Explore the Marin Headlands for Outdoor Adventures
The Marin Headlands is one of our favorite destinations for a day of outdoor family adventure. Even though many of the indoor spaces, like the visitor center and the Marine Mammal Center, are currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions, there are still amazing beaches and trails to explore, making it the perfect destination for an outdoor outing with the kiddos.
While it's now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area park system, the Marin Headlands was previously the site of Coast Miwok settlements, a Spanish and Mexican rancho, and a military base. It almost became a giant housing development called Marincello back in the 1960s, but thankfully that never happened!
The Marin Headlands' primary beach is Rodeo Beach, which you access via a footbridge across Rodeo Lagoon. This dark-sand beach is a popular spot for surfing, bird-watching, kite flying, picnicking, surfing, dog walking, and just relaxing on a warm day.
The sand here is composed of tiny little pebbles of colorful stone, and kids always have a great time picking through it for particularly colorful specimens, including jade, black agate, jasper, and carnelian. Like most beaches along the Marin coast, Rodeo Beach isn't safe for swimming.
Our favorite beach here is South Rodeo Beach. It's calm and quiet and has amazing views of Rodeo Beach and the coast. To get there, park in the Battery Alexander parking lot off Field Road and hike down the South Rodeo Beach trail. It's about a five-minute walk down a gently sloping pathway and it's well worth it.
You'll find numerous hiking trails for all skill levels 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.
History is another big draw at the Marin Headlands. During the 20th century, the Headlands was the site of the US Army's Forts Barry and Cronkhite, and they're left behind countless buildings, installations, and fortifications. 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 Point Bonita 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 guns and now a picnic area—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.
Current COVID-19 Restrictions
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our favorite places to visit in the Marin Headlands are currently closed to the public. These include:
- Point Bonita Lighthouse
- Marin Headlands Visitor Center
- Nike Missile Base
- Battery Townsley
- The Marine Mammal Center
- Kirby Cove Day Use Area
You can read more about visiting these places here. We'll post updates when they open to the public again.
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. The tunnel is one-way, so you may have to wait for up to five minutes for oncoming traffic to come through. Follow Bunker Road into the headlands—it will lead all the way to Rodeo Beach and Fort Cronkhite.
Restrooms are available at the visitor center, Rodeo Beach, and near Battery Mendell. There are portable toilets located throughout the park, too. 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. Make sure you practice social distancing measures at picnic areas as per Marin County guidelines. Also make sure you have masks or other face coverings for when you can't keep at least 6 feet apart from other groups; children 12 and under are not required to wear masks (although it's recommended) and children under 3 should not wear one due to suffocation risk.
Northern California coastal weather can be unpredicatable, so be prepared for anything from blazing sunshine to howling winds and fog at any time of year. Dress in layers, and bring hats and sunscreen. Wear sturdy shoes for hiking and exploring old bunkers. Keep in mind that early-20th-century military fortifications weren't designed with safety in mind, so keep an eye on little ones at all times.
It can get busy in the Marin Headlands on weekends and holidays, especially during the summer. If you go during the week, you'll find you pretty much have the place to yourself. For more information about the Marin Headlands, including road and trail maps and opening hours, visit www.nps.gov/goga.
January 15, 2021
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