The Marin Headlands are the Southernmost point in Marin County, just across the San Francisco Bay from the city of San Francisco. Going South on Highway 101 they are on your right. They are rolling green hills dotted with wildflowers, they are towering cliffs, crashing waves, sea spray, beaches, and, most fascinatingly, the location of dozens of concrete bunkers, obsolete weapons, old barracks and an army hospital that has now been converted into a youth hostel. The Marin Headlands are teeming with energy and beauty, both natural and man made.
Like everywhere in Marin, the Headlands were once home to Miwok Indians. Then Spanish and Mexican ranchers controlled the land before American pioneers overrode everyone.
During the Gold Rush in 1849, as thousands of ships sailed into San Francisco Bay, the need for a lighthouse system became apparent. During the Gold Rush years alone there were over 300 shipwrecks. After the lighthouses on Alcatraz and at Fort Barry in the Presidio, Point Bonita lighthouse was constructed in the Marin Headlands in 1855. It was the 3rd lighthouse ever on the West Coast. Originally it was placed too high on the cliff, so its light was obscured by the thick fog and crashes continued. In 1877 the lighthouse was moved lower, to about 300 feet above the water, where it proved to be much more effective as it still operates today. It is an active lighthouse maintained by the US Coast Guard. In 1979 it was the last manned lighthouse before it was automated in 1980. Point Bonita lighthouse is one of the oldest structures in what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and it claims unparalleled views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the coastline. You can explore around it any time, but the lighthouse itself is only open during visiting hours on Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 12:30 to 3:30pm.
The first military installations in the Marin Headlands were built in 1890's to keep enemy ships from entering San Francisco Bay. Battery Mendell and the batteries (which are fortified emplacements for weapons and personnel) at Kirby Cove and south of Rodeo Beach are examples of pre-World War I fortifications.
During World War II dozens more batteries, bunkers and camps were built. Batteries Wallace, Townsley, and 129 on Hawk Hill (which provides the MOST stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and an awe-inspiring sunset) were built into the hills, mostly hidden, to protect them from aerial bombardment.
Fort Cronkite is a WWII "mobilization post" at Rodeo Beach that has been restored. Its barracks, mess halls, and supply rooms still stand and are now home to the Marine Mammal Center, the Headlands Institute, and the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. Fort Cronkite is the last stop on the bus route, and it provides easy access to hikes up and down the coastline.
During the Cold War the gun batteries were shut down, but antiaircraft missile sites were built around Rodeo Lagoon. The SF-88 Nike missile silo opened in 1954 as the last line of defense against Soviet bombers. It was closed in 1979 when the technology became obsolete. The Nike missile site is now a museum and the only restored Nike missile site in the country. Radar sites were also installed around the Headlands during the Cold War, and several shelters were built into the hillsides to protect military personnel from the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
In 1960 about 2,000 acres of the Headlands were sold to a private developer. He had plans to build a city called Marincello that would house 30,000 people in 50 apartment towers and hundreds of single family homes. A hotel was even planned to be built along the pristine shoreline. Fortunately, local conservationists and concerned citizens fought back. In 1970 the developer lost a lawsuit claiming the land was illegally zoned, and the thousands of acres were sold to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where they remain public land for all of us to enjoy!
Why I Love It
I spent the night out in the Headlands with a friend, and we spent the day and the greater part of the night exploring around the beaches, cliffs, and, of course, the scattered bunkers, batteries, mysterious concrete outcroppings and iron doors leading straight in to the mountainside. Every time I saw a bunker or concrete something, I'd exclaim and point excitedly at it. He said, "Have you not spent much time here? It all seems so foreign to you." In that moment I didn't really know what to say. But now I'll try to explain it.
I am absolutely in love with the Marin Headlands for its amazing beauty, its pure existence (because it could have been developed beyond recognition), and most importantly, because its purpose now is so different from its history. Hiking around, you practically trip over all these strange concrete things. And when I do, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia for a time and a place I was never in; I imagine soldiers trotting around the batteries, eagerly looking out to sea, wanting to be the one to alert the country of an enemy ship. All the abandoned posts were used everyday for something that seemed so important, but here they are now, rusting and spray-painted, looking forlornly out on the most gorgeous land on the West Coast. When I am in the Headlands, I see majestic beauty, and I see the shadows of soldiers waiting for an enemy that never came.
This place takes a little more time to get to, but it is WORTH IT! I promise!
From the San Rafael Transit Center:
Golden Gate Transit Route 70/80 Southbound
Get off at the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza
Catch Muni Route 76 (it runs hourly ON SUNDAYS AND HOLIDAYS between downtown San Francisco and the Headlands)
When on Muni Route 76 going through the Headlands, get off anywhere that interests you. I recommend the last stop, Fort Cronkite, because from there it's easy to walk along Rodeo Beach or hike up along the coastline to explore old batteries that look like alien landing pads.