Family Adventure in the Marin Headlands
August 30, 2011Posted by pamela |
Located at the very south end of Marin County, the Marin Headlands have much to offer for families and is one of our favorite destinations for a day of outdoor adventure. Wildlife, beaches, history, natural beauty, sweeping vistas of the Pacific and San Francisco—the Headlands have all that and more.
Now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Headlands were at one time home to a Spanish and Mexican rancho, military fortifications and Cold-war Nike missile sites, and narrowly escaped becoming a housing development called Marincello back in the 1960s. Thankfully that never came to pass, and we're left with a superlative national park enjoyed by countless Bay Area residents and visitors.
Our first stop is usually the park visitor center, located in the old Fort Barry chapel, located at the intersection of Field and Bunker Roads, about three miles from the park entrance. You'll pass by it on your way to Fort Cronkhite and Rodeo Beach, and it's well worth a stop. Rangers and volunteers are on hand to answer questions, and kids can check out exhibits and dioramas including a Miwok dwelling, a World War II-era army barrack, natural history displays, a touching table, and more. There's also a gift shop here stocking a surprisingly large selection of books, clothing, posters, toys, and other souvenirs. (It's a great place to buy unique gifts for out-of-town family, by the way.)
Our other must-visit Marin Headlands destination is Rodeo Beach. This dark-sand beach, accessible via a footbridge across Rodeo Lagoon, is a popular spot for surfing, bird-watching, kite flying, picnicking, surfing, dog walking, and just relaxing oceanside on a warm day. The sand here is composed of tiny little pebbles of colorful stone, and children always have a great time picking through it for particularly colorful specimens, including jade, black agate, jasper, and carnelian. Like most beaches along Marin's Pacific Coast, for safety reasons, Rodeo Beach isn't suitable for swimming, surfers notwithstanding.
Located nearby in Fort Cronhkite, the Marine Mammal Center is a Marin Headlands must-see. You can take a free self-guided tour and see seals and sea lions that the center is nursing back to health. Read more about the Marine Mammal Center here.
Hiking trails abound throughout the headlands. One of our favorite kid-friendly hikes is to head up the hill on the Coastal Trail from Rodeo Beach. The trail winds up on the bluffs overlooking Rodeo Beach and Fort Cronkhite and offers some spectacular views. Other worthwhile hikes nearby are on the Lagoon Trail and the Rodeo Valley Trail.
The other big draw at the Marin Headlands is history. Throughout the 20th century, the Headlands were the site of the US Army's Forts Barry and Cronkhite, as the countless leftover military buildings and fortifications attest. Kids love to clamber around the old concrete gun batteries that line the coastal bluffs here. One of our favorite places to explore is Battery Mendell, at the end of Fort Barry Road near the YMCA. Built in 1902, Battery Mendell is sited high on a hill overlooking Rodeo Beach and the Pacific, and was once home to two 12-inch disappearing rifles—coastal artillery pieces that would hide themselves after each shot to avoid enemy detection.
Battery Alexander—once home to heavy mortars and now to picnic areas—is worth visiting, as is the later Battery Wallace, which looks like it's literally buit into the hillside. Keep in mind that while these historic structures are fun to visit and play on, they are constructed of materials like concrete and iron and weren't built with safety in mind, so be careful.
There's also a restored Nike missile site, SF-88, that was active during the Cold War, and is one of many that once dotted hills around Marin County. It's open during the Wednesday through Friday from 12:30 to 3:30 pm and on the first Saturday of the month. On guided tours you can see everything up close and even take a ride down the missile elevator into the underground storage area.
Another important historic structure is Point Bonita Lighthouse. Built way back in the 1850s to guide mariners away from the rocky shores of the Golden Gate, the lighthouse recently re-opened to the public after a much needed rebuild of the suspension bridge that leads to it. (Point Bonita is the only lighthouse in America that's accessed via suspension bridge.) It's an easy, fun, hike for the family, with amazing views, and is open Saturday–Monday from 12:30–3:30 pm.
If you go
To get to the Marin Headlands, take Highway 101 south to the Alexander Avenue exit. Go right at the stop sign and follow Alexander Avenue back under the freeway. Turn left on Danes Drive and take the famous, one-way, mile-long tunnel to Bunker Road. Since the tunnel is one-way, you'll find a stop light controlling access at either end, and you may have to wait for up to five minutes for oncoming traffic to come through. (You could also head the opposite direction at the Alexander Avenue exit and head up Conzelman Road into the Headlands, but the Bunker Road Tunnel is an important part of the experience, and a big hit with kids.)
Follow Bunker Road into the headlands—it will lead all the way to Rodeo Beach and Fort Cronkhite.
The Marin Headlands visitor center is open daily from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, and the park itself is open sunrise to sunset. Restrooms are available at the visitor center and at Rodeo Beach, and there are portable toilets located throughout the park. Plenty of picnic tables and BBQ grills can be found here, but bring your own food in as there's no place to get it at the park.
It can get busy in the Marin Headlands on weekends and holidays, especially during the summer tourist season. If you go during the week, you'll find you pretty much have the place to yourself.
For more information, including road and trail maps, visit www.nps.gov/goga.