Explore California’s Marin County

There is no “off-season” in Marin County. Although the months of winter and spring are not the peak tourist season, it is a great time to explore Marin County. The Mediterranean climate is generally benign and storms can be breathtaking with the Pacific Ocean, Mt. Tamalpais or San Francisco Bay as a backdrop. On the coast, there is more sun during winter and spring than in the foggy summers. This time of year also has fewer crowds and less expensive lodging.

But Marin has much to offer at any time of the year. Situated between San Francisco and the wine country of Sonoma and Napa counties, Marin county’s thousands of acres of forests, mountains, and meadows exist amid five-star restaurants and European-style communities.

Muir Woods National Monument

Well-known Marin attractions include Muir Woods National Monument, a 560-acre national parkland located between the coast and Mill Valley. Thick with gigantic coast redwoods, Muir Woods holds the area’s oldest tree (1,000 years old) and tallest tree (254 feet). West of Muir Woods, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Point Reyes National Seashore line the coast from the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin’s northernmost reaches. The parks offer varied flora, abundant wildlife and sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean. Sharp eyes might spy the blow of a migrating California gray whale.

Mt. Tamalpais

Marin County’s signature landmark is Mt. Tamalpais. The 2571-foot “Sleeping Lady” can be seen from almost every town in the county and is treasured by all who live near it. Mt. Tamalpais State Park was established in 1927 and has campgrounds, an extensive trail system, and terrain that includes oak-dotted hills, rocky peaks, and mountain lakes. The park adjoins Marin Municipal Water District lands that more than double the accessible open space. The mountain attracts hikers, bikers, equestrians and nature lovers.

Marin County can be divided into four distinct geographic sections – Southern Marin, Central Marin, Northern Marin, and West Marin.

Southern Marin includes the towns of Sausalito, Tiburon, Belvedere and Mill Valley, attractive for their proximity to San Francisco and to the water. Along with West Marin, they are the most popular areas for tourists and offer quality restaurants, lodging, and shopping.

The rural communities of West Marin dot a landscape characterized by spectacular shorelines, dairy farms and 65,000 acres of wilderness protected by the Point Reyes National Seashore. The villages include Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Dogtown, Olema, Inverness, Point Reyes Station, Marshall, Tomales, and Dillon Beach. Also included in this geographical area are inland communities such as Nicasio, Woodacre, San Geronimo, Lagunitas, and Forest Knolls.

San Rafael, the county seat, is in Central Marin, an area that includes Larkspur, Greenbrae, Corte Madera, Terra Linda, San Anselmo, Ross, Santa Venetia, Fairfax, and Kentfield. Although several of the towns border one another, they retain distinct personalities. Antiques, cafes, nightclubs, lodging establishments and retail stores of every description are available in Central Marin.

The boundaries of Novato, the northernmost city in the county, stretching almost from the coast to Petaluma, the gateway to the Sonoma/Napa Wine Country. Novato is home to the Marin Museum of the American Indian, the Novato History Museum and Olompali State Park. Shoppers can choose from the specialty shops of historic Old Town to the modern stores of Vintage Oaks mall just off Highway 101.

Central Marin

The region known as Central Marin is made up of several small towns: Corte Madera, Larkspur, Ross, Kentfield, San Anselmo, and Fairfax. Shopping, historic districts, and scenic parklands are found throughout the region.

Central Marin is a paradise both for shoppers and nature lovers. The quiet, tree-lined corridor incorporates the Ross Valley communities of San Anselmo, Kentfield, Ross, Greenbrae, Larkspur and Corte Madera.

Central Marin Highlights

  • Magnolia Avenue – historic downtown Larkspur is a charming medley of boutiques, cafés, galleries, and bookstores.
  • Samuel P. Taylor State Park – redwood groves, camping, picnicking, hiking, 16 miles west of San Rafael off Sir Francis Drake Blvd. (415) 488-9897.

San Anselmo

San Anselmo is one of the antique capitals of the West. Stroll the shops along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and San Anselmo Avenue and you’ll be amazed by the sheer variety and quality of these retailers’ offerings. The city also hosts two major events each June: the San Anselmo Antique Fair and the San Anselmo Art and Wine Festival. They are not to be missed.

Ross, CA

Ross is home to some of Marin County’s oldest and most stately mansions and smaller homes. While none is open to the public, they can be appreciated from the street.

Ross Common is also a starting point for numerous hikes up Mt. Tamalpais, but don’t go without a trail map.

