Marin Headlands

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The Marin Headlands, as seen from the Golden Gate Bridge. Marin-headlands-3jul2005.jpg
The Marin Headlands, as seen from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Marin Headlands at nightfall NorCal2018 Golden Gate Bridge at nightfall DSCF3015 FRD.jpg
Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Marin Headlands at nightfall

The Marin Headlands is a hilly peninsula at the southernmost end of Marin County, California, United States, located just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, which connects the two counties and peninsulas. The entire area is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Headlands are famous for their views of the Bay Area, especially of the Golden Gate Bridge.



The Headlands sometimes create their own clouds when moist, warm Pacific Ocean breezes are pushed into higher, colder air, causing condensation, fog, fog drip and perhaps rain. The hills also get more precipitation than at sea level, for the same reason. However, despite being relatively wet, strong gusty Pacific winds prevent dense forests from forming. The many gaps, ridges, and valleys in the hills increase the wind speed and periodically, during powerful winter storms, these winds can reach hurricane force.[ citation needed ] In summer, breezes can still be very gusty, when the oceanic air and fog cross the hills.

November through February in the Headlands are dominated by periodic rainstorms that blow in from the Pacific, often originating in the Gulf of Alaska, and give the area the majority of its rainfall for the year. These cloudy, gray, and rainy days often are interspersed with cool but extremely clear ones. As winter turns to spring, the April-to-June weather tends to be dominated by powerful winds, less rain, and clearer skies. Summer days alternate between clear and warm intervals, giving way to foggy and cool periods. September and October bring the highest average temperatures of the year and the longest stretches of clear skies. [1]

Hawk Hill

The centerpoint of the Marin Headlands skyline is the 920-foot (280 m) Hawk Hill, the lookout point for the largest known flight of diurnal raptors in the Pacific states.

Each autumn, from August into December, tens of thousands of hawks, kites, falcons, eagles, vultures, osprey, and harriers are funneled by the peninsular shape of Marin County into the headlands. Hawks avoid flight over water since warm thermals that provide lift are rare. Abundant populations of small mammals protected by the park are one resource that helps maintain the large number of visiting raptors in the Headlands during the fall, but the strong onshore winds hitting the hills of the Headlands provide cold updrafts and hot late summer days provide warm thermals that allow these birds to fly more efficiently.

Volunteers with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory count and track this fall migration using bird-banding and radio-tracking techniques, all in cooperation with the National Park Service.


The Marin Headlands are also home to black tail deer, mountain lions, bobcats, two types of fox, coyotes, wild turkeys, hares, rabbits, raccoons, and skunks. In 2003, there was a reported sighting of a black bear in the Headlands; the report was lent credence by a 2012 finding of bear scat on a hiking trail in the Kent Lake watershed, and another sighting on the Point Reyes National Seashore in 2011. [2] River otters inhabit the freshwater lagoons and streams. Large numbers of water birds also migrate through the Headlands, including brown pelicans from May through October; and grebes, egrets, and great blue herons in the spring, summer, and fall. The Headlands' status as a park protects the habitat and populations of these animals within just a few miles of San Francisco and its suburbs.

In the waters surrounding the Headlands, harbor seals can be found year-round, gray whales can be seen in the spring and fall, and seabirds such as common murres and surf scoters swim within sight of shore.

When Richard Henry Dana, Jr. visited San Francisco Bay in 1835 he wrote about vast elk (Cervus canadensis) herds on the Marin Headlands on December 27: "...we came to anchor near the mouth of the bay, under a high and beautifully sloping hill, upon which herds of hundreds and hundreds of red deer [note: "red deer" is the European term for "elk"], and the stag, with his high branching antlers, were bounding about..." [3]


Well-preserved pillow lava in Marin Headlands Pillow lava-Marin.JPG
Well-preserved pillow lava in Marin Headlands

The Marin Headlands are underlain by fascinating geological formations created by the accretion of oceanic sediments from the Pacific Plate onto the North American Plate. The process of subduction of ocean floor, followed by tectonic underplating to the underside of the over-riding plate, was first described here by Clyde Wahrhaftig in 1984. [4] The primary rock types of the Marin Headlands include graywacke sandstone, radiolarian chert, serpentinite, pillow basalts, and shale. These rocks began their migration over one hundred million years ago from as far south as present-day Los Angeles. [5] The erosion of the hillsides and construction activities during the military era have exposed some dramatic examples of these rock types for easy viewing, and the folding caused by tectonic action is visually evident in many places throughout the Headlands. [6]

Aerial view of the Marin Headlands, Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco. San Francisco and Golden Gate Aerial.jpg
Aerial view of the Marin Headlands, Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco.

