Are you getting a little tired of the urban streets of San Francisco or Oakland? Wanting to spend some time away from cars, busses, 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, the Marin Headlands is an excellent choice for a day trip from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trips like this remind you of the beauty and excitement of nature that exist 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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This unique part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers unmatched vistas as you head west along the coastal road over the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. You will want to stop and take photos for “Insta” nearly every chance you get.
Because of the Marin Headlands proximity to San Francisco and its popularity with tourists, parking is challenging on Conzelman Road (the road that takes you along the cliffs). Drive slow 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!
One of the first stops you can make, with maybe the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge, is Battery Spencer. 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 that surround the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The Battery was armed with three large (12-inch) guns aimed out to sea in its day. The obvious purpose of these defenses was to stop any invaders from getting into the Bay.
Beach Opportunities On The Bayside of the Marin Headlands
Next up and one of the challenging 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. 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 an “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., by 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 and hike down to the lighthouse. The reward for your patience is a lovely, unobstructed view 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 the lighthouse proper. Once across the bridge, we 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. The lighthouse is automated now and like most 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.
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 the intersection of Conzelman and Field Roads. If you didn’t pack a lunch, you could grab a bite here.
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 Missle Site SF-88, a restored missile site, and 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 work in marine mammal rescue, veterinary science, and education.
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 the time of this writing, the tour’s cost is $10 for adults with discounts for children, seniors, and the Military.
After touring the Marine Mammal Center, if you still have time, drive ahead over to Rodeo Beach. You are now at the beach that faces due west out to the vast Pacific Ocean.
This 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.
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.
From nearly anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Marin Headlands makes a great day trip.