Marin Headlands Hiking and the Point Bonita Lighthouse

Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Marin Headlands is a hiker’s paradise. Trails zig-zag across the coastal bluffs and skirt historic batteries, bunkers, and underground look-outs from World War I and II. While enjoying these historic hidden places hikers admire views of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco. This 7.5 mile Marin Headlands hiking adventure passes several old bunkers and batteries before visiting the Point Bonita Lighthouse.

When I hiked this trail at the end of March the wildflowers were just starting to bloom. The hillsides were a colorful wash of yellow, orange, and purple from all of the sour grass, poppies, and lupine flowers. Between the abundance of blooms and the amazing coastal views there was something to admire around every bend in the trail.

While most of the hike follows dirt hiking trails, there is a half-mile stretch where you will be walking along a road. If you want to avoid the road walking and prefer to drive to the lighthouse you can shorten your loop and use the Lagoon trail to walk back to the starting trailhead. The Golden Gate National Recreation area has a great map of the Marin Headlands on their website.

Poppies on the California Coastal Trail in the Marin headlands

Best Time to Hike

While this hike is fun excursion on any sunny day, the best time to hike this trail is on a Sunday. The Point Bonita lighthouse is only open to the public from 12:30pm to 3:30pm on Sundays and Mondays. And Battery Townsley is only open for free public tours on the first Sunday of each month. To experience the full beauty of this trail, a tour of the lighthouse is definitely a must, so plan accordingly.

This is a great year-round hike. On a sunny day parking at the trailhead can be a bit of a challenge as surfers, beach-goers, and hikers all flock to the area. Because this trail is near the coast there is almost always a nice breeze to help cool you off. On a cloudy day it can be quite cold on the west side of the mountain heading up the ridgeline, so you’ll want to pack layers. Most of the trail is exposed, so you’ll want to bring your sunblock and a hat on sunny days.

Map and elevation profile for the Marin headlands hike to the Point Bonita lighthouse

Detailed Description of Marin Headlands Hike

The Marin Headlands hike follows the California Coastal Trail as it traverses along the western side of the ridge before summiting the ridge and wrapping around the east side of the hill

The trail begins behind the bathrooms at the Fort Cronkhite parking lot. Go past the road barrier and follow the fire road for a short distance until making a right when you reach a trail marker for the Coastal Trail hiking route. After a tenth of a mile, the hiking route merges with the paved Coastal Trail biking route. Continue up the hill on the paved path.

Battery Townsley

As you hike you’ll pass the first battery on this hiking route, Battery Townsley. Located a half-mile from the trailhead, Battery Townsley is a battery from World War II. A group of dedicated volunteers offer free tours of the inside of the battery every first Sunday of the month from noon to 4pm.

At .7 miles you’ll reach a T in the trail and go left, following signs for the Coastal trail toward Wolf Ridge Trail and Hill 88. Shortly after, make a right to continue toward Wolf Ridge. Follow the trail and go up a series of steep stone steps. At approximately 1 mile come to another t and head right. Then shortly after take the wood stairs on your left. At the top of the stairs make a right at the sign for the Coastal trail.

Coastal Trail

Stay straight on the path until you come to a Y with a marker for the Coastal trail on the right and an abandoned battery on the left. Both trails lead to the same place, but the trail to the left (that goes past the battery and steeply uphill) is my preferred route because it is more challenging and more interesting. At the top of the first climb you’ll reach an old sand bag bunker. Further on you’ll pass by more bunkers and you’ll get great views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Rodeo Lagoon.

At 1.7 miles the two trails merge and a tenth of a mile later take the Wolf Ridge Trail (to your left), toward the Miwok Trail and Old Springs Trail. The trail goes steeply downhill for a third of a mile before starting another uphill climb. After the short climb the trail flattens out and soon enough you’ll reach a junction with the Miwok Trail where you make a right, following signs toward the Rodeo Valley Trail.

Hikers on the Miwok trail in the Marin headlands

At the bottom of the hill stay straight on the Miwok trail when you reach a junction with another series of trails to your left. The Miwok trail ends at a parking area and an old barrack. Use the crosswalk to cross the road and pick up the Lagoon Trail where you’ll take the pedestrian path to the left towards the Visitor Center.

When you pass a second junction with the Lagoon Trail, continue straight and walk along the road for approximately 250 feet until you reach a dirt road on your right with a “Service Vehicles only” sign. Follow the dirt road up to the Visitor Center located in the historic Fort Barry Chapel. Pass by the Visitor Center, cross through the parking lot and pick-up the main road (Field Rd.). For the next half mile you’ll be walking along the road on the soft shoulder. Be mindful of cars on this section.

Make a right on Field Road and follow it until you reach the lighthouse. As you follow the road to the lighthouse you’ll pass the NIKE Missile site and Battery Alexander on your right and Battery Wallace on your left.

After visiting the lighthouse, retrace your steps and follow the road back to the large parking lot located between the YMCA and Battery Alexander. At the back of this parking lot pick up the Batteries Loop Trail and head toward Battery O’Rorke.

You’ll stay on the Batteries Loop Trail for a short time. When you come to the first bench on the trail take the unmarked path to the left (behind the bench). This trail follows the cliff and leads down to Rodeo Beach. Depending on where you parked at the trailhead you can walk the entire length of the beach back to the main parking lot, or walk half of the beach and then take the bridge across the lagoon, to reach the overflow parking areas.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse

The Point Bonita lighthouse is open on Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 to 3:30pm. If you want to visit the lighthouse be sure to get there a bit before closing time. The lighthouse is a popular spot and there is often a line to cross over the short suspension bridge and into the lighthouse zone.

The lighthouse is free to visit and there are usually docents on hand to talk about the history of the site. The Point Bonita lighthouse was the third lighthouse to be built on the west coast. It opened in 1855 and helped guide ships as they navigated the dense fog of the Golden Gate. The lighthouse was originally built on the hill, near the current parking area, and it was moved to its current site in 1877.

The trail to the lighthouse from the street is only a half-mile long, but it is fairly steep making the climb out difficult. There is a restroom near the street, but no services are offered at the lighthouse itself. Make sure to bring lots of layers and water when you visit.

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The Trailhead

The trail begins behind the bathrooms near the parking area at Fort Cronkhite.

The Route

Follow the California Coastal Trail until it meets Wolf Ridge Trail. From Wolf Ridge connect with the Miwok trail and make your way back to the Rodeo Lagoon. Take the Rodeo Lagoon trail towards the Visitor Center. Walk along the road for a short distance then pick-up the dirt service road to the Visitor Center. Walk along Field Road for a half-mile until you reach the Point Bonita Lighthouse. After visiting the lighthouse retrace your steps along the road and pick-up the Batteries Loop Trail toward Battery O’Rorke. Follow an unmarked trail along the cliff and back to Rodeo Beach.

Other Details

Trail Safety

Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.

Being prepared means arriving at the trailhead with water and some basic provisions. Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed, even if I don’t have cell service. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.

Stay safe, enjoy the trail, and soak up the magic of nature!

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