Marin Headlands is one of the featured field trips found in the Streetcar 2 Subduction online field trip guide series [7] released in December 2019 by the American Geophysical Union. [8]

Cultural history

Native Americans

The Marin Headlands is home to the Coastal Miwok tribe. Before colonization, western expansion, and gentrification, the Miwok freely moved between the bay side of the peninsula and the ocean side, seasonally, for thousands of years. The growth of the San Francisco Bay area has negatively impacted Miwok sacred sites, culture, and tribal visibility. Miwok continue to seek federal recognition.[ citation needed ]


In the 18th century, Spanish and Mexican ranchers occupied the Headlands, eventually giving way to Portuguese immigrant dairy farmers (often from the Azores) during the American period following the U.S. acquisition of California in the Mexican–American War.

Military sites

Battery Spencer, the closest defense site at the Marin Headlands to the Golden Gate Bridge BatterySpencer.tif
Battery Spencer, the closest defense site at the Marin Headlands to the Golden Gate Bridge

The Marin Headlands is the site of a number of historic military settlements fortifications, including Fort Cronkhite, Fort Barry, a large number of bunkers and batteries, and the SF-88 Nike Missile silo. From the 1890s, the first military installations were built to prevent hostile ships from entering San Francisco Bay. The batteries at Kirby Cove, above Black Sands Beach, south of Rodeo Beach, and at Battery Mendell are examples of fortifications from the pre-World War I period. During World War II Batteries Wallace, Townsley, and 129 on Hawk Hill were built into the hills to protect them from aerial bombardment and the high caliber shells that would be fired by Axis battleships. The emplacements at the top of Hawk Hill were used for a radio station. During the Cold War, the gun batteries were decommissioned, but antiaircraft missile sites were built on the northern and southern sides of Rodeo Lagoon. Radar sites were placed atop Hawk Hill and Hill 88. At several locations, shelters were built into the hillsides to protect the military personnel from the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. [9]

Observation posts known as base end stations can also be found in the Headlands. A well-preserved example can be seen near the northern end of Rodeo Beach, and others are located near the Point Bonita Lighthouse and on Wolf Ridge as it slopes down to the sea.

All military sites in the Headlands are now decommissioned and returned to civilian use. Some military facilities, such as SF-88, have been preserved as historical sites. Many historical buildings are now used by non-profit organizations, but maintained in their historical condition.

Other historic landmarks in the Headlands include Point Bonita Lighthouse.


In the 1960s, the government sold over 2,000 acres (8 km2) of land in the Marin Headlands to a private developer who planned to build a city named Marincello. The development would house 30,000 people amongst 50 apartment towers, vast tracts of single-family homes, and a hotel along the headlands pristine shoreline and hills. In 1970, the developer lost a lawsuit claiming the land was illegally zoned. The thousands of acres that would have been developed were sold to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area allowing the open space to stay intact as a park. [10]



The area has views of San Francisco and, as such, is a tourist destination. One of the most common photographs[ citation needed ] of San Francisco is the view of the city from the Headlands with the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge just reaching out of the fog. On clear days, the site takes in views of the bay, including the Farallon Islands, Angel Island, Alcatraz, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge and the East Bay.

A 360° panorama of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge as viewed from the Marin Headlands
NorCal2018 Panorama of Golden Gate Bridge at nightfall DSCF3018 FRD.jpg
Panorama at nightfall
View of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from Hawk Hill. View From Bench.jpg
View of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from Hawk Hill.

Where Conzelman Road runs along the southern shore of the Headlands and becomes one-way, a pedestrian path leads upwards to Hawk Hill. A short distance further on the right, in a grove of Monterey pines, is a bench from which it is possible to view the Golden Gate, ship traffic beneath the bridge, and the city just beyond.[ citation needed ]


View from Kirby Cove Kirby-cove.jpg
View from Kirby Cove
The entrance to the Golden Gate from Battery Wallace Mano Seca Bench Battery Wallace Mano Seca Bench.jpg
The entrance to the Golden Gate from Battery Wallace Mano Seca Bench
Overlooking Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands. Velella (By-the-wind Sailors) are stranded, forming blue ribbons. Vellelawholebeach.jpg
Overlooking Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands. Velella (By-the-wind Sailors) are stranded, forming blue ribbons.

