The Headlands are in Marin County, outside the Golden Gate and west of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Army established Fort Barry here in 1908, during the Endicott Period, and later, in 1937, Fort Cronkhite. Between 1953 and 1979 the Army built almost 300 Nike missile sites around the United States, one of which was situated in the Headlands.
When these various military installations were no longer needed, developers saw a great opportunity and a number of plans were floated for suburban development of the Headlands. Fortunately, this wonderful area was saved in the 1960s by a determined group of preservationists, ultimately leading to a purchase by the Nature Conservancy in 1972, which then transferred the area to the newly formed Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
To orient yourself check this map and this map.
There is very little public transportation in this area. On weekends and some holidays MUNI runs an hourly bus here, the 76X. On all other days, unless you're an enthusiastic cyclist or geared up for a multiday hike, a car is necessary.
Locate the intersection of Alexander Avenue and Conzelman Road. There are a number of vista points along Conzelman Road, each with multiple parking spaces, but on busy days you often have to wait to grab one. Once you reach the forts, however, there is adequate parking. Currently, the Park service is improving 11 miles of roads in the park. You can exit the Headlands via the tunnel leading back to the freeway or by the alternate return via Conzelman Road.
You will see many bicyclists and a bicycle is an excellent way to see the Headlands. But be warned: you're in for some strenuous hill climbing in order to see everything worth seeing. Conzelman Road requires a steep ascent to reach Hawk Hill, and a dramatic descent thereafter. If you exit via McCullough Road back to Conzelman Road, you'll face another steep ascent. Unless you're a fit cyclist, you should anticipate that visiting the Headlands on a bicycle will be a workout. However, once you're beyond Hawk Hill there are many good places to ride and most of the inclines are modest, so even if you decide to drive, don't hesitate to bring your bike.
Driving - 12 miles to cover the entire trip.
Kirby Cove - 1 mile each way from trail head.
Black Sands Beach - ¼ mile each way from Upper Fisherman's parking lot.
Point Bonita Lighthouse - ½ mile each way from the trailhead.
Note: Saturday is a good day for this trip because you can visit both the Point Bonita Light House and the Nike Missile Site. On the first Saturday of each month, Nike veterans and volunteers are at the site to interpret.
There are four campsite in the headlands. They require advance reservations. No pets are allowed and no water is available.
We recommend driving for this adventure. Bring your own food and water, as there are no vendors in the Headlands, but here are many picnic sites, some with grills. From the intersection with Alexander Avenue, go west on Conzelman Road. The first stop at Battery Spencer will give you an excellent view of the North (Marin) Tower, especially if you walk out to the pedestrian overlook known as Hendrik Point. The next stop offers access to Kirby Cove, which has a lovely beach and a campground. It's a one mile hike down to the cove, so be sure you have enough time. Campers are allowed to drive, but day use people must walk unless they have a valid DMV disabled placard. If you do, call (415) 331-1540 to arrange to have the gate opened. From the cove you will get fantastic views of the bridge from the water level. If you are a graffiti aficionado, be sure to stop at Battery Wagner on your way down to Kirby Cove.
The next point of interest is Hawk Hill, the highest point in the Marin Headlands. It's a lookout for the largest known flight of raptors in the Pacific states. Each autumn, from August into December, thousands of hawks, kites, falcons, eagles, vultures, osprey, and harriers pass through the headlands on their southern migration, feeding on the abundant small mammals protected by the park. The strong onshore winds hitting these hills provide cold updrafts and hot late summer days provide warm thermals that allow the birds to fly more efficiently. Open ocean to the west and the expansive waters of the Bay to the east funnel the migrating birds through a narrow corridor above the Headlands, enabling volunteers with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory to count and track this fall migration. You can also see Mission Blue Butterflies in this area. To reach Hawk Hill, walk up the dirt road at the gate where Conzelman Road becomes one way, or go through the old battery tunnels and hike the Coastal Trail up. If you don't have time, you can visit Hawk Hill and Kirby Cove on your return. If the day is foggy, it will often clear in the late afternoon and might offer better views then.
