High on a bluff in the Marin Headlands, breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean surround me in panoramic splendor. Fog drifts through the Golden Gate, the foghorn sounding its mournful call, and the wind blows through my hair and the trees. I breathe in the sea-scented air as I watch the play of light on the currents below.
Here, on Hawk Hill, raptors wheel effortlessly as they glide, dive and soar, held in the power of the wind. The wind seems to lift me too, my mind soaring with the birds as I let go the demands of everyday life.
Hawk Hill is one of the best places to view raptors during their annual fall migration. Nine hundred feet above the tide, as many as 2,800 hawks, kestrels, harriers and golden eagles climb the sky, gaining altitude to cross the strait. This is just one of many must-see sites that await you in the Marin Headlands.
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the 15 square miles of the Marin Headlands offer a surprisingly easy escape to this land of many stories, some mere whispers, others still hauntingly clear.
Less than one mile from the highway it appears I’ve entered another world—one of rolling hills, protected valleys, steep bluffs, rocky coves, and sand beaches. On this early winter day my eyes feast on a palette of color: willows in russet, gold and brown; scrub in muted grays and greens; rich red earth; white clouds drifting across blue sky and fog caressing the curves of the gentle landscape. San Francisco and its famous bridge seem a million miles away.
For all its natural beauty, this is not an area untouched by man. Man’s history, from the peaceful Coastal Miwoks through the tense days of the Cold War, enriches the story of the Marin Headlands while it can bring disquieting moments throughout the day.
Coastal Miwoks built homes of willow and reed during their seasonal visits, fishing in the spring and gathering acorns in the fall. During the 1800s the land was used for cattle and dairy ranches, bringing in Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and Native American vaqueros who learned their skills from the Spanish. By 1870 the U.S. Army was buying up parcels of headland, building forts and constructing batteries along the coast. These were used to defend and protect the entrance to the bay through World War II. During the Cold War, 280 missile sites were established, though missiles were never fired. Today’s park could have been “Marincello,” a city of 30,000, but Congress stepped in and created a public preserve in 1972.
Since that time the Golden Gate National Parks Association has done a tremendous job of restoring the land. Rodeo Lagoon is a haven for migrating waterfowl while supporting wildlife year round. On the one-mile loop circling the lagoon you might spot brown pelicans, mallards, buffleheads, widgeons and mergansers. Deer and bobcat roam the woodlands, hillsides and valleys among eucalyptus, coyote bush and sage. During spring the land glows with the blue, yellow and orange of lupines and poppies. Rocky coves echo with the barks of playing harbor seals.
The ideal starting point for a day of discovery in the Marin Headlands is the visitor center, housed in the former military chapel of Fort Cronkhite. Award winning exhibits, combining life-size, vintage photographs, authentic displays and engaging narrative give voice to former inhabitants. From the lovely reed house of the Miwoks, the tiny watch house and light keeper’s log, to the precision made bunks, filled foot lockers and worn helmets of World War II soldiers, their stories come alive. Under twenty foot arched ceilings and the light from multiple, tall windows, tables and chairs around a cozy wood burning stove and the fine array of books and field guides ask you to linger, while the Headlands’ geologic and natural history displays beckon you outdoors to experience them firsthand. Before you leave, make sure to pick up a free trail map and check the posted schedule of interpretive activities.
I headed first to Rodeo Beach, to stretch my legs among dunes and beach of coarse sand and driftwood, keeping my eyes open for bobbing sea lions, wetsuit clad surfers and carnelian searching beachcombers. The ocean vista before me seemed unchanged since the days of the Miwoks, while the beach itself changes dramatically with the seasons as storms and run-off alter its landscape.
California’s Gold Rush drew ships to San Francisco like gourmands to Berkeley. In 1849 over 775 vessels attempted to navigate the hazardous entrance to San Francisco Bay, many crashing on the rocks. A permanent warning system was sorely needed and by 1855 the Point Bonita Lighthouse was built. The first one was on the highest hill in the area where it proved to be directly in the fog belt, necessitating the use of a fog bell and canon. A few years later it was moved to its present location, at the farthest end of the rocky point, where it continues to guide ships today.
My walk to the lighthouse proved to be an adventure in itself. The narrow, paved trail was short but steep with a spectacular vista at every turn: massive rock formations casting shadows across the path, jagged cliffs with crashing surf, the rugged Pacific coastline and the broad sweep of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A black iron wall containing a small locked door blocks the entrance to a narrow tunnel, cut through the rock in 1877. Feeling like a character from The Lord of the Rings, I warily eyed the rough, mold-coated surface close on all sides, as I headed for the bright light ahead.
The final approach is a one-of-a-kind suspension bridge, where people cross two by two. At the end of the bridge stands the light, 125 lead glass prisms, visible for 18 miles, and the squat, white lighthouse, looking solid enough to withstand severe winter storms. Standing on this rocky point, looking out to the expansive blue of the ocean, I felt like I was at the end of the earth.
Further discoveries at the Headlands can include the Marine Mammal Center, dedicated to the rescue and release of injured sea mammals, and Site 88, the last Nike missile site in operating condition. Both are open to the public and definitely worth a visit.
With over 50 miles of hiking trails, your day can also include a chance to lose yourself in nature and to enjoy her bounty—a picnic along Rodeo Lagoon or the willow grove, a hike along the Coastal or Miwok Trail. But unlike other nature preserves, here man’s presence can’t be left behind. As I followed the trail, the ruins of bunkers and batteries dotting the hillsides and standing as guardians of the coast, kept me aware of man’s influence and dominance over the land. The wind still blew, the vistas warmed my soul, I soared, but some of the voices from the past and the realities of the present invaded my mind.