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Marin Headlands - A Beginner's Guide

Sierra Angelica and dewdrops (near the Visitor Center)
Sierra Angelica and dewdrops (near the Visitor Center)
© Victor Volta

Marin Headlands, CA

Summer hiking in the Bay Area, especially near the coast, often means hiking and out of fog banks. My recent foray to Marin County took me past my usual Mt. Tamalpais haunts - today drenched in sunshine - further south to another local jewel, the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The hike began in thick fog, ended in thin fog, but I was treated to brilliant sunshine in between.

The Headlands is just north of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge at the southern end of Marin County. It’s best accessed from Highway 101 (Alexander Avenue exit). Sausalito lies to the east along the bay. To the north are Muir Woods National Monument, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley and Marin City. It’s this proximity to San Francisco and other nearby communities that makes the area such a local treasure. Well, maybe it’s the proximity…and the sheer beauty…and the history…and the cultural resources. In short, it has a lot to offer. click for directions

As a Headlands novice, I relied on a good friend and her dog, Freddie, to guide me. Regarding dogs, there are several trails that allow dogs, some that have leash requirements and others where no dogs are allowed (check the trail map for details). We began in fog and drizzle at the Visitor Center and started west along the Lagoon Trail toward Rodeo Beach. As we made our way along the south shore of Rodeo Lagoon, the skies, and the drizzle, grew heavier.

One of the nice features of Rodeo Beach, especially for Freddie, is that dogs are allowed off their leashes. For an energetic one-year old cattle dog/Dalmatian mix, this is like winning the dog lottery, finding a steak in your feeding bowl, and laughing at cats, all rolled into one. As for human enjoyment, my friend/guide insisted that the views are amazing when visibility isn’t limited to one hundred yards. I just nodded and continued to wipe my camera and lens to keep them dry.

As for the history of the area, it was once the home to the Coastal Miwok Indians, a Northern Californian tribe. The more recent history of the headlands is more evident with the old buildings from Fort Cronkhite overlooking the beach. This was once an important military site, dating back to the early days of California statehood, through the Civil War, the two World Wars and even as recent as the Cold War, as it overlooked the northern approaches and entrance to San Francisco Bay and the city itself. There are historic displays in the Visitor Center and other resources to explore. The official NPS site (nps.gov) in particular is an excellent starting point.

After leaving the beach and climbing north and east up the Coastal Trail, the shroud of fog continued to hug the cliffs and hillsides. There are more than half a dozen ecosystems in the park, but along this trail it's mainly coastal chaparral. Unlike Muir Woods and Mt. Tam, trees are scarce and I’d imagine on sunny days, sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats are a must. Along the trail, old bunkers, deserted lookouts and crumbling support structures are constant reminders of the Headland’s military past.

It was difficult to tell if the skies were clearing or we were simply climbing above and away from the fog, but eventually as we neared Wolf Ridge and Hill 88, we were rewarded with a splendid view down into Tennessee Valley. Although it would be a long, ambitious day hike to reach them, some of the Headlands trails do connect with Muir Woods, Muir Beach and Mt. Tamalpais to the north.

For this first, exploratory visit, we were content with our 5-mile loop. From the Coastal Trail, we turned onto the Wolf Ridge Trail and enjoyed brilliant sunshine for most of the way back to the Visitor Center. More so than on Mt. Tamalpais, the Headlands trails still have a surprising number of wildflowers in bloom, especially chaparral peas, Franciscan paintbrush, wild asters and daisies, and several others I hadn’t seen before.

On the final southeast turn onto the Miwok Trail, one of the trails that leads to Mt. Tamalpais, wildflowers were still numerous, including a particularly striking orange lily growing in some of the moist areas fed by trickles and springs coming off Hill 88. To the northeast, a sun-dappled Gerbode Valley stretched into the distance.

A note to other hikers: Please pack out your trash (including antibacterial wipes), so people with dogs don’t have to worry about their pet eating something disgusting or dangerous. We found several of these, but Freddie tended to find them faster.

On the final beautiful stretch, mostly flat, as we approached the Visitor Center and the lagoon in the early afternoon, the blues skies again gave way to high clouds and fog banks, although not as heavy as during our morning start. Chest high grasses and weed waved in the breeze. I finished the hike and instantly started looking forward to future visits and explorations.

As mentioned, there are countless resources and programs affiliated with the Headlands specifically and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in general. They’re too numerous to cover in just one article, but here is a shortened list with some links to their websites.

Aim High: Reach for a Dream
 - Headlands Environmental Home - Bringing future stewards of nature into the Golden Gate National Parks to learn, explore and restore. www.aimhigh.org

Bay Area Discovery Museum
 - 6 month to 8 year olds play, discover and create at this one-of-a-kind indoor and outdoor children's museum at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. www.baykidsmuseum.org

Headlands Center for the Arts
 - Through artists' residencies and public programs, Headlands Center for the Arts offers opportunities for reflection, dialogue and exchanges that build understanding and appreciation for the role of art in society. www.headlands.org

The Marine Mammal Center - 
The Marine Mammal Center's mission is to expand knowledge about marine mammals-their health and that of their ocean environment-and inspire their global conservation. www.marinemammalcenter.org