Marin Headlands | Golden Gate Recreation Area

Recently, we spent some time in the Bay Area. Though we did enjoy the city, we are more back-woods people. We were pleased to find a nice little slice of the country right between San Francisco and Sausalito. Marin Headlands is part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area. It is a beautiful spot just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Definitely add it to your itinerary.

The Marin Headlands are high cliffs that stand out above the sea.


The Marin Headlands lie just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you’re wondering what headlands are, like we were, they are cliffs high above the sea. These cliffs were strategic because they served as a military port that protected the Golden Gate Strait. In fact, our boys’ grandpa, who served in San Francisco just after WWII, remembers crossing the Golden Gate and seeing Nike missiles poised over the Bay. You can still visit those missiles, which are part of the Marin Headlands area, though they are now part of the history of the headlands. 

The ocean is beautiful at the Marin Headlands.

Nike Missile Site

The site of the Nike Missiles is only open certain days and times. Unfortunately we missed the window that they were open. There isn’t anything to see other than a sign when it is closed. But if you happen to visit on a day when the site is open, you can walk in and see the actual Nike Missiles that were here to protect the Bay area.

This is the Nike Missile Site and it is only open certain days.

Visitor Center

The Marin Headlands has a small Visitor Center, but it is free to enter. We stopped to pick up the Junior Ranger booklets for our boys. There are some exhibits about the area and the history. We were glad that the rangers had a few different hands-on activities for the kids out on the tables.

We love the Junior Ranger Program.
There are some fun exhibits for the kids.
We appreciated the extra activities around the Visitor Center for children.

Lagoon Trail

Then we drove out to try a couple of hikes. The first was the Lagoon Trail. This was a short loop hike down along a small pond to the beach. We hiked along the north side first, which follows the road, and there wasn’t much to see. In fact, on a future visit, we might do an out-and-back hike along the side of the lagoon, which climbs up through the lush undergrowth. 

The first side of the Lagoon trail begins by the road.

At the west end of the loop, you come to Rodeo beach. We saw plenty of people playing there on a weekend, but the water is freezing cold. We walked along the edge, but watch out for sneaker waves, which sneak up on you when you’re not paying attention! You can also park by the beach and skip the hike.

There is a fun bridge that crosses the Lagoon on the way to the beach.
Rodeo Beach is a great beach to spend a day.
The Lagoon Trail sits right near the ocean.
These beautiful bluebirds were hanging out at Rodeo Beach.

The walk along the south shore of the lagoon is beautiful. We spotted a half a dozen hummingbirds, as well as a spotted towhee. Best of all, a gray fox crossed the trail and nestled in a cozy patch of ferns. We watched her for a little while before moving on. This trail is 1.5 miles roundtrip around the Rodeo Lagoon.

The trail follows the Lagoon back to the Visitor Center.
This side of the trail is green and much prettier than the road side.
We spotted this gray fox on the Lagoon Trail.
We saw quite a few hummingbirds on this trail, too!

Bird Island Overlook

The other trail that we walked in Marin Headlands was to the Bird Island Overlook. This path walks along the spine of the headlands, so there are drops from cliffs that would be fatal. It is easy to stay back from the edge, but be mindful of little ones. We saw a bobcat in this area, too. It was a really great area for wildlife.

The views are beautiful from the Bird Island trail.

This trail starts out near part of the old military base. You can actually climb the stairs and go up top of Battery Mendell where the guns were long ago. Much of the inside has been covered with graffiti, and there are bars over the windows, so you can’t go inside. Just a little past this army post is a fence. Many people stop at this overlook, which is only a few hundred yards from the trailhead. You can get a really nice view of the ocean from the overlook.

You could walk all around this old military base. It was so interesting.
You can see the Golden Gate bridge from this area of the Marin Headlands.
This is a look back at Rodeo Beach.

To the right of the fence, the trail continues down. It is really steep and treacherous for about 20 yards, so go slow. As the trail levels off, there are cliffs to the left, so hold the hands of your children. Eventually, you’ll come to a small cement structure that was used for a lookout. This is the end of the trail. We were at this location before sunset, and other people were showing up to watch the sun disappear. Of course, Bird Island is located just off the point. We were a little disappointed that the birds are too far away to identify. 

This section down is very steep and slick, so be extra careful.
This is where you are headed.
We saw lots of cormorants out on Bird Island.
You walk right along the headlands.

Point Bonita Lighthouse

The trail to the Point Bonita lighthouse is only open on certain days and times, much like the Nike Missile site. We missed this spot, too. We were sad to miss because there is a tunnel that you walk through along the trail to get to the lighthouse. On days when the lighthouse isn’t open, you can walk to the tunnel and then turn around. It offers great views of the Golden Gate bridge. We opted not to do this trail since we wouldn’t make it to the lighthouse, and we were running out of daylight. The trailhead to the lighthouse shares the parking lot with the Bird Island Overlook trail.

We could see the lighthouse on the Bird Island Trail.


The ranger also recommend a short nature loop called Hawk Hill at the start of the one-way road. We didn’t make it to this trail, but if you have young children, it might be one to try. The rangers were very helpful in their recommendations, so make sure to stop at the Visitor Center when you arrive in Marin Headlands. You can also use the National Parks website about Marin Headlands for more information.

Marin Headlands is an awesome oasis north of San Francisco. We enjoyed our time spotting some amazing animals just outside of the city! The views of the ocean are beautiful! If you are up on this side of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can also check out Muir Woods and Point Reyes. These two spots are also national sites, and were some of our favorite spots in the San Francisco area.

There are nice views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands.

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