Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County is San Francisco's playground—a stunning landscape of rolling hills, redwood trees, pristine beaches, and idyllic towns like Mill Valley and Point Reyes Station where you can easily while away your days. There's a reason such luminaries as George Lucas reside here. Ready to see for yourself? Here are nine ways to make Marin County your own:
A spectacular stretch of West Marin coastline that's brimming with sandy beaches, organic dairy farms, and incredible Pacific views, Point Reyes National Seashore is a 71,028-acre treasure. You'll find hiking trails—like the popular 9-mile out-and-back Bear Valley Trail, and the 13.8-mile out-and-back trek to Alamere Falls, which starts at the Palomarin Trailhead in nearby Bolinas—backcountry camping for hikers, cyclists, and boaters, and plenty of wildlife, including elephant seals who come to Point Reyes' rocky headlands for mating and birthing (December through March), and tule elk whose bugle calls are prominent August-October. The park is home to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, a recently rehabilitated 19th-century lighthouse that retired from service in 1975 and is the perfect place for spotting migrating whales January through March; as well as the 33,373-acre Phillip Burton Wilderness Area, replete with dunes, grasslands, and forests filled with fir and pine trees. In a county filled with impressive landscapes, it sits toward the top of the list.
It's easy to feel small when you're standing at the base of the towering coast redwoods permeating the 554-acre grounds of Muir Woods National Monument. These relatives of the giant sequoia reach up to 258-feet-high within the park, and many of them are hundreds of years old. The park's tallest trees reside in its Bohemian Grove, accessible by a boardwalk, though Muir Woods is also home to dozens of miles of trails. Easily the most popular is its 9.7-mile Dipsea Trail, which ascends through the park to reach stunning Pacific views, then crosses into nearby Mt. Tam State Park and down into Stinson Beach. Muir Woods is a must on almost every travelers' list, especially with its superb San Francisco proximity. Congressman and conservationist William Kent deeded the entire swath of land to the U.S. Department of Interior in 1908, and it's now part of California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, along with sites like Alcatraz and the Sutro Baths.
Dine Fresh From the Sea
Marin County is one of the Bay Area region's best spot for fresh oysters, and there are plenty of options to choose from. In the tiny village of Marshall on Tomales Bay's eastern shore, you'll find Nick's Cove Restaurant & Oyster Bar, home to the original Tomales Bay BBQ oyster topped with garlic-parsley butter and house-made BBQ sauce. Nearby at the shack-like Marshall Store, choose among oysters ranging from raw to smoked and served with cheese, chives, and chipotle aioli. Other foods include fish tacos and a chorizo fish stew. Bring along a cooler to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, where you can purchase raw oysters to go. Nearby picnic spots include Heart's Desire State Beach and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, and don't worry if you've forgotten your Tabasco sauce or shucking knife—they've got all the supplies on-hand for the perfect afternoon oyster feast. The small scenic town of Point Reyes Station is home to Tomales Bay Foods and its Cowgirl Creamery. Stop here for artisanal local and European cheeses, a selection of bread, wines, and sandwiches to accompany your oyster picnic, and a Cheese 101 class and tasting Fridays at 11 a.m. (They have a second location at the San Francisco Ferry Building).
Bask in the Beauty of Marin's State Parks
Marin is home to some incredible state parks—ones where you can easily while away a morning, day, or weekend. There's Tomales Bay State Park, with its sandy beaches and swimmable surf-free waters, ideal for swimming and kayaking (Marin's Sausalito is another good spot for kayaking), as well as spots for picnicking and recreational clamming. Another park is Samuel P. Taylor, home to campsites tucked creekside and beneath old-growth redwood trees and a selection of cabins for rent. Make the six-mile round-trip climb up to Barnabe Peak for spectacular panoramic views that include Tamales Bay and the East Bay's Mt. Diablo. Of course, one not to miss is Mount Tamalpais, or "Mt. Tam" State Park, named for Marin County's highest peak. The park has a wealth of forested and ridge-top trails, roads ripe for cycling, incredible vistas, and the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater, a 4,000-seat open-air venue on Mt. Tam's eastern slopes that puts on musicals like "Hello, Dolly!" and "Grease" during May and June.
