Early in August, we set off for our annual family summer trip and chose to spend a week exploring Northern California. We have been to San Diego and Southern California many times and have all loved it. This time, we thought we’d enjoy exploring the northern coast and the Bay Area.
With ten days to plan, it wasn’t hard filling up our time and were able to do a wide variety of things that pleased everyone in our family of four. From hiking the mystical Marin Headlands, to getting lost within the towering giant redwoods of John Muir’s famous quotes, and being mesmerized in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there was plenty of nature, culture, and togetherness for our family.
Over the course of nine days, we began our trip in Marin County moving next down the coast to Monterey and finishing up our journey in San Francisco for two days before flying home. It was a wonderful vacation filled with beauty and adventure.
With so much to do and see in the area, it can be a bit overwhelming to make the most of your stay. Here are some tips on what to do and see in the Marin Headlands before heading south down the coast.
First stop: Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point
After arriving at the San Francisco International Airport, we got our luggage, rented a car and headed 20 miles north on Highway 280 to the Marin Headlands across the bay from San Francisco. It was our first taste of real California traffic and we were quite thankful that we were heading into town in the middle of the day as opposed to rush hour.
After crossing the glorious Golden Gate Bridge in full fog, we pulled over at the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point on the edge of the craggy Marin Headlands overlooking the bay. Although it was quite busy, we had no problem waiting for a car to pull out and grab the spot. This is where we took our first photo of this iconic landmark graced in fog.
The Golden Gate is one of San Francisco’s most beloved and well-known landmarks. Named after the entrance to the strait of San Francisco Bay, the “golden gate” by U.S. Army Captain John Fremont in 1846, the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937 and connects San Francisco to Marin county. Painted in not gold but an autumn orange, the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge measures 1.7 miles long by 746 feet high and is a masterpiece of engineering, beauty, and design. It is one of the most photographed structures in the world and is the namesake of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the largest urban park in the United States.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Encompassing almost 81,000 acres of parkland north and south of the Golden Gate Bridge with 130 miles of trails, 12 sand beaches, 3 lighthouses, Alcatraz, Muir Woods, and more, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is the nation’s largest park right in the heart of a big city. Founded in 1972 based on the philosophy that American people living in urban environments should have access to nature and parks, the Golden Gate National Recereation Area is the Bay Area’s outdoor playground and attracts visitors from all around the world.
There are many places to go in this immense urban park but with only three days we had to pick and choose what would be best. Since most of the places we wanted to see were located in the Marin Headlands, we chose to stay in Mill Valley for the first three full days of our trip. The location could not have been more perfect as it was only a short drive to Muir Woods and all the other things we wanted to see in Marin County. We found an Air B&B that fit our family of four as it ended up being much more affordable than a hotel and we had a kitchen to cut down on expenses eating out. There are not many hotels in Marin County so an Air B&B is your best bet.
Rolling green hills, craggy windswept peaks, sheltered valleys, hidden forests of coastal redwoods and unspoiled beaches are what treasures you will find along the Marin Headlands. A mix between the iconic landscapes of Scotland and the Mediterranean, the Marin Headlands are bound to dazzle. When the fog rolls in as it often does, I felt like I was on another planet. Then the fog would quickly lift and brilliant sunshine would warm the wildflowers growing in bursts of yellow and pink along the tops of the headlands.
Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to explore Mount Tamalpais, a vast wilderness preserve at 2,571 feet affording beautiful lookouts and hikes. But we did get to visit the delightful Muir Woods, a handful of deserted beaches and the epic Tennessee Valley. You could easily spend a week just in the Marin Headlands hiking and taking the wild, rugged beauty all in.
Muir Woods National Monument
Nestled at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods National Monument is one of the few remaining strands of old-growth coast redwoods in the Bay Area. Named in honor of the 19th-century naturalist, environmentalist, and poet John Muir, this 558-acre monument is home to more than 380 different plants and animals, including 27 species of mammals, 50 species of birds, 12 species of reptiles, and 5 species of amphibians. While most people come to see the giant redwoods – some of which are nearly 1,000 years old- others come to seek solace and peace within this quiet sanctuary and escape the urban life across the Bay.
To walk through these giant redwoods is a somewhat mystical experience, especially if you go early enough in the morning to beat the crowds. I personally am a huge fan of John Muir and adore not only his epic conservation efforts but also his beautiful poetic sayings. While it is hard to pick a favorite, this Muir quote, in particular, sang through my head as we walked quietly below the redwoods. “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks”.
My biggest piece of advice is to arrive early the shuttle buses. It is and will be crowded which unfortunately takes a bit away from the magic and tranquility one seeks when walking in such a majestic place. We booked our time slot reservation for 9 am arrival and that seemed to be perfect. We also made sure to go during the week as opposed to the weekend when all of the Bay Area probably want to get out and take a hike.
There is a main walkway that brings visitors through the redwoods visiting four bridges. We followed the path to Bridge 3 and made the best decision of all: To get off the main path and take a hike. There are a couple hikes to choose from along the boardwalk and we opted to follow Fern Loop trail.