The Ross Town Hall (on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard at Lagunitas Road) also boasts a granite structure of a bear by the late Benny Bufano. Just across the street, you’ll find the Marin Art and Garden Center. Home to an art gallery, gift shop and community theater known as “The Barn Theater,” the Art and Garden Center, with its pond and curving walkways, is a tree-shaded oasis.

Kentfield, CA

Kentfield is home to the main campus of the College of Marin. It too has lovely, tree-shaded grounds. The college is highly regarded for its theater and music productions staged in the Fine Arts Building at Laurel Avenue.

Larkspur, CA

Larkspur’s Magnolia Avenue is a wealth of boutiques, specialty shops, patisseries, fine restaurants and coffee shops. The town bustles with activity. After dark, you may want to catch a dinner theater act at the Larkspur Cafe Theater at 500 Magnolia Avenue. Across the street, you’ll find the Lark Theater, a renovated movie house.

Larkspur also has Piper Park, a sprawling city park with Marin’s only cricket field, and 104-acre King Mountain, a beautiful place to hike.

Larkspur Landing is home not only to a shopping center but to the Larkspur Landing Ferry Terminal, where commuters and visitors board Golden Gate Ferries to San Francisco. The ferry ride is fun, relaxing and scenic; not only will you see spectacular views of San Francisco Bay and of The City itself, but the ferry passes right by San Quentin State Prison – California’s Oldest – as it departs and arrives in Larkspur.

Corte Madera, CA

Corte Madera, like Greenbrae, is a shopping mecca, especially for those who like the sheer variety afforded by shopping centers.

Corte Madera is also home to Book Passage; the bookstore, at 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., hosts presentations by authors almost every day of the week.

The restaurants of Central Marin are tempting indeed. Exotic fare such as Chinar’s North Indian meals tempts the discerning palates of the artistic and creative. For a unique experience, try having high tea at Chai Tea Salon.

West Marin

This rural section of the county includes miles of wild coastline, open ridgetop, and pastoral dairyland. Well-known attractions include Stinson Beach and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

It is difficult to imagine that so much untamed wilderness lies so close to the heavily populated Bay Area. But the huge area called “West Marin” is rugged and private indeed. Stretching from the southernmost end of Marin County to the Sonoma County line West Marin is almost entirely a wilderness area protected by state or national park status.

West Marin Highlights

  • The Bolinas Museum – Award-winning coastal museum featuring art, history and cultural artifacts of the area. Wharf Road, Bolinas, (415) 868-0330.
  • Stinson Beach National Park – Swimming, surfing, picnicking. Open year ’round, lifeguards on duty during summer months only at Panoramic Highway. Weather, surf conditions (415) 868-1922.
  • Point Reyes National Seashore – Visitor Centers, Point Reyes Lighthouse, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Tule Elk Reserve, beaches, hiking, camping, whale watching, birdwatching, nature museum, Miwok village replica. Hwy. 1 north to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. (415) 663-1092.
  • Tomales Bay State Park – Hiking, picnicking, camping, Heart’s Desire Beach. Sir Francis Drake Blvd. north to Pierce Point Road. (415)669-1140..

At its southernmost end lies a portion of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area which can be reached from the southern end of Sausalito via Bunker Road. To the north is Mt. Tamalpais State Park and the towering redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument. These enormous trees are among the oldest living creatures on the planet. Although it’s a winding road to their home, a visit is a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

Stinson Beach

Further north and west on Hwy. 1 is Stinson Beach where art galleries and cafes invite casual strolling. The gentle waves of the pristine three-mile-long beach offer a summertime haven for weary city dwellers. Again heading north on Hwy. 1, Bolinas Lagoon is a magnet for those interested in birdwatching, as the lagoon is a popular stop on the Pacific Flyway. At the Audubon Canyon Ranch in Bolinas is an egret and great blue heron rookery. When the birds are nesting (March through July), visitors can hike to an overlook to observe nesting behavior. Other bird-watching activities are available to the visiting public. While the town of Bolinas itself has a darling museum and fabulous views of San Francisco, it can be a little difficult to find; some of the locals persist in removing every sign directing visitors to its location.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Continuing north on Hwy. 1 is a long stretch of the beautiful country bordered on the east by Bolinas Ridge and the west by portions of the Point Reyes National Seashore. This stretch of road ends at Olema, the “gateway to Point Reyes.” This 65,000-acre national treasure consists of miles of forested hills, craggy shoreline, crashing surf, glassy lakes, and peaceful lagoons, all laced with hiking and biking trails.

