If all you’ve seen of the Marin Headlands is the view from the Golden Gate Bridge, take a bus to see the rugged other side. A popular Sunday outing involves taking the Muni 76-Marin Headlands bus for a spectacular tour of the headlands, which were saved from development in the 1970s.
For an even better outing, you can get off the bus at the last stop, Fort Cronkhite. The fort, a former World War II military outpost, offers leisurely picnic facilities at Rodeo Beach and a choice of short hikes. (The 76 bus runs hourly Sundays and holidays only and hits many of the headlands highlights including the Visitor Center.)
Here you will find pounding waves, clean restrooms and picnic tables. Even when the fog rolls in, the dramatic dark sands, surrounding bluffs and bird-filled lagoon make Rodeo Beach popular with surfers, kite flyers and optimistic sunbathers. (Strong currents make the beach unsuitable for swimming.) Underfoot are semiprecious stones such as jade, jasper and black agate in the rough sand. These are to be enjoyed but not collected. If you get too sandy, you can rinse off at an outdoor shower.
Rodeo Lagoon hike
Rodeo Lagoon is separated from the ocean by the sandbar that is Rodeo Beach. During the year, fresh water from Rodeo Creek and Rodeo Pond feed into the lagoon, but during the rainy season, salty ocean waves break over the sandbar, creating a unique environment that is home to many birds and fish, including the endangered tidewater goby. A 1.5-mile hike around the lagoon offers bird watching as well as a chance to stop off at the Visitor Center.
Pick up the path hugging the lagoon next to Mitchell Road. As you walk, you may see herons, egrets and pelicans. Enjoy the cattails, willow and coyote bush, but watch out for abundant poison oak. As the trail curves to the right across a small bridge, Rodeo Pond is on the left. Rounding the lagoon, you will see a sign directing you the Marin Headlands Visitor Center — a most worthwhile detour to this former army chapel. Here you can pick up a detailed trail map of the entire headlands, view exhibits, talk to a ranger and browse the books and field guides.
As you continue around the lagoon, the trail rises and then descends gently back to the beach. Cross the elegant footbridge and you are back at Fort Cronkhite.
Battery Townsley and Tennessee Point hikes
For a more aerobic walk, hike uphill for about a half a mile on the Coastal Trail from Rodeo Beach to Battery Townsley. Here you can explore San Francisco’s most secret military fortification, where two huge battleship guns and more than 100 soldiers housed in underground tunnels protected the nation during World War II. Free tours of the battery are offered the second Sunday of each month from noon to 4 p.m. When the battery is not open, you can still explore and enjoy dramatic, sometimes vertiginous, views.
If you don’t want to walk uphill to the battery, you can see even more spectacular coastal views at Tennessee Point. Take the trail that hugs the ocean bluffs, splitting off from the Coastal Trail part way up to the battery. This trail winds along the cliffs to Tennessee Point, a flat, windy promontory jutting into the ocean where, amid the pounding surf and flying pelicans, civilization can seem very far away.
You can catch the 76 downtown and at various San Francisco locations, including the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza (the bus stop is marked “Golden Gate Transit”). Go to www.transit.511.org for route map and schedule.
By car from San Francisco, go over the Golden Gate Bridge and exit at Alexander Avenue, merging onto Sausalito Lateral. Turn left onto Bunker Road through the narrow tunnel, continuing on Mitchell Road to the Fort Cronkhite parking lot on your right.
From the North Bay, head south on Highway 101 and take the second Sausalito exit (the one south of the Waldo Tunnel). Turn right onto Sausalito Lateral. Turn left onto Bunker Road through the tunnel, continuing on Mitchell Road to the Fort Cronkhite parking lot on your right.
Photo: Google Image