Easily visible overlooking Highway 101 from the city of San Rafael, the almost sci-fi looking Marin County Civic Center was legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright's last commission—as well as his largest public project. This National Historic Landmark is primarily known for its iconic blue roof—something that wasn't a part of Wright's initial design—and was built a year after the architect's death in 1959. It's appeared in movies like George Lucas's obscure "THX 1138" and the 1997 sci-fi film "Gattaca." You can catch events such as stand-up comedy, live music like Johnny Mathis and Lyle Lovett, and even a Pink Floyd Laster Spectacular throughout the years. However, if you just want to check out Wright's ambitious design, book one of the center's 90-minute docent-led walking tours, which take place every Wednesday and Friday at 10:30 a.m.
With their winding roads, endless views, and green grassy hillsides that undulate alongside the Pacific, the Marin Headlands are awash with incredible beauty and just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It's the perfect perch for taking in views of the San Francisco skyline or sitting out on foot for an afternoon hike. Once the home of Miwok Indians, the headlands later became a site for American military fortifications protecting the entrance to San Francisco Bay. You can still find several of these decommissioned military bunkers and batteries, including a preserved SF-88 Nike Missile silo. The Headlands are home to the dog-friendly Rodeo Beach, as well as Hawk Hill—a great place for spotting Mission Blue Butterflies, as well as migrating raptors, including vultures, eagles, osprey, and hawks, circling the skies from August to December. In spring, the hillsides come alive with colorful wildflowers. Still, you don't need a particular season to visit the headlands' mid-19th century Point Bonita Lighthouse, a still-active light that's accessible across a somewhat rickety suspension bridge. It's open Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Beaches are another perk of Marin's extraordinary natural landscape. Hidden beneath rock cliff-sides just west of Highway 1 are gorgeous sandy stretches like the dog-friendly Agate Beach, a 6.6-acre park with nearly two-miles of beach during low tide, including a bevy of tide-pools filled with giant green sea anemones. Bolinas, or "Brighton" Beach, features calm, protected waters that are especially alluring for beginner surfers, while the crescent-shaped Muir Beach is known for its creek-fed lagoon and wetlands. While swimming isn't recommended at this private cove, there are numerous hiking trailheads and pits for bonfires. The beach's north end is also considered clothing-optional. Stinson is one of Marin County's best-known and most popular beaches—a 3.5-mile white sand beach where you can hunt for sand dollars and watch surfers tackle the swells. There are lifeguards on duty May through mid-September, making it exceptionally safe for swimmers. Traffic can come to a standstill in Stinson on warmer days, but there are plenty of eateries to wait out the backup once in town.
Stroll the Streets of Sausalito
Right across the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay from San Francisco, you'll find Sausalito, a thriving seaside town that was once something of a remote bohemian enclave. Today you'll find a series of post-World War II houseboats, waterfront shops and eateries, and plenty of tourists—thanks in large part to the ferries that run back and forth between SF's Pier 41 and Sausalito numerous times daily. There's still an artsy vibe to the place, though to get a feel for what it once was you should visit some of its long-standing institutions: places like the Trident, a pier-top seafood eatery once owned by the Kingston Trio and later attracting the likes of Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin. Much of the restaurant's 1960s decor—including its colorful wall and ceiling art—still remains, and there's live music weekly. There's also Fred's Coffee Shop, dishing up delicious grub such as millionaire's bacon and deep-fried french toast since 1966, and Sausalito's No Name Bar, which has been drawing crowds since 1959. This beloved dive bar often hosts open-mic nights, as well as jazz and blues bands, in its darkened interior, and have an outdoor patio for sunny days.
Relax a Full Afternoon...or Weekend
Whether it's enjoying a Himalayan salt scrub at the Healing Arts Center & Spa at Cavallo Point, perched along San Francisco Bay, or participating in a workshop on gardening or bread baking at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, occupying 115 Headland acres, there are plenty of ways to reconnect with yourself in Marin County beyond hiking, biking, and beach-combing. Both Cavallo Point (a former military base) and Green Gulch Farm offer overnight stays that help recharge and rejuvenate, as does Sausalito's luxurious Casa Madrona, where in addition to posh accommodations and unbeatable views—you'll find an onsite spa offering everything from a "vibrational sound journey" to a deep-hydrating "renewal body wrap." Of course, for pure rustic charm and pampering, nothing beats Nick's Cottages along Tomales Bay. Each of the 12 cottages has its own unique offerings, and the location is superb.