Turn west at Olema to reach the Bear Valley Visitors Center, where excellent maps, exhibits, and information on hiking and camping can be obtained. Picnic and barbecue facilities are available.

Trails of various lengths begin and end at the visitors’ center. The Earthquake Trail may be of particular interest to out-of-state visitors. This 1/2-mile paved trail is wheelchair accessible and, through trailside exhibits, offers an informative lesson in what causes temblors and how they affect California’s landscape. But be assured: quakes occur so infrequently that Californians seldom give them a thought.

A favorite destination of visitors to Point Reyes is its famous lighthouse, located on a long fingerlike peninsula. The 22-mile drive to the lighthouse ends in a steep stairway descent. But there are plenty of built-in places to rest, and the view is magnificent.

Particularly in the winter months of December through February, nature lovers travel here hoping to see migrations of the California gray whale. These giants make a 10,000-mile round-trip journey from their home in the oceans near Alaska to the warm waters of Baja California to bear their young. Charter boats are available at various locations in Marin to sail out to the open sea to view the same spectacle.

Point Reyes Station

Those continuing north on Hwy. 1 will encounter the long, narrow Tomales Bay and charming Point Reyes Station, where art galleries and nouveau cuisine delicatessens rub shoulders with the saddle shop and feed store that serve West Marin’s horse lovers. Tiny Inverness on the bay’s western shore sports a yacht club and manufacturing site for Shaker reproduction furnishings.

Further north are the coastal villages of Marhsall, Dillon Beach and Tomales, known for its Victorian charm.

The inland hamlet of Nicasio is the site of Rancho Nicasio, where weekend visitors have enjoyed fine dining and dancing for generations. Almost everywhere in West Marin, you’ll find restaurants featuring the area’s special barbecued oysters and craft-brewed beers, served up in an extra-homey atmosphere.

Lest you think the West County is all nature and no culture, by all means, consult the Calendar of Events beginning on page 25 of this edition. Shakespeare is a regular visitor at Stinson Beach, and the Dance Palace at Point Reyes Station schedules concerts and other events throughout the year.

While most of Marin remains balmy, the areas west of Mt. Tamalpais can become foggy and windy without warning. Call ahead for weather conditions, and bring along a sweater.

The weather during the traditional off-season, however, is often spectacular. In fact, a bike ride out Lucas Valley Road to the Nicasio area is a favorite pastime of locals on New Year’s Day.

A word to the wise: If you are driving, be sure to fill your tank at one of the larger cities along Hwy. 101 before heading out, as gas stations in the west county are few.

The picturesque town of Tomales, pictured above, lies amid fields of wildflower.

Mill Valley

Mill Valley has a cozy feel, nestled at the foot of famous Mt. Tamalpais. The area has long been a retreat for San Franciscans and features a variety of entertainment and recreation.

Mill Valley Highlights

  • Marin Theatre Company – local theater company performing year ’round. 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, (415) 388-5208 (Box Office).
  • Mill Valley Film Festival – Annual international film festival, 38 Miller Ave., Suite 6, Mill Valley, CA 94941, (415) 383-5256.
  • Mill Valley Golf Course – 280 Buena Vista, Mill Valley, (415) 388-9982.
  • Mt. Tamalpais State Park – miles of hiking and biking trails, scenic vistas and camping, (415) 388-2070.
  • Old Mill Park – Hiking trails, picnic facilities, Throckmorton and Old Mill streets.

To the untrained eye, Mill Valley is merely a little town of artists and professionals that lies at the base of Mt. Tamalpais. Visitors who never drive farther north than the Hwy. 101 exit to Stinson Beach sees only the bustling part of the town’s retail district that lies alongside the interstate.

But those who drive Miller Avenue to the curlicue downtown high up on the shoulders of Mt. Tam will arrive at the delightful Alpine-like village of the town’s west end. Here, towering redwoods shade the streets and keep the city cool on even the warmest days.

Mill Valley is surrounded by parklands on three sides. To the south lie the Marin Headlands, which are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Muir Woods National Monument is on the west, and Mt. Tamalpais State Park and the Mt. Tamalpais watershed border the town on the north. As a result, Mill Valley residents consider these their back yards and are very protective of their status. Hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding are all sports the local populace enjoys year ’round.

