MARIN COUNTY, just north of San Francisco, cradles wealthy bedroom communities in picturesque bays. But nearly half of the county’s 520 square miles is protected open space — bucolic and wild, its tiny towns separated by forested mountains.
It is the kind of landscape, with miles of well-maintained trails, that people travel across the globe to traverse — to Wales, say, or the Cinque Terre. But Marin, particularly its western reaches, offers something for anyone spry enough to walk a mile or two, on any budget.
One Friday afternoon last fall, my wife, Nina, and I rode a bus across the Golden Gate Bridge out of San Francisco with the hordes of commuters. We planned to spend the next three days hiking back to the city. While our route may have been ambitious — covering as many as 20 miles a day — it’s easy to choose shorter routes, or make connections by car or bus if you want to do it in less time.
We got off in Olema, a crossroads in a long valley formed by the San Andreas fault. We already felt a world away in the eucalyptus-scented darkness before the understated wooden form of the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge, where we had booked a room.
In the morning, we headed out into a dazzling fog, climbing east toward the Bolinas Ridge. Ghostly white deer — descendants of fallow deer imported in the last century — looked down on us through dripping stalks of fennel. The air smelled like a cool herbal balm, and our boots grew dark with dew.
At the ridge, fog was pouring in from a neighboring valley like heavy cream. Tomales Bay, where the fault reaches the sea, shone in the distance. All about us was mad morning chirping and grass bejeweled in the sun.
Heading south along the ridge, we met our first human beings at noon. Pierce and Carmen Morris were on a northward walk markedly better organized than our own: having rambled throughout Europe, they had entrusted a local company to plan their trip. We chatted for a bit and, as we parted, Mr. Morris turned and called back in his sweet Georgia accent: “We’re 71 years old, by the way!”
“So,” Nina said as we watched them proceed jauntily toward Olema, “30 more years of this for us?”
Soon, we joined the Coastal Trail, which follows the shoreline at a distance, atop a ridge. In the late afternoon, it broke onto rolling, golden hills and our first view of the Pacific. Hawks and vultures romped in the updrafts, swooping close to the shaggy-maned hills, while paragliders sought to imitate them from a promontory up ahead.
We were above the Bolinas Lagoon Preserve, part of the Audubon Canyon Ranch and one of the first places in the county to be protected — a reminder that these hills are not unspoiled by accident. Freeways and subdivisions planned in the 1960s were blocked by local activism. Instead of sprawl on its slopes, West Marin County has salmon in its streams.
As the sun lowered, the ocean became a molten blaze punctuated only by the Farallon Islands near the horizon. The surf whispered from Stinson Beach below us, and we turned toward it. The woods soon gave way to streets of bougainvillea and Monterey cypress around ’60s-era beach houses with BMWs and surfboards out front.
We were quickly in the center of Stinson Beach: a green, some shops and cars tooling up and down the Shoreline Highway. We made the beach just in time to see the perfect ball of evening fire quench itself across Bolinas Bay off Duxbury Point. The hills we had marked with our footprints seemed improbable pink confections.
“It feels like another country,” said Nina, even though we had been on that beach many times before.
We stayed that night at the Redwood Haus, a bed-and-breakfast that harked back to Marin’s more casual hippie days. In the chaotic living room, we listened to the owners’ tales of life in 1960s San Francisco. Then we went upstairs and slept like logs, the surf sighing through our open window.
We woke at dawn to murmuring in the dovecote by the longboards and the smell of frying potatoes and eggs. Ravens called from above, and we shouldered our packs and headed off into the fog along the Dipsea Trail. We ascended through fantastical, gnarled woods into open, misty heath. Quails, rabbits and an elegant buck — in the mist all the same carob color as the trail — granted us room to pass into a dense redwood forest.
As we climbed, sunbeams pierced the brume to pick out pools of water in bowls of polished rock and carpets of glistening, emerald ferns. Big trees lay over the narrow ravine, their backs covered in moss. As we rambled higher still, blue sky tinted the fog and, suddenly, we were in warm sun on the golden flanks of Mount Tamalpais.
Mount Tam is beloved in the Bay Area, and as we approached the Pantoll Ranger Station, the headquarters of Mount Tamalpais State Park, the trails became crowded. Hikers, bikers, campers, walkers, runners and others swarmed the routes to the mountain’s peak. But a friendly ranger directed us to a trail, Troop 80, that even on a sunny Sunday, was quiet and lovely.
