Make the Marin Headlands More Than a Daytrip

The Marin Headlands could be a daytrip. But it needn’t be. Sporting four Golden Gate National Recreation Area campgrounds and a hostel, its 2,100 acres neatly photo-bombable by coyotes, whales, or quail, it merits a many-day stay.


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Photos courtesy Marin Convention & Visitors' Bureau

Wouldn’t it be crazy if you lived less than 20 miles away from a wonderland that lures visitors from all over the world? A sapphire-skied, emerald-grassed, wildflower-carpeted riot of soft slopes, sheer cliffs, distant city lights, and sparkling sea?

Wouldn’t it be outrageously lucky to live less than 20 miles away from hiking/biking/horseback-riding trails that bisect storybook meadows and scale epic, eagle-haunted peaks overlooking beaches whose sand, in some stretches, really is studded with gems?

Wouldn’t it be amazing to live so close to a nonstop photo-op that poets could call blindingly beautiful because, having seen it, they might ask: Why ever see anything else?

Oh, wait. You do live that close to that kind of place.

The Marin Headlands could be a day trip. But it needn’t be. Sporting four Golden Gate National Recreation Area campgrounds and a hostel, its 2,100 acres neatly photo-bombable by coyotes, whales, or quail, it merits a many-day stay.

The headlands’ majesty comprises several intersecting submajesties. First off, it’s a geologist’s dream, in which 200 million years of tectonic activity along the San Andreas Fault folded oceanic sediments from the Pacific Plate onto the North American Plate, producing multicolored wavy layers of sandstone, shale, basalt, and Jurassic chert.

Atop this stripey stunner dwelt indigenous Miwoks, then Hispanic rancheros. More than 300 vessels ran aground nearby during the Gold Rush: Reducing the wreckage risk, Point Bonita Lighthouse was built here in 1855, then lowered in 1877 to reposition its light below the fog line. Overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard, accessed — as are no other American lighthouses — by a jaw-dropping suspension bridge, this still-active, sturdy dome-topped tower welcomes visitors two afternoons each week.

Too strategically poised to escape military service, the headlands are pocked and peppered with bunkers, batteries, nuclear- and bioweapon shelters, an SF-88 Nike Missile silo, and two decommissioned forts. Their mainly steel-and-concrete silhouettes strike stark spiritual and structural contrasts against rolling chaparral and ageless, enigmatic sea.

A century-old block of former officer quarters at Fort Barry is now a quaint, historic hostel. A 15-minute walk from it, and a teensy three miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, glitters dog-friendly Rodeo Beach, whose National Park Service-protected sand and pebbles include jasper, carnelian, and jade.

Nearby strands include Muir Beach, a classically pretty golden cove crowned by a breathtaking vista point and flanked by otherworldly dunes and lagoons and a pine grove where monarch butterflies winter. Nearby is the Marine Mammal Center, where visitors can watch injured seals and other animals recuperating before being returned to the sea.

A wildflower-fringed, disabled-accessible stroll along Tennessee Valley Trail — starting from a parking lot that also serves the Miwok Livery Stables Center — leads to Tennessee Valley Beach, whose smooth cinnamon sands swoop toward whispering, white-lace wavelets, embraced at both ends by hulking bluffs that feel, in the right light, like huge loving arms.

Photo-tastically closest of all these beaches to the Golden Gate Bridge — and sporting a campground, as does Tennessee Valley — satiny-surfed Kirby Cove should be one of our best-known local getaways. Luckily, it’s not.

Want to fall in love with the Bay Area all over again, or make someone else fall in love with it? View a sunset from anywhere alongside the headlands’ ridiculously scenic main thoroughfare, Conzelman Road. For this and any other headlands outing, bring snacks from nearby Sausalito — or, given its proximity, from home.

Heaven for ornithophiles, hell for acrophobes, 920-foot Hawk Hill — whose titular trail was reconfigured recently to increase accessibility — yields dazzling 360-degree vistas of the Golden Gate Strait and, circling its summit, birds. Tens of thousands of hawks, kites, falcons, vultures, osprey, harriers, and eagles congregate here between August and December every year. Could that many raptors be wrong?

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