By Lee Foster
Arguably the most pleasing views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate from an elevated perspective occur from Conzelman Road, on the Marin Headlands in Marin County, north of the City.
The Marin Headlands is the first turn off after you cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Turn off on the right side, then cross left underneath the main roadway, and you will see Conzelman Road ascending the hillside.
A parking lot near the bottom is useful for hikers who want to leave their cars and walk down to Kirby Cove, a bayside beach just west of the Golden Gate.
Proceeding up the ridge, the first stop on Conzelman Road is a turn out on the left, with a few spaces for cars, and an opportunity to walk out to Battery Spencer and enjoy a close-up look at the North Tower of the Golden Gate. This spectacular view is as close as you will get to the Bridge from a wide-angle perspective. Battery Spencer is a massive amount of concrete on this green Marin hillside, helping a visitor to comprehend, with signage, the dense concentration of big guns (or “batteries”) that covered the Marin Headlands in World War II. National hysteria after Pearl Harbor included worries that the Japanese Navy would sail beyond Hawaii and enter the Golden Gate. Defenses were set up to meet this potential threat.
The second ridge up Conzelman Road, with a small number of car parking spaces, might be called Postcard Ridge. From here, dedicated photographers seek to capture images of the Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco in the background. The view is always different, depending on the time of day, month of year, and lyrical addition of drifting fog. Afternoon to evening light flatters the bridge with a warm visual bath. Drifting fog sometimes adds a beguiling element towards evening. Linger at this Postcard Ridge to get your own best snapshot selfie of your San Francisco visit.
Keep in mind the etiquette of traffic congestion that can occur on Conzelman Road. On a summer weekend, expect the place to be crowded. Come prepared to “hover” for a while, waiting for a parking space to open up.
As you continue up the ridges, there are a couple more turn outs, but they are less spectacular that those mentioned. Then, at the saddle of the main ridge, the high point, there is a roundabout. Turn left and proceed to the final great view, known locally as Hawk Hill. Hawk Hill has ample parking and presents the most glorious panoramic view of the entire Golden Gate, including the Bridge and the City of San Francisco. Container ships crossing beneath the Bridge after leaving the Port of Oakland may be a part of the scene. Signage here will alert you that a young army surveyor, Captain John Fremont, bestowed the name Golden Gate on this lovely setting, thinking of poetic description he had read about the Straits of Bosporus.
Hawk Hill gets its name because this happens to be the place where a large number of raptors cross the Golden Gate, using the thermals generated by sun hitting the hills, plus the updraft of wind bouncing off the cliffs, to assist their flights efficiently during migration times. Bird watchers continually count the raptors, giving a report on their numbers as an index of the overall health of the environment. More raptors means that their food supplies are more plentiful, suggesting the overall fecundity of the ecosystem.
Hawk Hill is also a maze of tunnels and underground storage rooms where the munitions and firearms from WWII were once stored. Beyond this hillside, further into the headlands, there is a de-commissioned Nike Missile site, illustrating the Cold War evolution of armaments from land-based guns to aircraft and missiles as defenses.
Allow plenty of time to linger at Hawk Hill. The setting is stunning. It is ironic that John Fremont chose the name Golden Gate a few years earlier than the Gold Rush of 1948.
From Hawk Hill, you can turn back on the two-way road to the Bridge and return to San Francisco. However, if you have time, take the steep one-way road onward to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. This straight, downhill run is indeed unnerving, but the road flattens out eventually as you approach the parking lot for the Point Bonita Lighthouse. Take the walk to the lighthouse.
Lighthouses were a necessity along California’s irregular, rocky coast, where dangerous, near-shore navigation could be complicated by fog. Point Bonita assisted ships going in and out the narrow Golden Gate entrance to San Francisco Bay. Today the lighthouse is maintained by a spirited group of volunteers. For the fullest experience, arrange a visit when the lighthouse is open.
Beyond the lighthouse, there are two further items of major interest in the Marin Headlands. The first is the Visitor Center, run by the National Park Service, and located in a former chapel once used by the military. One highlight of the Visitor Center is a re-created reed structure such as the Miwok Native Americans once used for shelter. The other facility of note is the Marine Mammal Center, which welcomes visitors to experience their pioneering work saving and rehabilitating insured marine mammals. The Marine Mammal Center (http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/) is a leader in raising awareness about ocean sustainability.
Marin Headlands: If You Go
The Marin Headlands is a treasured part of the larger Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a National Parks umbrella covering many outdoor sites around the Golden Gate. Details for Marin Headlands are at http://www.nps.gov/goga/marin-headlands.htm. One irony is that the substantial military land around the Golden Gate saved the territory from development for later recreational use as a national park and open space.
(This article will appear in one of Lee Foster’s new books for Spring 2016, which will be The 100 Top San Francisco/Bay Area Travel Attractions and The 100 Top Northern California Travel Attractions (Beyond the San Francisco/Bay Area). These projects will appear as printed books, ebooks, websites, articles, photos, and videos.)