The Headlands offers a number of beaches including Rodeo Beach (a pebble-covered, dark sand beach), Kirby Cove, Pirates' Cove, Black Sands Beach, Tennessee Beach, Muir Beach. Rodeo and Muir Beaches are accessible by car, while the others require hikes of varying length and difficulty.


There are many hiking and biking trails in the Headlands, several of which pass through coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and riparian areas.


The raptor migration attracts birdwatchers to Hawk Hill, and waterfowl and seabirds can sometimes be seen on Rodeo Lagoon.

Facilities and notable places

The National Park Service maintains a visitor center near the intersection of Field Road and Bunker Road about a mile from Rodeo Beach. The visitor center contains historical and natural history displays as well as a small bookstore/gift shop. Hiking maps and Park Service program information are available as well.

Facilities include Presidio Fire Department Fire Station No. 2, located at building 1045 Fort Cronkhite. This fire station is operated by the National Park Service and houses one fire engine with cliff rescue capabilities.

Public restrooms are available in the Headlands at the visitor center parking lot, the parking lot near Rodeo Beach, and portable toilet facilities are available at the trailhead leading to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, along Conzelman Road near Black Sands Beach, at Battery Alexander dug into the hillside between Rodeo Beach and the Lighthouse, and at Battery 129 on Hawk Hill.

Conference center facilities are located in former military buildings maintained by the Point Bonita YMCA, NatureBridge, and the Headlands Center for the Arts. The Cavallo Point conference center is in East Fort Baker on the eastern side of the peninsula.

Other areas within Marin Headlands include Kirby Cove, Rodeo Lagoon, and Tennessee Cove.

Various nonprofit organizations have facilities in Marin Headlands. These include the Marine Mammal Center, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and the NatureBridge campus (formerly known as the Headlands Institute), all in Fort Cronkhite; the Headlands Center for the Arts and the Marin Headlands Hostel at Fort Barry; and the Marin Headlands and Tennessee Valley Native Plant Nurseries.

See also

Related Research Articles

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The Golden Gate is a strait on the west coast of North America that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. It is defined by the headlands of the San Francisco Peninsula and the Marin Peninsula, and, since 1937, has been spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge. The entire shoreline and adjacent waters throughout the strait are managed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Angel Island (California)

Angel Island is an island in San Francisco Bay. Originally the home of a military installation, the island now offers the public picturesque views of the San Francisco skyline, the Marin County Headlands and Mount Tamalpais. The entire island is included within Angel Island State Park, administered by California State Parks. The island, a California Historical Landmark, has been used for a variety of purposes, including military forts, a US Public Health Service quarantine station, and a US Bureau of Immigration inspection and detention facility. The Angel Island Immigration Station, on the northeast corner of the island, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, was where officials detained, inspected, and examined approximately one million immigrants, who primarily came from Asia. Under the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, the first U.S. law to restrict a group of immigrants based on their race, nationality, and class, all arriving Chinese immigrants were to be examined by immigration or customs agents.

Point Reyes National Seashore Park preserve in California, United States

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Nike Missile Site SF-88

SF-88 is a former Nike Missile launch site at Fort Barry, in the Marin Headlands to the north of San Francisco, California, United States. Opened in 1954, the site was intended to protect the population and military installations of the San Francisco Bay Area during the Cold War, specifically from attack by Soviet bomber aircraft.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) is a U.S. National Recreation Area protecting 82,027 acres (33,195 ha) of ecologically and historically significant landscapes surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area. Much of the park is land formerly used by the United States Army. GGNRA is managed by the National Park Service and is the most visited unit of the National Park system in the United States, with more than 15 million visitors a year. It is also one of the largest urban parks in the world, with a size two-and-a-half times that of the consolidated city and county of San Francisco.

Fort Baker

Fort Baker is one of the components of California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Fort, which borders the City of Sausalito in Marin County and is connected to San Francisco by the Golden Gate Bridge, served as an Army post until the mid-1990s, when the headquarters of the 91st Division moved to Parks Reserve Forces Training Area. It is located opposite Fort Point at the entrance to the San Francisco Bay.

Rodeo Beach

Rodeo Beach is a beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area located in Marin County, California, United States, two miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is characterized by a spit of around 50 meters width at the mouth of a long embayment, known as Rodeo Lagoon; for much of the year the lagoon is cut off from the ocean, making the beach spit a baymouth bar. Part of the beach is sheltered by cliffs. Rodeo Beach is known for its dark, pebbly sand, its uses for surfing and sunbathing, and its locale as a place for viewing, but not collecting, semi-precious stones. This beach is unique among California beaches in that it is largely made up of coarse, pebbly chert grains, both red and green in color. Its mineral composition sets it apart from every other beach in the state Surfing is possible throughout the year and at all tidal stages, but is best in summer — although there is a risk of shark attacks. Due to the North bar offshore of this beach it results in big waves in the winter months with the big swells that come in. Strong currents make swimming dangerous.

