Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
Living in, or visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, we are blessed with the boundless beauties of nature. Water, landscapes and terrain create splendid views on a daily basis. Seasonal changes bring puffy white clouds in winter to foggy mists in summer. Whatever the season, Marin Headlands at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge brings breath stopping vistas, good cardio-hikes and most of all, a complete escape from everyday concerns. Early morning or late afternoon before sunset, the land is still. It’s a place of constant change, of solace and stimulation, at once an escape from reality and an immersion into wonder.
Because the area is so vast, more often than not, my destination here is mostly determined by whim and mood as well as the time of day. Sunsets at Fort Baker, Cavallo Point or Conzelman Road are grand. Early morning on the Coastal Trail from Conzelman Road to Rodeo Beach is pristine. The Battery Townsley Coastal Trail above Tennessee Point and Rodeo Beach is a place I reserve for special occasions. For Marin Headlands trail maps, follow this link to a printable pdf map. The Marin Headlands is a section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Below, I list favorite destinations within this national treasure.
Fort Baker and Horseshoe Cove- now home to Cavallo Point Resort: Named Lime Point Military Reservation until 1897, Fort Baker took its name in the 1900s from U.S. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker who lost his life leading Union troops in the Civil War. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 along with Forts Barry and Cronkhite (below in this article). Renovated and renewed in 2008, Cavallo Point Resort and Conference Center takes its name, in turn, from a nearby 1870s gun battery, Point Cavallo (Battery Cavallo). Those combined Army fortifications protected the entrance to San Francisco Bay for more than 100 years. Fortunately for us, the Army protected these beautiful sites from commercial development. The picturesque housing clustered around the parade grounds was built in the early 1900s and once served as officer’s housing for the 91st division, nicknamed The Wild West Division. Now restored, the historic houses are part of the resort complex. Throughout the 1900s the site was the training base for The Wild West. It is now tamed, and the conference center, spa, Murray Circle restaurant and Farley Bar occupy the historic administrative buildings, complete with their original decorative tin ceilings.
My wife and I frequently walk around the parade ground or along Drown Road, ( a dirt road just above Cavallo Point Resort), in the late afternoon and then relax with for a glass of wine and appetizers on the porch at the Farley Bar. From this vantage point we have viewed many spectacular crimson sunsets over the Golden Gate Bridge. In a previous life, Drown Road was the movie set for Starfleet Headquarters and Starfleet Academy in the Star Trek the Universe film. Fort Baker was also used as the Finish Line in The Amazing Race 2 and was featured in the third Dirty Harry film, The Enforcer.
Another favorite is the short walk past the Bay Area Discovery Museum; up onto the massive concrete Cavallo Battery gun emplacements for stunning views across the water to San Francisco. We then trek down to Travis Marina and Presidio Yacht Club; past the Golden Gate Coast Guard station to the former Navy pier, (now a fishing pier), where we are greeted by head on views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point, (nestled at the base of the South bridge tower). From here, you can also continue the walk under the Golden Gate Bridge and up the hill to the Western bridge overlook at Battery Spencer on Golden Gate Drive (aka Conzelman Road).
As a sunset alternative on a clear day, we often head West toward Rodeo Beach to watch the sun sink into the ocean. From Fort Baker it is just a short drive, by two different routes, to Rodeo Beach and Fort Cronkhite. There is also a 5+ mile hike on the Coastal Trail to Rodeo Beach, but that is best done in the morning because of the distance, crowds and in Summer, the heat.
Tunnel from Fort Baker to Fort Cronkhite and Rodeo Beach: The first way to Rodeo Beach is just to the West of the Cavallo Point resort, up the hill is the one-way Fort Baker-Barry tunnel to Bunker Road. Open to one direction of traffic at five minute intervals, the tunnel was originally built in 1917 to alleviate the dangerous climb along steep Conzelman Road which was particularly difficult at that time for horse drawn wagons. Prior to the tunnel, many of the supplies for Fort Barry were delivered by ship, despite the steep cliffs and rocky shore that needed to be traversed in order to reach the fort at the top of the hill. The tunnel was most recently renovated in 2017. (Bikes are also allowed through the tunnel.)
Once through the tunnel, a short 10-15 minute drive takes you to Rodeo Beach, with the option of returning on the same route to the Golden Gate Bridge, or alternatively, taking McCollough Drive uphill from Bunker Road to Conzelman Road. (For Marin Headlands maps follow this link to a printable pdf map.) We often take a drive through the tunnel to get out quickly to the headlands so we don’t miss sunset. It is also good in the mornings for a quick walk on the beach before it gets too crowded. In either case, we often return by going up McCollough Drive to Conzelman Road for a quick view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate Drive aka Conzelman Road to Rodeo Beach: This second way to reach Rodeo Beach may not be as direct as the tunnel, but it is much more scenic. Perched high on the cliffs overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge the road to Hawk Hill is a favorite with tourists and finding a parking spot can be tricky, but the spectacular views make the journey well worth it. Just after the Hawk Hill traffic circle, Conzelman Road become one-way West-bound only with no opportunities to turn around. At this point many tourists turn around and completely miss the beautiful drive down to the Point Bonita lighthouse.