Even better, when we emerged at the Mountain Home Inn, we were able to get a table for lunch on the deck right away. We sat overlooking Mill Valley, and beyond it the bustling Bay Area, while Mount Tam’s green mass loomed behind us.
“This beats sitting on a rock with a PowerBar,” observed Nina, sipping a tall glass of iced tea mixed with lemonade. Truth be told, anything tastes good after a few miles on the trail, and though the area is home to many artisanal food enterprises, dining in West Marin is rarely inspired.
Still, with full bellies we were glad to be heading downhill. Now that we were more than 30 miles from Olema, people we met found our ramble enchanting: many who know these trails well had not considered linking them together, and surprisingly few take multiday walks there.
A trail as steep as a ski slope deposited us into the Muir Woods National Monument. A grove of truly gigantic redwoods, Muir Woods, declared a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt 100 years ago, has long been a popular tourist excursion from San Francisco. The trails at its heart are paved, and visitors are separated from the monstrous trunks by split-rail fences.
Children with tall ice cream cones gathered around a friendly, dapper ranger who explained the circumstances behind the latest fallen tree (nobody was around, he told them, so it didn’t make a sound). We soon found ourselves walking past tour buses in the parking lot.
But a few more steps and we were alone again, hiking through meadows and scented alders along a river. Evening fog gathered in the last mile, restoring the air’s coastal quality. Then we smelled wood smoke, and came out in front of the Tudor confection of that day’s destination: the Pelican Inn.
We walked right into a cheerful scene of dark wood beams, roaring fires, darts, and fish and chips. As guests at the inn, we repaired to the snug private drawing room off the pub with a couple of pints and, sloughing off our boots, propped our feet by the fire to toast the 15 miles we had walked that day.
Part of West Marin’s appeal is its diversity of enclaves. Shortly after leaving the Pelican Inn the next morning, we were walking through fields of organic greens at Green Gulch, a Zen retreat and organic farm.
Wool-clad Zen students nodded to us as we passed them at work cutting chard. Visitors looking for the deeply contemplative experience of dawn zazen and Japanese tea ceremonies can stay there, but we had just begun our day and were soon climbing out of the valley.
On the ridge, we turned and looked back. Below us, Muir Beach sat fast like a pleasant Hobbitown. Beyond it, the Pacific was glowering slightly, and low, ominous streaks of rain splattered the sky.
A drizzle set in, and by midday we came to a fog-shrouded eucalyptus copse where two paths diverged. One led down to Sausalito and the ferry home.
“Come on, let’s go,” said Nina.
So we took the other path, rambling on along the ridge down to the Golden Gate Bridge, into the city and right to our doorstep.
FIRST STEPS OF MANY
Marin is an easy drive from San Francisco. Bus service is also available from Golden Gate Transit (415-455-2000; www.goldengate.org) and Marin Transit (415-499-6099; www.marintransit.org); the latter’s West Marin Stagecoach (415-526-3239) serves the small towns of West Marin.
WHERE TO STAY
There are many options, but they all fill up fast, so make reservations.
In Olema, the Olema Inn (10000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard; 415-663-9559; www.theolemainn.com; rooms start at $185) and the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge (10021 Coastal Highway 1; 415-663-9000; www.pointreyesseashorelodge.com; starting at $135) are both central and comfortable.
Stinson Beach has many vacation rentals, but few nightly options. One is the Redwood Haus (Belvedere and Highway 1; 415-868-1034; www.stinson-beach.com; the four rooms start at $65 on weekdays).
In Muir Beach, the Pelican Inn (10 Pacific Way; 415-383-6000; www.pelicaninn.com) has rooms from $190, while at the very different Green Gulch Farm Zen Center (1601 Shoreline Highway; 415-383-3134; www.sfzc.org/ggf) doubles start at $145 with three meals a day.
We found the “Rambler’s Guide to the Trails of Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods and the Marin Headlands” (Olmstead & Bros.; 510-658-6534; $8) indispensable, even though most trails are well marked. It is a detailed trail map that not only is printed on waterproof material, but also includes a reassuring guarantee from the publisher, Gerald Olmstead: “If you’re lost out in the woods somewhere, please note that my phone number is on the map. Just call me up.”
Farther north, we used the “Point Reyes National Seashore and West Marin Parklands” map from Wilderness Press (800-443-7227; www.wildernesspress.com; $9.95). Wilderness also publishes the helpful “North Bay Trails,” by David Weintraub ($16.95).