Updated: January 2024
Are you getting a little tired of the urban streets of San Francisco or Oakland? Wanting to spend some time away from cars, buses, and buildings. Take a short drive over to Marin, and you will find what you are looking for.
Just west of the Golden Gate Bridge’s north anchorage in Marin County, the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is an excellent choice for a day trip from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trips like this remind you of the beauty of nature and the excitement of amazing wildlife that exists right outside your door.
This post is part of a series on travel close to home. You can find more posts from this series on my page Getaways Near Me (or You)
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As you travel along the coastal road that runs above the Pacific Ocean, this special part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy provides breathtaking views of the San Francisco skyline that are unmatched. You will be compelled to stop frequently and take photos to share on social media, such as Instagram.
Because of the Marin Headland’s proximity to San Francisco and its popularity with tourists, parking is challenging on Conzelman Road (the road that takes you along the cliffs). Drive slowly and watch for people crossing the street. I would definitely recommend you make this trip on a weekday if possible; the weekends can be crazy!
Battery Spencer is one of the first stops you can make, with maybe the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Decommissioned decades ago, the battery’s remains now are just deteriorating concrete walls and a fantastic staging place for the Bridge and San Francisco photos.
Battery Spencer is one of the many points of defense surrounding the San Francisco Bay entrance. The Battery was armed with three large (12-inch) guns aimed at sea in its day. The obvious purpose of these defenses was to stop invaders from getting into the Bay.
Beach Opportunities On The Bayside of the Marin Headlands
Next up, and one of the challenging expert-recommended hikes for those who want to put their feet in the water is Kirby Cove. Day visitors can hike from the Road to the beach. Kirby Cove is a good picnic area on a small beach. You can make reservations to camp at Kirby Cove, but you need to plan ahead; the campsites book up fast!
All Trails, a handy app for your smartphone, rates this three-mile out-and-back hike as “easy.” But you should be aware it also shows an elevation change of about 561 feet. It’s a great cardio workout!
A bit further along Conzelman Rd is Hawk Hill. Here, you can watch the local raptors (hawks, eagles, vultures, and falcons) soar over the cliffs and ocean during their fall migration. By the way, there are also spectacular views of the City and the Bridge from here.
Continuing up the road is the Headlands Lookout is the trail leading down to Black Sands Beach. The path here, again an out and back, is rated “medium.” This is mostly attributable to the elevation gain of over 850 feet. Because of the hike-in, the beach is often yours alone when you get there.
There are over 500 trails listed on the All Trails app for the Marin Headlands. If hiking is your thing, you could spend a year’s worth of weekends here and not run out of trails to explore.
Heading further west from the Headlands Lookout, you pass Battery Rathbone McIndoe, Fort Barry, Battery Wallace I & II (where you could head down to Jessen’s Beach), and finally, Point Bonita.
Point Bonita Lighthouse
At Point Bonita, you are now as far west as you can drive on Conzelman Road. Find a parking space in the Battery Alexander parking lot and make the short hike down to the lighthouse.
The reward for your patience is the lovely, unobstructed views of the Golden Gate Bridge, with Alcatraz just peeking out from behind.
The lighthouse at Point Bonita sits at the mouth of San Francisco Bay and has been signaling to ships coming into the “Gate” since 1877. Few people actually do the hike out to the lighthouse. So, going the “extra mile” is truly worth the effort!
The hike down to the lighthouse is just about 1/2 mile. It’s an easy walk, but a bit scary when you have to cross the ancient-looking bridge to get to the lighthouse proper. Once across the bridge, you get to explore the tiny buildings on the edge of the rocks.
In the old days, these buildings provided shelter for the “keeper” night and day. Like most, the lighthouse is automated and maintained by the United States Coast Guard.
Point Bonita, the third lighthouse built on the west coast, now sits on this treacherous outcropping of rocks. The original tower, erected in 1855, was actually on a higher ridge about 300 feet above the water. However, the thick fog that frequently carpets the bay obscured the light.
In 1877, the lighthouse was relocated to where it sits today. Today, this gracious building still shepherds ships through the Golden Gate Straits.
Here on the edge, the dramatic cliffs of oceanic rock offer amazing views. Don’t miss this hidden gem.
One of the few places to get a bit to eat at the Marin Headlands is Cafe Bonita at the Point Bonita YMCA, located at Conzelman and Field Roads. You could grab a bite here if you didn’t pack a lunch.
Continuing the Drive Through The Marin Headlands
After you finish your visit to the lighthouse, follow the road (now named Field Road) down the hill from Point Bonita to the northeast and eventually around the Rodeo Lagoon. On the way, you can make a stop at Nike missile site SF-88, a restored missile site, and the Cold War Museum.
Or visit the Marin Headlands Visitor Center, where you can learn more about the Headlands and their history.
Take a hike on any of the dozens of trailheads leading to more Batterys, campgrounds, and picnic areas. But we like to head over to the Marine Mammal Center.
The Marine Mammal Center @ the Marin Headlands
Located at Fort Cronkhite in the Marin Headlands, the Marine Mammal Center is a leader in the field of ocean conservation. The center is renowned for its marine mammal rescue, veterinary science, and education work.
There are a number of rescued marine mammals in varying stages of recovery housed in the hospital here. In addition, there are exhibits about local wildlife and, of course, a gift shop!
The center is open daily and offers guided tours of the facility and “hospital” where the recovering animals are sheltered. Times are Mon – Fri at 1 and 3 pm; Sat & Sun at 11 am, 1 and 3 pm. At this time, the tour costs $10 for adults with discounts for children, seniors, and the Military.
After touring the Marine Mammal Center, drive over to Rodeo Beach. You are now at the beach facing west out of the vast Pacific Ocean.
If you still have energy and are looking for one last hike, South Rodeo Beach offers a climb up to the ridge to the Rodeo Lagoon Vista Point.
But if hiking is done for the day, Rodeo Beach is a wonderful place to stretch your legs and play in the surf. You can’t beat a walk on the beach to bring you peace! A Grand Finale to an enjoyable day.
After enjoying a walk in the surf, head back out to Bunker Road towards 101. Just before you are back on the main roads is the Baker-Barry tunnel. Be aware this is a one-lane tunnel and there is about a 5-minute wait if you miss the green light.
The Marin Headlands – A Great Day Trip
Your day will be filled with sun (or maybe fog) and fresh air. You can learn new things about the history of where we live and visit seals and sea lions. And It doesn’t get much better than taking a long walk on a beautiful beach at sunset.
Spending time on the Marin Headlands trails makes a great day trip from nearly anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.
If you enjoyed your day in the Marin Headlands and are looking for adventuresome day trips for the next time, check out our article on 41 Day Trips From Oakland and San Francisco!