From the gate immediately below Hawk Hill, Conzelman Road becomes one way only. As you begin the descent, the road is so steep and the views so dramatic that you almost feel you're flying. The next stop, at the bottom of the hill, is Black Sands Beach, a long, lovely stretch of gravelly black sand. Look to your left for signage identifying the Upper Fisherman's parking area; from there it's a shorter trail than Kirby Cove, but steeper. There are steps to assist your descent. You might see some nude bathers here; if that's not your inclination, just pretend they have clothes on and enjoy the beach. Returning to the main road, you'll soon see a turnout for Battery Rathbone/McIndoe.
Once you reach the developed area near Fort Cronkhite, begin at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center. From April 1st to September 30, 2013 the Visitor Center will only be open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. At the Bicentennial Campground, turn right on a small cross street, then right on Field Road. The visitor's center will be on your left, in what used to be the base chapel during Army days. Inside you'll find free Park Service information and a shop for books, maps and souvenirs, as well as a small museum. When you're done, cross Field Road and go up Bodsworth Road. It doesn't have a sign. In a short block turn left on Simmons Loop and go by the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artist-in-residence program that sometimes offers programs for the public, which you'll find described on their web site. Drive just a short ways on Simmons Road to see the residence area for Fort Barry. It's an idilic spot with good views of the lagoon. The Marin Headlands Hostel is located on the right in the first house. Turn around and go back the way you came. Further along, Simmons Road becomes one way only and is a bit out of the way.
When you're back at Field Road, turn left to the Nike Missile site. Between 1953 and 1979, the United States Army built and operated almost 300 Nike missile firing batteries in the United States, designed to be the last line of defense against Soviet bombers. You can visit this site, SF-88, Thursday through Saturday, 12:30 to 3:30 pm. A guided walk begins from the Testing and Assembly Building at 12:45, 1:45, and 2:30 pm. The site is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas and during bad weather. On the first Saturday of every month, additional volunteers and Nike Veterans are there to interpret each of the areas on the base. Their presentation is well worth your time, painting a chilling picture of nuclear deterrence during the height of the cold war.
When you leave the site, turn right onto Field Road. Notice the San Francisco YMCA Building father down the road, offering low-cost family and school environmental programs. Check their schedule to see if anything is happening while you’re here.
Field Road ends in a loop where there are a few parking spaces for the Point Bonita Lighthouse. Unless parking karma is with you, they will all be full and you will be directed back along Field road to a larger parking lot. The light house is reached by a half mile trail, steep in parts, bisected by a tunnel that is open only during visiting hours: Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. When you have concluded your visit to the lighthouse, walk down Mendell Road to look at the batteries.
Return to your car and go back towards the Visitor's center on Field Road. At the end of Field Road, turn left on Bunker Road. Besides the beach and Rodeo Lagoon there are two things on the other side you might want to check out. A must see, particularly if you have children with you, is the Marine Mammal Center, open daily from 10:00 to 5:00. There's a small display and you can see the animals currently being treated. To get there, continue on Bunker Road, always choosing the right fork whenever the road splits. Turn right into the center when you see the signs. There is some parking near the building and a larger parking lot is under construction.
The Marin Headlands Nursery, which grows native plants for the headlands, is also in this location. When you leave the Marin Mammal Center, retrace your steps on Bunker Road and turn right on Kirkpatrick Road. The nursery is on your right. There are volunteer programs for adults and children age 10 and over, on Wednesdays from 1:00 - 4:00 pm and Saturdays from 9:00 am-Noon. Registration is not required for participation, but is highly encouraged. There are no cancellations for rain.
When you are ready to leave, go east on Bunker Road. You will pass the Presidio Riding Club. Notice the large building behind. This is one of two airship hangers remaining on the west coast. The club is not allowed to provide trail rides, but does offer a Horse Hotel should you need one.
You can exit the area by following Bunker Road to the tunnel. The tunnel is only one lane wide and traffic is metered in each direction in 5-minute intervals, so you might have to wait a few minutes to get out. Alternatively, before reaching the tunnel you can turn right onto McCullough Road and climb steeply up to Conzelman Road. If you're on a bicycle at the end of a long day, this is the point where you might wish you had driven instead. When you reach the roundabout at Conzelman Road, bear left and continue back towards the bridge and home.
You can link to the Fort Baker & the Bay Model walk by driving into Fort Baker and parking. If you’re biking, there is a path under the bridge.
In the Area
If you’ve rented a car, this would be a good time to see other sites in Marin; Mt. Tamalpias, Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, Point Reyes or to go to the Napa and Sonoma wine country.
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