Exploring lush Marin County, just north across the Golden Gate Bridge, is one of the quintessential experiences of any trip to San Francisco. Driving the first few miles into Marin on a sunny day with a camera is an aesthetically divine activity in itself. What you first notice is the multitude of outstanding views of the peninsula that forms the North Bay. You make your way out of the city north on Highway 101—a ribbon of road threading from the bridge at the southern tip of the peninsula to the north, approximately 30 miles to the Sonoma county line. Drive across the Golden Gate while the steep cliffs and high hills of the Marin Headlands —towering hundreds of feet above the bridge—welcomes you to a vastly different world than San Francisco. The bridge—in all its splendor and gargantuan size—is immediately put into perspective, dwarfed by this rugged coastline. This merits our first stop and one of the most incredible photo-ops of the day.
Take the first exit off the Golden Gate Bridge, Alexander Avenue, after the Vista Point turnout. Make a left under the highway and follow it around, bearing right up the mountain on Conzelman Road. Bastions of former coastal defenses spanning the Civil War through the Cold War line the ride to the top. Stop and explore these military fortifications dug deep into the rock. Look down the sides of this coastal mountain that find their roots in the crashing white waves of the Pacific below. One of the most spectacular views in the world lies before you as you gaze above or through the cables of the Golden Gate at the city. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and stupendous hiking and biking trail heads begin here, too. Follow this road to the top and let loose your camera on 360-degree views of the Bay area and out to sea. There are many old large gun emplacements and bunkers to explore before descending back down to the highway. The coast and skyline of San Francisco bring deep appreciation to why our city is truly the American Mediterranean.
On the road heading north, you pierce through the solid rock of the Headlands via the Rainbow Tunnel, named for the rainbows painted above its entrances. Like Alice falling through the looking glass, another world is set before you. Cresting the last rise, the car hugs wide and forgiving curves after exiting the tunnel. Just when you thought the views couldn’t get any better, the deep blue of the bay lies off the ridge to your right, hundreds of feet below the rooftops of Sausalito hill dwellers; in front of you is the majestic Mount Tamalpais , the highest mountain point in the area, as well as the 11 city-villages of Marin nestled in the green and former Licatiut and Miwok American-Indian paradise.
The San Francisco skyline is the traveler’s companion for the first few miles. The city-towns of Sausalito, Tiburon, Belvedere, Corte Madera, and Larkspur Landing host waterfront views and provide the ultimate in lodging, dining, and viewing pleasures. Beams of early day sun shine directly on the east face of Mount Tam, creating a soft and billowy look to her southern contours. As Apollo rises and climbs above and behind it during his chariot race across the day sky, he carves her features sharply with every falling shadow. In the evenings, reflections cast by the same sun on the Golden Gate Bridge sizzle silently in to the depths of a blue Pacific. On the western side of the peninsula, oceanscapes along the coast are awe-inspiring from Route 1; The Coastal Highway. The scenic life in Marin is beyond comparision.
Commuter-friendly communities are clustered close along the highway, and navigating from one to the other is easy. There are also the many back roads connecting towns that originally were horse, buggy, and wagon trails better than 100 years ago. The hills are verdant or golden, season depending, and 75% of the county is open space regulated. Leave the highway corridor and much of the woods are still unchanged from when Sir Francis Drake and the crew of the Golden Hinde set foot here in 1579. There is a statue across from the Larkspur ferry terminal in a cove where he may have landed. The main route from this point, through many of the towns and redwoods, west to the ocean, is aptly named after him. Following Drake Boulevard provides another awesome day trip to West Marin and the Point Reyes National Seashore area.
A mile north in San Rafael is where the first Spanish settlement and Mission San Rafael Archangel —the church is still in operation today—were founded in 1817. In June, the Italian Street Painting Festival takes place here for a weekend. Hundreds of artisans utilizing chalk create masterpieces on the street, many of museum quality. Live music, food courts, and the city’s merchants play host to a fantastic community event.
Marin is renowned for its outdoor activities. The mountain bike was born here, and there are hundreds of miles of designated on-and-off road biking trails. A relaxing and awesome day trip is Muir Woods, where hiking through the tallest trees in the world that are older than the Sistine Chapel is par for the course. Trails starting in a few towns allow you to scale over the top of Mount Tam to the ocean on the other side. Point Reyes National Seashore and coastal day drives are a half-hour to three-quarter-hour drive once you’re here.
Marin’s towns provide an excellent selection of restaurants, cafés, patisseries, convenient boutique, large anchor shopping, and more-than-ample parking. In all seasons, wine and film festivals, art fairs, and farmer’s markets entertain and provide festive street parties in famous Marin style. Though each town retains a distinct character that separates it from its neighbor, we are bound by the common thread of the privilege of living here and hosting our guests.
Let me give you a fast look at some of my favorite townships. Sausalito, from its history of rail and shipyard to the artisan’s colony and yachtsman’s paradise, provides spectacular city views. It is your first city over the bridge. You can shop Sausalito, also accessible by ferries out of San Francisco. A significant amount of commuters opt for their morning coffee and happy hour on the ferry's fantails to and from work in the city.
Tiburon and Belvedere are exclusive bayside living communities with a European feel, their waterfront lined with excellent bayside restaurants and cafés. Snack and sit before astounding views looking over the masts of many majestic sloops docked at the Corinthian Yacht Club. One of my favorite nice-weather activities is to pick up boxed lunches from one of the restaurants after renting a bike and cruise to Angel Island by ferry. Ride or hike the island, surrounded by the bay, for the day.
Mill Valley was originally named for its old sawmill. Best known for its Hansel and Gretel-like downtown, it is home of the Mountain Play, a century-old tradition each summer in an open amphitheater on the slopes of Mount Tam overlooking the ocean. I love having a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup at the popular Book Depository and Café, where an outdoor table game of backgammon and chess is usually underway. Part of town square, it was the railroad station that sent a train up and down Tam in an era gone by. The Mill Valley Film Festival, which has gained international recognition, screens premiers and for a week each fall, when Cannes comes west.
Corte Madera and its shopping malls are contrasted by the bird conservatory on the coast. San Quentin looms large in the distance at the base of the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge. Larkspur, a town that sleeps at the foot slopes of Tamalpais, is an idyllic place to stroll on cobblestone streets and browse beautiful boutiques. A few miles north of Mill Valley, mountain bikers find their way here for beverage breaks before or after a ride. Continue to Ross, where homes are mostly small estates with traditional-style architecture in the $2,000,000 to $10,000,000 price range--curb-side-view shoppers usually get a wave and smile from residents in expansive front yards.
The towns grow quieter the farther away from the highway you travel. Fairfax was originally part of a Spanish land grant and, like its neighbor,San Anselmo, which is recognized as the Antique Capital of the West, attracts many with Marin’s hillside living lifestyle. Views of Mt. Tam and easy access to West Marin and the ocean rule here. Houses here were originally summer homes for wealthy San Franciscans in the early 1900s. They too looked for an escape from the wintry conditions of San Francisco's summer, something that makes Marin’s warm-weather menu of day-trip options all the more special!