Coastal Trail Hike to Rodeo Beach: This third, most fulfilling way to reach Rodeo Beach is on foot on the Coastal Trail. (For a printable trail map see the link.) The trail can be accessed at several points at variable distances from Rodeo Beach. Starting at Conzelman Drive, (just opposite to the Battery Spencer Golden Gate Bridge viewpoint), the SCA trailhead sign says the distance to Rodeo Beach is 5.2 miles. The SCA Trail links to the Slacker Trail, then the Julian Trail and then the Coast Trail. There is a nice overview of the hike at Richie Unterberger’s site. If you want a shorter downhill hike to Rodeo Beach, the Coastal Trail can also be accessed from the parking lot just to the North of the Conzelman Road traffic circle on Hawk Hill.
San Francisco MTA runs a Marin Headlands Express bus (76X) that offers a return for weary hikers, but double check the schedule since it has experienced some occasional interruptions in service.
I like to start from the Conzelman traffic circle on the Coast Trail and do a loop hike without going to Rodeo Beach, but warning, this is not for the faint of heart. The trail is downhill all the way to Rodeo Beach. I like to take the “Fisherman’s Trail” from the old Army Rifle Range back up hill to Conzelman Road (0.3 miles) and then follow the “Old Fisherman’s Trail” back along the top of the cliff to the stairs climbing back up Hawk Hill to Battery 129.
Point Bonita Lighthouse: The guiding Northern light for entrance to San Francisco Bay, Point Bonita Light has been a beautiful site for weary sailors since 1877. Before its completion, during the Gold Rush, more than 300 ships ran onto the rocks. Situated on the point below the fog line at the Northern entrance to San Francisco Bay, the lighthouse is accessed by a 118 foot tunnel that was hand carved through solid rock. In 1954 the old trail to the Light became too dangerous and a suspension bridge was added. This can be a spectacular place to photograph the fog rolling into the Bay. Since it is just a bit off the beaten path it often is less crowded than Conzelman Road or Rodeo Beach. For us, this has been a good picnic spot. With a blanket spread on the grass, or just a comfortable seat in the car, there is a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline.
Fort Cronkhite and Rodeo Beach: This is a wonderful destination for a quick walk on the beach. Even in the rain and fog, the sounds of the surf quickly quiet a restless mind. In the 1930s, three artillery batteries were stationed at Fort Cronkhite to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay, Battery Townsley, Alexander and Mendell. They, and an Army Nike missle base at Fort Barry, remained operational until the 1970s. The “temporary” barracks and administrative buildings erected by the Corp of Engineers at Fort Cronkhite in the 1930s are still in use, now serving as the National Park Service’s Marin Headland office as well as offices and teaching rooms for private non-profit organizations. (Note that the Marine Mammal Center is located just uphill from Fort Cronkhite.)
Surf’n and Turf’n on Rodeo Beach: No steak and seafood, instead an equestrian center just a short distance from the beach allows access for horse owners. Surfers like the beach, although the break is really pretty short, even on good days. Other happy campers include dogs, families and us.
Bunker Road or Tennessee Point Trail to Battery Townsley: This is not a road that is open to automobile traffic, but it is wide open to sneakers, shoes and hiking boots. The ascent is steep and the views spectacular. At Battery Townsley the historical society is working on a restoration of the World War-II 16-inch Coastal gun emplacement. Because a coastal gun couldn’t be found for the restoration, the Navy donated a gun from the battleship USS Missouri. The historical society managed to haul that massive piece of ordinance up the steep Bunker Road to Battery Townsley where it now sits outside the entrance to the gun emplacement. The battery is open the public the first Sunday of the month from 12 noon to 4PM.
This hike, for me, is always special. I have made it in the late Spring and early Summer with vibrant wild flowers gracing the path (April-May). On one particular unique foggy, mist enshrouded winter day I was awe-struck by the stark beauty of the landscape. From above Rodeo beach with mist swirling on a brisk November morning, nature was all powerful in her beauty and elegance. The strong relief created by outlines of coastal hills, mists, surf and landscape created a moving experience that was strongly felt, but defies easy explanation. This is but one of the many ethereal experiences to be had in the Marin Headlands.
IF YOU GO: For Marin Headlands trail maps follow this link to a printable pdf map. The Marin Headlands is a section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Destinations within the Marin Headlands include: Fort Baker; Cavallo Point Resort and Conference Center; Bay Area Discovery Museum; Point Bonita Light ; Fort Cronkhite; Nike missle base; Rodeo Beach ; and, Marine Mammal Center .