The first time I crossed the Golden Gate from San Francisco and entered Marin County, fog swirled under and around the bridge, and I floated over it, feeling like Alice in Wonderland. When I passed through the Waldo Tunnel, a rainbow of colors circling the opening, I was waiting for the Mad Hatter to appear from the other end. When the fog presses over the Golden Gate, creeping over Mount Tamalpais and into all the crevices, it’s like a dragon’s breath, a seductive, unpredictable veil.
Visiting Marin can be disorienting—but in a good way. Tremendously varied geologically, economically, and culturally, the county wears many faces. Marin’s aura is a mix of 60s romantic excesses and conservative ideals that parallel the varied geography and climate. The closer you are to San Francisco, the cooler the climate. But as you wend your way north, into San Rafael and then Novato, the temperatures climb at least another 10-20 degrees, depending on the time of year. While many Marin residents are middle to upper middle class, there also is an underclass present. Marin City, Sausalito’s nearest neighbor, once mainly housed African Americans. Now it’s more mixed, gentrification taking hold there as well as in the city.
As soon as you enter the county, you feel like Alice with so many choices, each exit offering a new vista, a unique experience. If you take the road to Marin Headlands, and stay on it as it climbs, road hugging a ridge, you’ll see spectacular views of San Francisco, streets marching away from the shore; the Bay; and the East Bay in the distance. The higher you go, the more you’ll see.
If you continue along this road, following the headlands, you’ll view the Farallon Islands, the only thing between you and the sea, and the lighthouse. You could spend an afternoon just exploring the beaches (Kirby Cove, one of my favorites, is about a 20 minute walk each way, though on the return trip, you are traveling uphill) and the Marin Headlands themselves. Former military residences now house one of the nicest hostels I’ve seen and an artists’ colony. (Public buses regularly make stops at the hostel.)
If you choose the first exit to the right after leaving the Bridge, you’ll follow a winding road along the hillside into Sausalito, pastel-colored houses hugging the hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay, and resembling Lerici, Italy. You could easily spend a day here, pushing past the tourist glitz and discovering old Sausalito.
The southern edge of town is the original Whaler’s Cove, the location of the first homes and roads in Sausalito. Primarily a residential area, it also has a restaurant and a market-deli. “North Street,” “East Street,” “West Street,” and “South Street” are all in this neighborhood. Over a century ago, they marked the borders of early Sausalito.
By now, you’re ready to stretch your legs and smell the surf. Buy some sandwiches from a local deli, or San Francisco sour dough and cheese, and head out to the freeway again, taking the Mill Valley/Stinson exit. Follow the road until you see signs for Tennessee Valley and turn left for a couple of miles until you reach a parking area. You’re now in the Golden Gate National Park system.
After a level 45-minute walk, you’ll reach Tennessee Valley Cove, a wonderful spot to picnic, watch the waves crash on shore, or snooze, revitalizing you for the next part of your Southern Marin tour.
You have many choices. You could head for Mill Valley itself, formerly a mill town that was popularized in the 70s by the song “Talking about Mill Valley, that’s my home,” sang by local school children. This is one of the few places in the area that has a town square, edged by the Depot, a bookstore, at one time a train depot. If shopping makes you leap for joy, you’ll find many interesting local shops. After seeing them, you may never want to visit a mall again. But you also could discover the Dipsea Trail and walk at least a portion of it. The trail stretches over seven miles from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, tracing the Redwood Creek watershed from the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais to the Pacific. Mt. Tamalpais has so many trails that you could walk a different one every day of the year, and many can be accessed from Mill Valley.
But other towns are competing for your attention, one being Tiburon, located on the Tiburon Peninsula. From here you can catch ferries to both Angel Island and San Francisco. An Angel Island excursion should be on anyone’s itinerary. You can take a picnic lunch and lounge on its beaches. If you’re more energetic, you can hike to the top of Mount Caroline Livermore, Angel Island’s highest point. Or you can hike/bike on roads that circle the perimeter. On a clear day, you can see Sonoma and Napa from the north side of the island and San Jose from the south side.
As part of the California Sate Park system, the island has housed military forts, a US Public Health Service Quarantine Station, and a US Bureau of Immigration inspection and detention facility. Currently, its immigration station is an historical landmark that once examined one million immigrants. It’s fascinating to browse the historical documents contained there.
It’s no surprise that the earliest inhabitants of the area were Native American. The Coast Miwok lived there for thousands of years. But today Tiburon hosts individuals who can afford the expensive real estate.
Speaking of expensive real estate, Belvedere has plenty, the median cost of a home there being one million dollars. Located immediately adjacent to the Tiburon Peninsula, you can reach it by crossing a short bridge from Tiburon. According to the census, the per capita income is one of the highest in California. Many famous individuals either live or have lived in Belvedere: Andre Agassi and his wife Steffi Graff and Vivian Vance of I Love Lucy fame. You’ll find plenty of trees and lovely views in Belvedere, but you won’t find any shops or grocery stores. Tiburon, the more commercial of the two, has oodles.
Several restaurants line Main Street, overlooking the harbor and with fine vistas of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Further along, you’ll be taken back in time to when Tiburon wasn’t Yuppy Heaven. At the end of Main Street, you’ll discover Historical Ark Row, a collection of shops and other commercial sites that inhabit charming former cottages. They invite loitering, as does the town itself.
By now you may need a break from touring this extraordinary county. But remember, you’ve only visited the southern end. There’s so much more to explore that you could spend an entire week or more just focusing on Marin and its surroundings (Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, Point Reyes Seashore, and Inverness to name a few other sites). You may not run into the Mad Hatter there, but Marin’s magic will seduce you.