Backpacking the Marin Headlands

Recently, I realized just how long it had been since I had been out backpacking. I was craving the feel of a trail underneath my feet and the weight of a full backpack on my back. I longed to sleep underneath the stars, listening to the sounds of the wind and animals dancing across the landscape. With exactly 1.5 free days, the husband and I packed our bags, threw together a couple of quick meals, and headed south to the Marin Headlands. Although the weather forecast called for rain and temps in the 20s, I was beyond stoked to be heading out. And anyway, as the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather; only bad gear.

The Headlands are a hilly peninsula, immediately north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County. Once home to several military sites, the now National Recreation Area is one of my favorite local areas to explore. The Headlands are famous for its many miles of trails, enjoyed by runners, hikers, and cyclists, as well as the amazing views of San Francisco, the many beaches within the area, and awesome raptor birding.

Camping at the Marin Headlands is free. There are 3 campgrounds within the Recreation Area, though each has just a few sites. Reservations are suggested, as the campgrounds are popular and fill quickly. On the weekend that I was there, all 4 sites where I camped were reserved.

Our destination for the night was Hawk Camp, the most remote of the 3 Headlands campgrounds. The network of trails within the Recreation Area allows for hikes of varying difficulty. Though it’s possible to hike just under 4 miles to reach Hawk Camp (which makes it a great trip for beginner backpackers), I wanted to create a longer route as a training hike for the JMT. I plotted a route of about 10 miles linking the Coastal, Coyote Ridge, Miwok, Marincello, and Bobcat Trails.

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Up, up, up through coastal scrub.

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Cruising along the Coastal Trail with the Pacific in the background.

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Miles of hills.

A few miles into our hike, the fog suddenly blew in. It started out thin and wispy but soon it was a thick wall of white. Visibility was greatly reduced, and we found ourselves on top of a ridge, unable to see much of anything. It was almost like being in white-out conditions. We continued walking along the trail but soon realized that, in the foggy conditions, we had missed the junction that we were looking for- we had passed the turn that would have added about 3 miles to our hike and instead continued on the Tennessee Valley Trail. Though I was a bit bummed about the inadvertent shortening of our hike, I was glad we didn’t get too off track in the fog!

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As we approached our camp for the night, we were getting rained on, intermittently, and decided that it would be best to set-up our camp for the night and then take advantage of the amount of daylight we had left, to explore the area around the campground.

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Approaching camp. The Golden Gate Bridge is barely visible through the fog, in between the two hills.

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Speaking of camp, I realized that I didn’t snap any pictures of the campsite (something I almost always forget to do). The campsites at Hawk Camp are pretty luxurious. Each site includes a picnic table, large bear box, and tent pad. The campground also has a relatively clean port-o-potty, though it is a bit away from camp, down a short, steep hill. Though not bad during the day, navigating down the hill at night can be a bit tricky. The only drawback to the campground is that there is no potable water available. You must carry in all of the water you will need. In the few times I’ve camped here, this has never been a problem.

After setting up camp, we hiked for a couple of miles, exploring the hills and valleys surrounding Hawk Camp. On our way back to camp we caught sight of a bobcat – too speedy for us to snap a picture. We got back to our site as the sun was setting and enjoyed dinner as night was beginning to fall. Having forgotten to pack a deck of cards, we entertained ourselves after dinner with whiskey spiked hot cider, conversation, and views of a twinkling San Francisco & Peninsula.

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Though the temperatures dropped into the mid-20s, we stayed warm in our tent. The night was quiet, until about 1 a.m. when we were awoken out of a dead sleep by loud noises. It sounded like something BIG was barreling through the brush on the surrounding hillside! I’m not going to lie, I was pretty freaked out! Soon we started to see lights bobbing through the brush next to our camp and we finally peaked out of the tent – – it was bikepackers! A group of three had ridden out to Hawk Camp and were setting up camp. Relieved that it wasn’t a monster of some kind, but too awake from the experience to go back to bed, I wandered down the hill to the bathroom. Chilled by the cold morning, I quickly retreated back to the warmth of my sleeping bag and slept in fits until daybreak.

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Morning view from the tent – the fog was back and clinging to and creeping around the hills.

In the morning, we packed up camp and headed out, thoughts of a delicious diner breakfast rocketing us down the trail. The morning was cold and foggy but only briefly – after a half hour of walking, the sun was beating down on us, forcing us to shed all of our layers.

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All too quickly, were were back at the trailhead. Though I wish we had been able to spend more time out there, I am glad that this amazing place is just a short hour drive away from my home. It makes for a really accessible place to getaway to when time is limited.

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