Conzelman Road Descent
Many people visiting the Marin Headlands make the mistake of turning back once they drive to the top of Hawk Hill. But, in my opinion, all the most beautiful parts of the Headlands are on the other side of the hill! And to get there, you must drive (or bike!!!) the exciting and terrifying one way descent on Conzelman Road. (There are actually a couple other ways to enter if you’re legitimately frightened, but I highly recommend this route!) At the top of Hawk Hill the parking lot ends and there is an easily missed entrance to a one-way road. This is where the descent begins. Only a few feet of cliffs separate you from flying out into the Pacific when you’re driving down this road. It is so steep that you can’t help but question the condition of your brakes. If you’re not the one driving and focusing on the winding turns, the views are all rolling hills, ocean coves, and a beautiful peninsula that looks as if it belongs on a tropical island. The road eventually flattens out and leads you to the following magical locations! Like I said in Part 2 of this series, if you are a cyclist, you must ride this road on the Headlands Loop route. Serious fun.
Black Sand Beach
Black Sand Beach is still somewhat unknown compared to the other beaches in Marin. From far away it does look like, indeed, a black sand beach. But once you get on the beach the sand looks pretty normal. To get here you turn into the first little hiker’s parking lot on the left after the descent on Conzelman Road. This was one of the last spots I ever learned about in the Headlands because everyone just assumes it’s a hiker’s lot and there are no big signs for a beach. The parking lot and trail to the beach were recently improved, so I think more people are discovering it. Keep in mind that the parking lot is up on a cliff and you must hike down a steep trail with some stairs for about a mile to get to the beach. The funny part about this spot (which I actually didn’t discover until my 5th or 6th time there) is that it’s a nudist beach!! There are no signs for it though! I stumbled upon this beach on a hike and started coming on days when I knew it wouldn’t be crowded. After a few times I saw one naked person and thought “Oh, it’s secluded, I love his San Francisco mentality.” But the next time I went there were more nudists! I finally looked it up online and learned the facts. It’s legit nudie territory. Next time I go I’m “forgetting” my bikini : P
These bunkers are my favorite place in the headlands. I used to come here in high school with friends and we’d climb around and sit on the roofs for hours. I recently filmed one of my music videos here too :) Battery Rathbone is the next stop on Conzelman Road, less than a mile from Black Sand Beach. It was an active military battery from 1904 until 1948. All of the doors to the large abandoned fortresses are sealed, so there are no squatters. The bunkers sitting on top of the buildings had open windows and doors and beautiful graffiti paintings until a few months ago, when they were sealed with metal screens. So sad! But they are still beautiful. And there is an incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge from this location. When you’re driving here it feels rather odd to pull into the driveway of such an abandoned and slightly eery place. “Honey, I’m home!”
Point Bonita Lighthouse
Point Bonita Lighthouse is a must-see! The lighthouse is still active and you have to walk through a tunnel on a rock peninsula to get there! This tunnel is only open during visitors hours on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from 12:30 to 3:30pm. There’s still plenty to see around here even if the tunnel isn’t open. The 1/2 mile trail down to the tunnel is beautiful and you can look back over the entire entrance to the bay, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and SF’s Ocean Beach in the distance. I recently discovered the coolest part about Point Bonita! If you take some random unofficial paths up the hill above the trail to the lighthouse, you end up at a little gathering of abandoned bunkers on a cliff with awesome views of the lighthouse and the ocean coast up North. If you go here alone it’s really scary! None of the bunkers are really sealed off and there are tunnels going through the ground. The bars in the windows make it look like a prison. There is really intense graffiti that makes it feel like some punk kids could pop out at any moment. But if you keep your attention on the beautiful coast winding up north, and the hawks floating in the wind…this is probably one of the most magical spots to be.
Rodeo Beach (Fort Cronkite)
Rodeo is a fantastic beach with lots of hiking trails and awesome vibes. It’s a really popular surf spot in Marin, so you get a great mix of surf culture, hikers, and dog lovers in the parking lot. You can also visit the Marin Mammal Center or the Headlands Center for the Arts. There’s something for everyone. It’s a tad rugged compared to other beaches; the sand is more pebbly and the wind/fog from the ocean can sweep in at a moments notice. There is a lagoon behind the beach so during the winter if it rains, there might be some streams running through the beach to the ocean. But on a warm, sunny day in Marin, few beaches rival this spot!
When you day is finished in the Headlands and you decide to leave, make sure to exit through the one-way Bunker Road Tunnel! It looks like a secret passage!
Thanks for reading Part 3 of “Exploring the Marin Headlands”! This concludes the series, as more recommendations might just be impossible for a tourist to see in one trip! Please leave any more recommendations or fond stories in the comment section below!
All photos are property of Christine Donaldson unless otherwise specified.