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.

A perfect day on the Bay

For the last week, I’ve been laying low, dealing with some discomfort and pain from my dermoid. I swear, I think it knows that it’s getting evicted soon because it’s been acting up more and more as we get closer to my surgery date. Ha ha ha! Annnyyyway…being sloth-like does get old pretty quickly. Add to that the spring-like weather we’ve been having, (with temps in the mid 70s!) and I started to get a little cabin feverish. To fight the stir craziness, I decided to take full advantage of the nice weather by heading out to explore Angel Island State Park.

The park is a 1.2 sq mi island in San Francisco Bay that has been used, historically, in a variety of ways. At one time, the island was home to military forts, a public health quarantine station, and an immigration station.

There are a couple of ferry options to get to Angel Island, depending which side of the Bay you’re coming from. Since I live in the North Bay, I drove down to Marin County to catch the ferry from Tiburon. Parking in Tiburon can be challenging, but there are several lots in the downtown area that offer all day parking for a small fee. I parked and walked two blocks to the dock and arrived about 10 minutes before the ferry departed. The ferry is “pay as you board,” no advance purchase required, and they conveniently accept credit cards and cash.

As I boarded the ferry, I noticed a lot of people with bikes and backpacking gear. I knew that bikes are allowed on the ferry and I had contemplated bringing mine, but changed my mind at the last minute (though I wished I hadn’t, later that day). I made my way to the top deck of the ferry and enjoyed the sunshine and views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Tiburon during the short 10 minute ride.

Departing Tiburon

Departing Tiburon

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Tiburon Marina

The ferry landed in Ayala Cove. Near the dock, there are several restrooms, a snack bar, and a visitor’s center. There is also a large picnic and grassy area where many folks were lazily enjoying the warm, sun-filled day.

Image courtesy of California State Parks

Image courtesy of California State Parks

After grabbing a map at a nearby kiosk, I consulted the map to scope out the best possible route for my afternoon adventure. There are 13 miles of trails on the island, but because I wanted to check out some of the historic sites. From Ayala Cove, I headed up a short segment of the North Ridge Trail and emerged on the Perimeter Road. This trail is a roughly 5 mile long flat, paved loop around the perimeter (duh!) of the island and takes you by the main historic sites including the Immigration Station, Fort McDowell, and Camp Reynolds. I followed the trail clock-wise and stopped at the first site I came to, the Immigration Station. I spent about an hour wandering the grounds of the Station, and learning about its role as a detention center during the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

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Bell near Immigration Station

Bell near Immigration Station

Climbing back up to the Perimeter Road I continued on, passing a trailhead to some of the campsites available on the island. Remebering all of the backpackers on the ferry and passing by the campsite trails, I knew that I would have to come back soon to spend the night and explore more of the island. Day dreaming about backpacking and camping, I quickly came to the next historical site, Fort McDowell.  The grounds contained several abandoned buildings that you could walk through. There was also a big grassy area where people had gathered, tossing Frisbees and picnicking.

A portion of Fort McDowell

Open and abandoned building at Fort McDowell

Continuing on the Perimeter Road, I passed another trailhead; this one leading to Mt. Livermore. My original plan had been to hike up Mt. Livermore to the island’s high point. Unfortunately, I spent a little too much time exploring the historical sites and checking out the lovely views around the island, and I ran out of time. Since it is not quite spring yet, the ferry is still on a limited schedule and I couldn’t miss the last boat that was scheduled to depart at 3:20pm. This is when I wished I had brought my bike as it would have made it much quicker to cruise around the island from site to site and probably would’ve left me with enough time to hike up Mt. Livermore.

Continuing on the Perimeter Road I passed Camp Reynolds on my way  to Point Stuart.

View of Camp Reynolds through the Bay Trees

View of Camp Reynolds through the Bay Trees

The views from Point Stuart were awesome and spanned the length of the bay from the Marin Headlands to the East Bay. Since it was clear out I could see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, and Oakland! I stopped here for a short snack break and soaked in the views and the sunshine. Talk about a perfect day!

Views of the Marin Headlands, GG Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco, Bay Bridge, and Oakland.

Views of the Marin Headlands, GG Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco, Bay Bridge, and Oakland.

Keeping an eye on the time, I begrudgingly left my perfect spot and headed back out on the trail. Before I knew it, I was climbing back down to Ayala Cove just in time to catch the ferry back to Tiburon. As I cruised back to Tiburon I couldn’t help thinking that this was truly a perfect day spent on the Bay!

Want to go?

Getting there: The ferry (or private boat or kayak) is the only way to reach Angel Island SP. There are several ferry services from points around the Bay. More transportation information can be found on the state park website.

Fees: Tickets for the ferry, at the time, were $13.50 for adults, round trip. This included the entrance fee. Ticket prices may vary depending on the ferry service you use.

Hours: The park kiosk is open from 8 a.m. to sunset, year-round, but NOTE, ferry schedules vary depending on the season. Make sure to check the return schedules for the ferry you take so that you do not miss your return trip!

Bicycles: Bikes are allowed on the Perimeter Road and other unpaved roads. No bikes on trails. Bike rentals are available seasonally.

Dogs: Not allowed on the island, except for service animals.