Point Bonita Lighthouse Lighthouse at Point Bonita at the San Francisco Bay entrance, California, US

Point Bonita Lighthouse is a lighthouse located at Point Bonita at the San Francisco Bay entrance in the Marin Headlands near Sausalito, California. Point Bonita was the last manned lighthouse on the California coast. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.


Marincello was a failed development project in Marin County, California that would have put a planned community atop the Marin Headlands, overlooking the Golden Gate. Its upheaval set the precedent for Marin County's rigid anti-development stance and push for open space.

Bolinas Ridge

Bolinas Ridge is a north-south ridge in southwestern Marin County, California. Much of the western side of the ridge is protected parkland in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the eastern side is watershed lands of the Marin Municipal Water District.

Rodeo Lagoon

Rodeo Lagoon is a coastal lagoon located in the Marin Headlands division of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is in southern Marin County, California. This brackish water body is separated from the Pacific Ocean by a sand bar that forms Rodeo Beach. Rodeo Lagoon stretches approximately 900 metres (3,000 ft) by 250 metres (820 ft), and is about 2 metres (6.6 ft) deep at its maximum depth. It covers a surface area of about 15 hectares.

Fort Funston

Fort Funston is a former harbor defense installation located in the southwestern corner of San Francisco. Formerly known as the Lake Merced Military Reservation, the fort is now a protected area within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). It was named in honor of Frederick N. Funston (1865–1917), a Major General in the United States Army with strong connections to San Francisco, and included several artillery batteries. The fort is located on Skyline Boulevard at John Muir Drive, west of Lake Merced.

Golden Gate Raptor Observatory

The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO) is a long term program of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in cooperation with the National Park Service. The GGRO's mission is to study migrating birds of prey along the Pacific coast and to inspire the preservation of raptor populations in California. Established in 1985, it is located in the Marin Headlands, just north of San Francisco, California. The Raptor Observatory operates under the philosophy that incorporating citizens into the process of gathering scientific data will deepen long-term conservation results. Consequently, the organization's small staff is supported by the work of 280+ highly trained volunteers, coming from all different disciplines. The GGRO publishes an annual report, contributes annual results to national databases, and collaborates on various research projects with local universities.

China Beach, San Francisco

China Beach is a small cove in San Francisco's Sea Cliff neighborhood. It lies between Baker Beach and Lands End and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was previously known as James D. Phelan State Beach Park. It was once used as a campsite for Chinese fishermen. Swimming is not safe at China Beach because of many possible dangers and the lack of lifeguards in the area. At low tides, there are tide pools to discover, and it is sometimes possible to walk to Baker Beach. China Beach offers a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands.

Tamalpais Valley, California Unincorporated community in California, United States

Tamalpais Valley is an unincorporated community in Marin County, California.

Hawk Hill (California)

Hawk Hill is a 923-foot (281 m) peak in the Marin Headlands, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and across the Golden Gate strait from San Francisco, California. The hill is within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Kirby Cove Camp Campground in California, United States

Kirby Cove Camp is a campground and scenic area managed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in the Marin Headlands, California. It is located at sea level below Conzelman Road, which leads from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge up and along the Marin Headlands overlooking the Golden Gate strait that leads into San Francisco Bay. A road behind a locked gate leads to Kirby Cove from just beyond Battery Spencer, the first set of bunkers encountered from Highway 101 at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tennessee Valley, California

The Tennessee Valley is a small, undeveloped part of Marin County, near Mill Valley. Historically home to ranches and threatened with the development of a new city, the valley was incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, with additional sections added to the park in 1974. The park contains horse stables, a native-plant nursery, and numerous trails for hiking, biking, and horse riding, including a 1.7-mile, handicap-accessible trail that leads to Tennessee Cove and its beach.

Fort Cronkhite

Fort Cronkhite is one of the components of California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Today part of the National Park Service, Fort Cronkhite is a former US Army post that served as part of the coastal artillery defenses of the San Francisco Bay Area during World War II. The soldiers at Cronkhite manned gun batteries, radar sites, and other fortifications on the high ridges overlooking the fort.


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Coordinates: 37°49′40″N122°30′22″W / 37.82778°N 122.50611°W / 37.82778; -122.50611