Albion Monitor /Features
Hiking the Marin Headlands

Batteries Included

by Simone Wilson

Hawks circle over the hills until they gain enough elevation to shoot like bullets across the channel

Marin Headlands is a great place to hike, now that all the shooting's over.

The promontories on the north side of the Golden Gate have spectacular views, gleaming black sand beaches, coastal hiking trails, a lighthouse... and more gun emplacements than the Normandy Beachhead. The gun sites, referred to as batteries, are left over from an era when the military set up an elaborate crossfire at the entrance to San Francisco Bay, ready to blast foolhardy invaders out of the water.

The Headlands have another claim to fame. The hilly land just north of the Golden Gate Bridge is an aerial skyway for migrating raptors. Eagles, hawks and falcons migrate south between August and December, sailing over southern Marin on their way to the Golden Gate. Raptors don't like to cross expanses of water, where the air currents drop. They circle over the hills, getting a lift from rising thermal currents until they gain enough elevation to shoot like bullets across the channel. You can watch them circle upwards and then make a break for the San Francisco shore.

The best place to watch them is Hawk Hill, where the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory conducts an annual hawk count to keep tabs on how the species are holding up. Die-hard birders, sometimes lashed by brisk winds from the ocean, scan the skies for red-shoulder hawks, kestrels, merlins and turkey vultures. Last year's count of 22,378 included 19 species, ranging from one goshawk to over 4,900 red-tail hawks, plus assorted prairie falcons, peregrines, sharp-shinned hawks, bald and golden eagles -- the largest concentration of birds of prey in the Pacific states. GGRO observers are out in force on fall weekends to identify passing birds for visitors.

Hawk Hill also offers a magnificent panorama, with views of Tiburon, Angel Island, the bay, the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the ridges of southern Marin including Mt. Tamalpais.

Army bunkers from the Civil War through the Cold War

Nearly all the Marin Headlands is now part of GGNRA (Golden Gate National Recreational Area), but once it was the domain of the U.S. Army, and the region is dotted with former army posts and concrete fortifications. (The cannons themselves have been hauled away.) The gun sites started springing up as early as the Civil War. The Army kept beefing up its arsenal through the Spanish American War and World War II and finally added a couple of Cold War missile sites.

Coming south on Highway 101, take the Sausalito exit (after the Waldo Tunnel and before the bridge). At the stop sign turn left and then right, following Conzelman Road up the hill. (Going north on Highway 101, take the Sausalito exit and go under the highway.) At .3 miles from the stop is Battery Spencer, with parking on the cliff side of the road. The 12-inch guns here and across the bay at Fort Point formed a perfect crossfire against potential invaders. Walk out to the end of the point here (about 100 yards) for an aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge. From the right side of the promontory, look down at Kirby Cove with its walk-in campground.

Continue up Conzelman, noticing the crumpled layers of red sedimentary rock on the right. At 1.1 miles is the junction with McCullough Road. The rest of Conzelman Road is blocked off on days of heavy fog -- which isn't that unusual, considering that this is one of the foggiest spots on the California Coast. If Conzelman Road is closed, you can still drive down McCullough to Rodeo Lagoon. Otherwise, drive on and at 1.7 miles you come to two man-made tunnels that bore straight through the hill, the remains of the last fortification built at the headlands. This is Hill 129, otherwise known as Hawk Hill. A dirt road to the left of the second tunnel leads uphill (a five-minute walk) to the platform where birders flock.

Past Hawk Hill, Conzelman plunges downhill for spectacular views of Point Bonita, the southern tip of Marin County, with Point Bonita Lighthouse at its tip. (This is a steep, one-way road, so take it easy.) On the left, at 2.6 miles from Hwy. 101, is the trailhead to Black Beach in Bonita Cove. The trail goes about 1/2 mile fairly steeply downhill to the pristine beach with sparkling black sand.

From here, continue on the one-way road past Battery Rathbone (3.0 miles) with its four huge gun emplacements. At the YMCA center and junction (3.7 miles,) turn left to Battery Wallace, where cypresses shelter a picnic ground. The trail to Point Bonita Lighthouse is closed; the lighthouse is scheduled to reopen in Feb. '96. The road ends in a big turn-around just past Battery Mendell, which offers great views of Point Bonita, the lighthouse and, in the distance, the San Francisco skyline.

Backtrack past the YMCA Center and go downhill past Battery Bravo (note the disarmed Nike missiles lying around the parking lot) to Rodeo Lagoon. Rodeo Beach is a favorite with kids and dogs, and the lagoon behind the sandbar is popular with ducks, grebes and pelicans, especially in winter. Buildings around the lagoon were Fort Cronkite and Fort Barry, now used for environmental programs like the Headlands Institute and the Raptor Observatory. Up the hill is California Marine Mammal Center, a rehab site for seals and sea lions (call 415/331-7225 for visiting hours). Behind the lagoon on Field Road are the chapel, now the Marin Headlands Visitor Center (331-1540), and the AYH Hostel with 66 beds (331-2777).

Maps from the visitor center show trails that crisscross the headlands and nearby Gerbode Valley. A loop that covers a wide range of habitats begins at the west end of Rodeo Lagoon. Take the coastal trail along the high bluffs, past Battery Townsley (look for gun sites on the slope above the trail). At 1.6 miles take Wolf Ridge Trail east for .7 miles and link up with the Miwok Trail. Go right another 1.4 miles through lupine, coyote bush and fennel into the quiet Gerbode Valley. The trail brings you back to Bunker Road, a quarter mile east of the visitor center.

If you're really energetic, you can hike north into Tennessee Valley or even as far as Green Gulch and Muir Beach. Low-energy tourists can enjoy fabulous views from the road and then stroll on the black sands of Rodeo Beach. Or stand on the headlands and watch the fog roll in the Golden Gate while the cliffs remain in brilliant sunlight.

Albion Monitor November 14, 1995 (

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