClain, and 5,000 to 7,000 others throughout the community, the committee was able to raise almost $600,000 for this effort.

Hikers can enjoy views of Mount Tam from the top of Horse Hill.

Alexandra Kenin

With Horse Hill clearly on their radar, both the Mill Valley City Council, headed by Mayor Dick Spotswood, and the Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD) decided they wanted to acquire this land. When the landowner refused to sell, Mill Valley’s City Council opened eminent domain proceedings against the landowner, and a price of $2.4 million was set at the trial.

With the county and city’s Prop. 70 funding, and with funding from the MCOSD, the city of Mill Valley, and the Marin Community Foundation, 34 acres on Horse Hill were acquired. The MCOSD bought a final 16 acres on Horse Hill in 1990. On Memorial Day in 1991, a crowd assembled with Mayor Spotswood to celebrate the purchase of the land, and two years later, Mill Valley donated the land to the MCOSD, which permanently preserved it as open space.

Silver Fox, a gray gelding, poses in front of San Francisco’s skyline.

Silver Fox, a gray gelding, poses in front of San Francisco’s skyline.

Alexandra Kenin

If you’d like to visit, Horse Hill features a fire road to help facilitate a quick journey to the top. You can access the fire road from Lomita Drive, just east of its intersection with Greenfield Court. You can hunt for elusive street parking spots or park in the lot by the horse corral at the eastern end of Lomita (a 0.4-mile walk to the fire road). While you can pick up smaller horse trails directly from the corral lot and other parts of Lomita, the fire road can be the safest bet in the wet winter months when the smaller trails can be muddy and slippery.

On the day that I visited, it seemed at first that my trip would be a bust for horse viewing. But as I continued toward the top of the hill, I saw six or so horses. There was something deeply satisfying about seeing these animals in their natural habitat, outdoors, roaming and grazing. This habitat serves as its own simple and sustainable ecosystem: Hillside springs provide water for the horses, the horses eat grass (and hay), and then they produce manure, which grows more grass.

In addition to admiring the horses, there’s also a backdrop of views that includes the Tiburon Peninsula, San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay and Mount Tam. When I tried to continue my walk to neighboring Alto Bowl on a narrow connector trail (the trails here connect to a larger network including Alto Bowl, Camino Alto and Blithedale Summit Open Space Preserve), a horse was blocking my way. While I love a long walk, I also have a healthy respect for horses, and the signs at the trail entrance noted that 20 feet was a safe distance to keep from the horses. They can get startled and react suddenly, and I didn’t want to test them.

Please do not feed the horses or try to pet them, but if you see a horse owner, feel free to ask them questions. Amory Willis, ABHA president, said, “Often several of us will have our horses down in the parking lot, and we always welcome the chance to introduce visitors to our horses and describe their different personalities and quirks.”

While I wasn’t able to cross into Alto Bowl on the day of my hike, I’ll be back to explore the trails, taking in the panoramic views in the presence of these stunning animals who have grazed here for decades. Willis says, “Anyone can walk along the trails of Horse Hill and pause to admire the horses who have always played an important role in Mill Valley. We are happy to continue the tradition.”


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