Sometimes life gives you lemons, other times it runs out of lemons and hands you the whole fruit basket. As we stood in the car rental agency on Sunday afternoon (conveniently located right across from the Hilton), I could tell there was a problem with giving us a vehicle. "Well, tell me what you do have," I heard the clerk say into the phone. She hung up and turned to me. "Would you take a convertible?" she asked.
Would we take a convertible? In the Bay Area, with the weather approaching perfect, and plans to head both south and north along the coast? For the same $30 a day we’d committed for a compact? Yes, I think we’d take a convertible. So within half an hour we were heading south on 101 (prompting Jackson Browne to run through my head) in our PT Cruiser, figuring out which set of buttons would put the top down and let in the sunshine and sea air.
Late the next morning, we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge, leaving US 101 at Mill Valley for California 1 and the Marin Coast. For a very brief period, the road weaves through the last edge of San Francisco suburbia before beginning its ascent into the hilly country. The turnoff for Muir Woods National Monument is here, and the steep hillsides illustrate why its stand of redwoods survived the logging onslaught of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The curvy roads reminded us why my wife was carsick the last time we came this way (over 20 years ago), but with the top down and the fresh air full of eucalyptus rushing past us, it wasn’t a problem now.
It was tough to do, but we passed the turnoff to Muir Woods in favor of landscapes we hadn’t seen. I held tight to the fiction that our return trip might hold enough time for a stop here, but it proved to be only a fiction. In the meantime, the highway had seemingly left civilization behind, the mailboxes dwindling as we took 15 mph turn after 15 mph turn on the flanks of Mt. Tamalpais. Not long after the turnoff for the Panoramic Highway and Muir Woods, we left the trees behind for the ridge tops and cleared slopes of the Shoreline Highway. I wondered whether the steep slopes and valleys to the south of us once held groves of redwoods. Those thoughts vanished as we crested, and the ocean came into view, still a few miles away, and seemingly a few miles below us as well. We repeated our tortured ascent in reverse, this time without the shade of the trees, the eucalyptus replaced by the growing presence of salt air.
We arrived at the outskirts of Muir Beach, which to my surprise was a (small) community, not just a shoreline. Pacific Way, a short spur to the west, took us to the parking lot for the beach itself, like much of the surrounding country a part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area’s northern district. Redwood Creek empties out here into Big Lagoon, creating a broad, sandy beach that has attracted people for over 100 years, with small dunes separating it from wetlands created as the Creek meanders towards the ocean. The houses of Muir Beach dot the steep hillside to the north. The history of this small, small town is a miniature version of stories all over Marin County, which moved from small farming or fishing communities, often settled by immigrants (Portuguese, in this case), swollen by wartime residents, and then attracting a whole new set of people in the 1960s and ‘70s. A lovingly crafted collection of photos and reminiscences traces the history of this community, whose original name (Bello Beach, after an original Portuguese resident) was replaced by the land company who first developed this area, thinking that the great conservationist’s name would help locate (and promote) the venture.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, the Pelican Inn—just north of the turn to the beach—seems like the ticket. An English-style bed and breakfast, it’s a short walk from here to the beach, and the trails that climb the bluffs to the south. Back on CA 1, the highway climbs away from sea level behind the point of land that forms the lagoon’s north edge. Muir Beach Overlook is located just past here, and just steps away from the parking lot is a bluff with fantastic views out over the Pacific to the Farallon Islands, north to Bolinas and Point Reyes, and behind you to Mt. Tamalpais. A steep trail descends a few hundred yards of switchbacks to the overlook itself. Unfortunately, it was closed, and a busy team of Park Volunteers was working on extensive trail repairs.
Behind the parking lot was the upper entrance to Seacape, which certainly looked like the most exclusive section of Muir Beach. Real estate ads I came across later showed a half dozen properties for sale, all over $1M, and the one atop the bluff at Seacape just under $2M—a far cry from the shaky cottages that the WW2 shipbuilders of Sausalito and their families packed into.