One strenuous event is the Dipsea Foot Race, which takes place in June. The oldest cross-country foot race in America features a 7.1-mile course stretching from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach.

But Mill Valley is a town for the adventurous thinker as well as the adventurous sportsperson.

The creative and performing arts have long been appreciated in this lovely village. Since 1913, the Mountain Play Association has presented quality theatrical performances during the summer months in the natural outdoor amphitheater on Mt. Tamalpais. This year’s production is “West Side Story,” a collaboration of Broadway greats Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. Performances take place in May and June.

Adventures in dining have also enjoyed a long history in Mill Valley. In addition to the town’s many delectable restaurants, the 18th annual Mill Valley Wine and Gourmet Food Tasting take place in Lytton Square in June. More than 70 of California’s fine varietals are poured, and 35 local gourmet food purveyors present their wares.

In the autumn, Mill Valley takes on another life when it presents the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival at Old Mill Park. Featuring a diverse selection of juried arts and crafts, entertainment, food concessions, and a children’s area, the two-day festival takes place in  September. Park at Tamalpais High School and use the free shuttle bus. Downtown’s delightful restaurants, coffee houses, and even a lovely relaxing spa are only two blocks away.

Known worldwide is the Mill Valley Film Festival, a 10-day screening of the latest and most innovative of new short- and feature-length films. Festivities include a video fast, interactive and new-media exhibits, seminars, workshops, special events and a children’s film festival.

Over the years the Mill Valley Film Festival has engaged theaters in other Marin County locations to screen the dozens of films offered. Festival management announced that one of this year’s satellite locations would be the Rafael Film Center in downtown San Rafael.

Outdoor Recreation Plentiful In Marin

One of the finest aspects of outdoor recreation in Marin County is how much can be enjoyed within a few minutes of a major metropolis. Hiking the Marin Headlands, surfing and kayaking on San Francisco Bay or hang gliding on certain parts of Mt. Tamalpais can all be done within sight of San Francisco.

Marin offers a wide variety of outdoor pleasures. In addition to those already mentioned, the county is great for bicycling, fishing, whale watching, windsurfing, beachcombing, sailing, and more.

Hiking

Hikers will find plenty of trails to trek. Trails in the Marin Headlands portion of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, are particularly fascinating. Many lead to massive concrete bunkers and gun placements built during World War II to protect San Francisco and vital shipbuilding facilities in Sausalito, while other trails traverse rolling coastal hills. Several of the sites feature panoramic views of the Golden Gate, San Francisco, and the Pacific Ocean. On a clear day, the Farallon Islands are visible. The Marin Headlands Visitor Center is located in the old chapel at Fort Barry and is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The center offers natural history exhibits and displays and guided nature walks.

Other trails meander through the 560 acres of Muir Woods, home of stately coast redwoods, Mt. Tamalpais State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. A ferry boat ride to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay invites additional exploration.

Several local companies offer hiking and bicycling trips to all these Marin County locales and can provide gear, guides, and meals for quick sight-seeing excursions or all-day explorations. Equipment is also available for rent for those who wish to explore on their own.

Mountain biking

It’s not surprising that mountain biking is very popular in Marin County. Marin is considered the birthplace of the sport. In its infancy, local pioneers such as Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Steve Potts and others raced old, rebuilt balloon tire bikes down the fire roads on Mt. Tamalpais. Their competition inspired experimentation resulting in the modern mountain bike.

Those who prefer the water to dirt roads will enjoy kayak, waterbike (pedal-powered pontoon craft) and sailboat trips available on San Francisco Bay, which is a great way to observe the city, the Marin County shoreline and local marine and birdlife. Instruction is advisable due to busy ship traffic, strong currents and changeable weather. Check with local outfitters and shops for conditions and regulations.

Windsurfing

Windsurfing is a favorite activity on the bay. On brisk days it is not uncommon to see hundreds of colorful sails zipping across the water.

Other sails can be seen in the air above Mt. Tamalpais when hang gliders gather to ride the thermals. Bolinas Ridge is a good vantage point to watch the activity. Those who like the air, but not without a motor, can charter a seaplane for a tour of Point Reyes, San Francisco, Marin County, and the wine country.

For more information contact: Angel Island State Park (415) 435-1915, Marin Headlands Visitor Center (415) 331-1540, Mt. Tamalpais State Park (415) 388-2070, Muir Woods National Monument (415) 388-2595 and Point Reyes National Seashore (415) 663-1092.