Pack a lunch, bring the binocs, and bask in the coastal views.
Four easy to challenging coastal hikes are the centerpiece scenic Marin Headlands escape that takes in views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, and the Pacific. You can follow this itinerary any day of the week. Depending on which hike you choose and how leisurely you pace yourself, you might be in the headlands for half a day or nearly a full one.
Breakfast in Sausalito
Start your day in Sausalito with a hearty breakfast at Lighthouse Café. For something lighter, try a pastry and coffee, tea, juice, or a smoothie at Driver’s Market. Either way, pick up picnic items at Driver’s for lunch in the headlands, where there are no restaurants.
Conzelman Road Vista Points
From Sausalito, head south and then west to the headlands and the Conzelman Road vista points. If you can find a parking space, pause at the first one, Battery Spencer. You’ll recognize this perspective on the bridge from countless TV shows and films. Stop as often as you wish as you continue west on Conzelman up to the Hawk Hill vista point and park there. Walk through the unmarked Battery 129 tunnel (across Conzelman from the parking area), which shortly delivers you to magical Pacific Ocean views. Back out at the parking area’s western edge there’s an easy path up to the Nike Missile Site SF-87 radar platform (not to be confused with the nearby SF-88L facility), which yields awesome ocean and city views.
Black Sand at the Beach
West past the Hawk Hill parking area the road becomes one-way and (if you’re the driver) distractingly scenic as it plunges downward. New hillside and ocean vistas unfold at every curve. An optional stop if you’ve started early is at the first parking lot, often full on weekends, signed as Upper Fisherman’s. The trail to the left of the sign leads down to Black Sands Beach. Even if you don’t head all the way to the beach, reached via a long wooden staircase, walk a few steps down to catch the view. If you do reach the beach, you’ll notice that on sunny days some locals show their appreciation for the stark natural setting by partaking of it au naturel.
Arrive at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center and briefly check out the displays about the headlands, and pick up a trail map.
Now comes the hiking decision. Take your pick among these four Great Marin County Hikes:
- The Rodeo Lagoon Trail Loop is short (1.5 miles round-trip) and easy, leaving you more time for lunch.
- The easy to moderate Battery Mendell to Battery Townsley hike is 4 miles round-trip.
- The part of the easy to moderate Rodeo Lagoon to Point Bonita Lighthouse hike that can be done even when the lighthouse is closed is about 3.5 miles round-trip. Point Bonita Lighthouse, well worth a visit, is usually open on Sundays and Mondays between 12:30 and 3:30 (arrive by 2:30 for the fullest experience). The hike to the lighthouse is an additional 1 mile round-trip.
- The moderate Coastal, Wolf Ridge, Miwok Trails Loop hike is 5.5 miles round-trip.
Picnic on the Trail
All four hikes pass by Rodeo Beach. At the eastern end of Rodeo Lagoon, the beach is a good spot for a picnic—on the sand or at tables and benches nearby. All the hikes but the one to the lighthouse stop at Battery Townsley, where the picnicking is more informal but the views are superb.
Except perhaps with the longest hike, you’ll likely be done in the early afternoon. If you’ve done the short Rodeo Lagoon hike, visit the Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates seals and other sea creatures. If you’ve done the longer hikes and want to extend your stay in the headlands, by all means stop here, too.
If it’s a sunny day and you’ve more time still, loop back to Rodeo Beach or Black Sands.
Toast the Day
The easiest way to visit the headlands is by car. As of October 2021, the Muni 76x Marin Headlands Express bus from San Francisco remained suspended because of COVID-19. When in operation, the bus will get you partway up Conzelman Road and to the Marin Headlands Visitor Center and Rodeo Beach.
If heading north from San Francisco: Just after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, take the Alexander Avenue exit, staying to the left – it looks like you’re heading back to San Francisco, but this is the correct route (just don’t get back on the bridge). At the “T” intersection, you’ll see a brown sign indicating the Marin Headlands coastal and tunnel routes. Turn left to follow the Marin Headlands Coastal Route. After a quarter mile (shortly after you pass under U.S. 101), stay to the right to access Conzelman Road, the last street before the bridge. The first vista point is just up the hill.
If heading south on U.S. 101 from anywhere in Marin: Take the Alexander Avenue exit (the last one before the Golden Gate Bridge) and immediately turn left, following the brown sign that reads Marin Headlands Coastal Route. Stay to the right to access Conzelman Road, the last street before the bridge. The first vista point is just up the hill.
More Marin County Hikes
Marin County History
This story first appeared online in 2017; it was fact-checked and updated in 2020.