As soon as we got off the boardwalk, we were delighted to have the whole woods to ourselves! We meandered around the loop path for a couple of miles, taking in the fresh, fragrant smells and the song of the birds. We also were sure to stop from time to time and look up at the immense canopy high above us. Rays of light trickled in, lighting up the forest in a magical way. I felt almost like I was back in New Zealand on the set of Lord of the Rings. As you walk, you can almost hear John Muir poetic words whispering in your ears. It is quite a wondrous place.
If you have the time, you can go directly to Muir Beach after exploring the woods but we did it at a later time during our trip. There are also some serious hiking trails that launch from Muir Woods so if you prefer to do a longer hike, it is definitely possible. Plan for at least a few hours to enjoy your visit to Muir Woods.
Very important: Parking and Shuttle Bus reservations are required in order to visit the park. You must reserve your spot well in advance to not be disappointed. You can book your reservation for Muir Woods at www.gomuirwoods.com. If you show up without a reservation, you will be turned away and unable to park or visit Muir Woods.
Drive Around the southern tip of the Marin Headlands
Another must-do is to drive around the southern tip of the Marin Headlands, stopping along the way to enjoy the spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area. Once again, this is highly recommended to do during the week mostly because there is a one-way lane going through the bridge from Highly 101 to the Visitor Center that can cause huge traffic delays when busy.
We followed Bunker Road to the Marin Headlands Visitor Center which has a complete history of the area. It is small but fascinating and worth the visit. Then we did a short hike to Rodeo Beach and finished with a drive along Conzelman Road stopping at the various panoramic vistas along the way.
We also stopped at The Marine Mammal Center – a nonprofit organization that advances global ocean conservation through marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation, scientific research, and education – for an hour tour of the facility. My kids loved learning all about the amazing work they are doing to rehabilitate seals, sea lions and even whales. I highly recommend a visit as you are sure to fall in love with a seal.
The divine Tennessee Valley is a lovely wildland not far from Mill Valley in the Marin Headlands, filled with rolling hills of sage, yarrow and wild roses and smells of the coast. There are a few easy-going hiking trails that lead to the beach or else you can hike up on the headlands with dramatic views of the coast. We chose to pack a lunch and hike the Tennessee Valley trail to the beach and return on the Lower Tennessee Valley trail for a bit of a different view.
As we left, the valley was shrouded in fog and slowly it began to dissipate as the sun tried its best to poke out. As we walked I could feel the tiny droplets of water from the fog gently tickle my face. In an odd way, it reminded me of being on the coast of Chile. But alas we were in California, thousands of miles away.
Many people choose to go here to visit the beach or else hike along the rugged headlands, all which afford stunning views of the coast and the Bay Area. Although the fog made it quite mysterious, it was too bad it wasn’t sunny as I’m sure we would have stayed at the beach longer if we weren’t so cold.
Where to Eat:
Since we had our own small house rental, we had a full kitchen making it easy to eat in and save a little bit of money. California is not cheap and the cost of dining out adds up fast for a family of four. On the nights we did chose to go out we enjoyed eating at a local pizza place in Mill Valley called Tamalpies Pizzeria, a family-friendly restaurant walking distance from our Air B&B.
We also went out to eat in nearby Sausalito, a lovely oceanside town which is busy with tourists during the day and quiet at night. We found a fabulous, reasonably priced Mexican restaurant serving amazing tacos and homemade guacamole called Copita Tequileria Y Comida. The last night, we decided to try neighboring Tiburon, another quaint bay-side upscale town but once again were surprised to see the town pretty much empty at 7 o’clock at night. With kids, we didn’t want to spend too much and found it difficult to find anything that offered entrees under the $20-30/person range so once again ate pizza but it was at nothing special. We had much better luck finding wonderful places to eat in San Francisco (but that is for another post).
Day Trip to Sonoma
Despite being with kids, we had to do one small outing for the adults and of course, we had to go to Sonoma as it is under an hour away and I love wine! I have been to both Napa and Sonoma before but still craved a quick visit to quench my thirst for California wine at the source.
We did our homework and knew that the Buena Vista Vineyard would be a good option to bring our family. This historic vineyard is filled with history, fun trivia as well as perhaps one of the most beautiful historic tasting rooms in all of Sonoma. Its gorgeous grounds have an educational touch and the tasting room is filled with fabulous old photos. The wine is delightful but alas the kids didn’t last long and we headed into the town of Sonoma for some ice cream followed by a stop at another place that we could all taste and try, the Olive Press, an award-winning olive oil producer in the heart of Sonoma. Obviously, if you aren’t traveling with teenage kids, you probably could spend an entire day touring the vineyards but I felt pretty lucky to have spent an afternoon in hot, steamy Sonoma.
After our trip, we headed back to the foggy, much cooler coast and enjoyed our last evening in Marin County before heading south down the California coast to Monterey. All in all, it was a wonderful three days in Marin County and I would highly recommend it if you are visiting San Francisco.
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