Know before you go: Want to visit the places recommended in this article? With local regulations changing frequently, it’s a good idea to check the website of any attraction or business to make sure it’s open before you go.
Meet the Marin Headlands. A vast area containing beaches, meadows, and seemingly endless trails for hiking and biking, this former military site is now maintained by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The park overlooks the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, meaning it’s able to offer day-trippers from San Francisco a “cut off from the real world” feel even while affording them grand views of the bridge and the city skyline.
If you’re planning on heading across the bridge for a day or more the next time you’re in San Francisco, here are a few of our favorite things to do around the Marin Headlands.
Marine Mammal Center
The Marine Mammal Center is a rescue-and-release center and hospital for sick and injured seals, sea lions, dolphins, harbor porpoises, and other marine mammals in distress along the California Coast. You can walk around the center for free, admiring its ocean-themed art exhibits, peeking into the “fish kitchen” where patients’ meals are prepared, and even observing animals being rehabilitated on site. While admission to the facility is free, consider taking a docent-guided or audio tour to get the most out of your visit. You’ll learn more about how the center returns animals to their native habitats, get a behind-the-scenes look at the facility, and contribute to the center’s ongoing work with the cost of your ticket.
Headlands Center for the Arts
The Headlands Center for the Arts is an artist-in-residence program right in the middle of the park, and they host different events open to the public throughout the year. The center hosts residencies each year for some 70 artists, who spend their time creating new works of art on-site. The center holds open houses several times a month, as well as annual seasonal exhibitions.
The Headlands’ main draw is its endless network of trails offering vistas of rolling hills, crashing waves, and city skylines. Staff at the visitors’ center will be able to help you plan a day full of hikes – or leisurely strolls – depending on what you’re in the mood for, but there are several go-to treks worth considering.
You just can’t go wrong with a trek out to Rodeo Beach, and there’s a trail you can pick up near the visitors’ center. Take in the views of the water and the craggy rock formations dotting the ocean as you come in over this easy path, then spend a lazy day relaxing on the beach with other sun worshippers.
For a more strenuous hike, try conquering Hill 88. This is the highest hill in the area, and a several-mile-long loop trail lets you take it all in on foot. While you may be out of breath by the time you reach the top of the hill, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with panoramic views of the Bay and San Francisco.
Just before sunset, drive or hike out to Conzelman Road. If you’ve ever seen a postcard-perfect picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline, there’s a good chance the picture was shot right here. The unobstructed views of the water, bridge, and skyscrapers is stunning any time of day, but sunset casts a particularly lovely light on the whole scene.
On weekends when the weather is nice, this upscale waterfront town just outside the Headlands can get quite crowded. So park downtown and ditch the car in favor of walking, biking, or boating. Sausalito’s waterfront location has a huge impact on the town’s image and lifestyle, so a bay-side exploration is a must for any visitor. Make your way on foot to the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, where well-to-do locals park their impressive rides. The water, the boats, and the hills in the background give the harbor an almost Caribbean feel, especially when the sun’s shining.
Ferry to San Francisco
After you’re done admiring the boats, it’s time to get out on the water, yourself. At the Sausalito Ferry Terminal, you can catch a boat across the bay to San Francisco for around $10 each way. The boat ride takes a little under half an hour, and drops you off at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Once there, spend a few hours tasting your way through a warren of restaurants, bars, ice cream and coffee shops, gourmet grocery stores, and other culinary hot spots.
Bike Around Sausalito
If you’d rather spend the day biking than boating, skip the ferry and make your way to Sausalito Bike Rentals, where you can rent cycles starting at $10 an hour. You’ll be just a few miles from the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito’s famous houseboats, either of which make perfect biking destinations.
Back in the Headlands, take advantage of one of the night hikes offered by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Parks Conservancy also leads special night hikes to the Point Bonita Lighthouse each month on the full moon (while the full moon hikes are free, they do require advance registration. Call the Marin Headlands Visitors’ Center at (415) 331-1540 to reserve your spot).
Dinner & Drinks
If you’re all hiked out, consider spending the rest of the evening in Sausalito or one of the small surrounding towns. Try Sausalito’s Sartaj India Café for delicious, inexpensive meals, and the Pelican Inn in Muir Beach for drinks and snacks in a setting that will whisk you away to the English countryside.