Visitors reap the benefit of locals’ fierce efforts to protect Marin’s pastoral legacy.
The lives of Marin County’s original residents, the Coast Miwok people who inhabited the region for millennia, revolved around accessing the bounty of forest and sea—the game birds and fish they hunted and the acorns and kelp they gathered. The county’s agricultural heritage dates to the 1800s and the ranchos established during California’s period of Mexican rule (1821–1848) and remains well in evidence in the form of the historic and working dairy farms dotting the northern and western reaches. Though it no longer supports shrimp fishing, a 19th-century village founded by Cantonese immigrants is preserved at China Camp State Park in San Rafael.
A satellite map reveals in an instant the results of locals’ fierce efforts, going back more than a century, to protect Marin County’s pastoral legacy by limiting growth. In contrast to the counties east of San Francisco, two of which have more than a million inhabitants, Marin has approximately 260,000, most of whom live in cities that straddle U.S. 101, which travels north–south along the county’s eastern side. Towns are fewer and smaller as you move west toward the Pacific Ocean, and much of the coast is undeveloped.
What Might Have Been
While snapping photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from the stark, windswept Marin Headlands (lead photo), terrain that still looks much as it did a century ago, imagine the visual clutter had developers succeeded in peppering the hills with postwar housing units. Or if two generous locals in the early 1900s hadn’t thwarted a scheme to fell thousands of redwoods and create a massive reservoir in southern Marin. The land they donated eventually became Muir Woods National Monument. On the other hand, while stuck in rush-hour traffic on 101, keep in mind that Marinites declined to participate in the BART light-rail system that serves San Francisco and other surrounding counties.
Architectural Landmark, Farmers Market
Visitors often pass through Marin’s two largest towns, San Rafael (population 59,000), the county seat, and Novato (56,000), without stopping, though the Marin Civic Center is a must-visit for architecture buffs. A late-life masterpiece by architect Frank Lloyd Wright (his last commission), the massive structure embodied the conflict between the county’s ag heritage and modernity. As docents make clear on fascinating Wednesday-morning tours, old-timers that included many farmers scorned the Civic Center as ostentatious and out of character with the county even as architecture critics praised Wright for respectfully positioning the center amid the surrounding landscape. Though he might disdain the canopy-tent setup for vendors, Wright would no doubt appreciate that in addition to housing administrative offices, a library, and a courthouse, the landmark site hosts the Sunday Marin Civic Center Farmers Market. Most of the artisanal crops and foods sold at this weekly showcase are produced in the county or its neighbors.
A Place to Rejuvenate
San Rafael also contains a 1949 replica of Mission San Rafael Arcángel, the 20th of the 21 missions Franciscan friars erected in California to promote their Catholic faith and Spain’s empire. It’s worth noting that the site originated in 1817 as a sanitarium for the ailing population of Mission Dolores in San Francisco. The success rate was so high that full mission status was granted a few years later. Spend a little time communing with Marin’s glorious open spaces, perhaps hiking paths in the coastal Abbotts Lagoon or Tule Elk Preserve or enjoying the trees of Muir Woods or Roy’s Redwoods, and you may find yourself rejuvenated as well. And grateful that generations of residents strove to safeguard these sites in perpetuity.
Great Marin County Hikes
Battery Mendell to Battery Townsley
Coastal, Wolf Ridge, Miwok Trails Loop
Mount Tamalpais Muir Woods Loop
Rodeo Lagoon to Point Bonita Lighthouse
Rodeo Lagoon Trail Loop
Roy’s Redwoods Open Space Preserve
Tule Elk Preserve
More About Marin County
This story first appeared online in 2017; it was fact-checked and updated in 2022.