N of the Golden Gate Bridge
Don’t be tempted by the several bus tours available for these spots; these day trips are an easy drive, though parking can be a hassle once lots fill up. A family of four will save a fortune—and see a lot more—by simply hiring a rental car for about $90 for the day.
Muir Woods - While the rest of Marin County’s redwood forests were devoured to feed San Francisco’s turn-of-the-20th-century building spree, Muir Woods, in a remote ravine on the flanks of Mount Tamalpais, escaped destruction. Soaring toward the sky like a wooden cathedral, Muir Woods is unlike any other forest in the world; visiting here is an experience you won’t soon forget.
Magnificent California redwoods have been successfully transplanted to five continents, but their homeland is a 500-mile strip along the mountainous coast of southwestern Oregon and Northern California. The coast redwood, or Sequoia sempervirens, is one of the tallest living things known to man; the largest known specimen in the Redwood National Forest towers 368 feet. (It has an even larger relative, the Sequoiadendron giganteum of the California Sierra Nevada, but the coastal variety is stunning enough.)
In the 1800s, redwoods were so plentiful here that people thought they’d never run out, and pretty much every single building in San Francisco and beyond was built of redwood. You could argue that the trees got their revenge on the city, when anything made of them went up in smoke in the fire after the earthquake. After the quake, in 1908 President Teddy Roosevelt consecrated this park—one of the last groves of the trees in the area—as a National Monument.
Granted, Muir Woods is tiny compared to the Redwood National Forest farther north, but you can still get a pretty good idea of what it must have been like when these giants dominated the entire coastal region. What is truly amazing is that they exist a mere 6 miles (as the crow flies) from San Francisco—close enough, unfortunately, that tour buses arrive in droves on the weekends. You can avoid the masses by hiking up the Ocean View Trail, turning left on Lost Trail, and returning on the Fern Creek Trail. The moderately challenging hike shows off the woods’ best sides and leaves the lazy-butts behind.
To reach Muir Woods from San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge heading north on Highway 101, taking the Stinson Beach/Highway 1 exit heading west, and follow the signs (and the traffic). If you’re coming during summer, head out early to avoid the traffic. The park is open daily from 8am to sunset, and the admission fee is $10 per person 16 and over. Advance reservations are required for parking ($8 per car) or seats on the shuttle from Highway 101 parking lots ($3); to reserve, contact the National Parks Service at Muir Woods (nps.gov/muwo; tel. 415/388-2596).
The Living Dead - If you’re in or passing through Marin and want a little local flavor Grateful Dead-style, head to Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael (100 Yacht Club Dr., San Rafael. (terrapincrossroads.net; [tel] 415/524-2773). Tucked behind a bunch of car dealerships along the San Rafael Canal, this restaurant and live music venue is not only owned by Grateful Dead bass guitarist Phil Lesh, it’s also frequented by him and his pals. The food is fine, but it’s the music and twirling, feel-good vibes you’ll want to come for. Most nights there’s a live band playing in the bar area, and many nights there’s also one jamming in the pay-to-enter, barn-like Grate Room. If you’re around during the summer, definitely come for one of their weekend jams in The Backyard, when crowds gather on the back lawn for beer, food, live music. It’s a rare convening of the county’s groovier residents, who’ve long been overrun by the well-heeled, multimillionaire set. The restaurant and bar are open Monday through Friday 4pm to 9:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am to 9:30pm.
Mount Tamalpais - Though Mount Tam—as the locals call it—is just barely tall enough to be considered a mountain, that doesn’t keep residents from lovingly referring to it as “the sleeping lady” for the way the peak and surrounding foothills resemble feminine curves. While it’s sunny most days, most evenings the fog from the West alluringly wraps the lady in a blanket of mist. Mount Tam’s trails, peaks, and vistas are the Bay Area’s favorite outdoor playground, and it’s a mission of most active residents to discover their favorite secret trails and overlooks. You don’t need inside knowledge, however, to appreciate the scenic beauty. The main trails—mostly fire roads—see a lot of foot and bicycle traffic on weekends, particularly on clear, sunny days when you can see a hundred miles in all directions, from the foothills of the Sierra to the western horizon. It’s a great place to escape the city for a leisurely hike and to soak in towering redwood groves and breathtaking views of the bay. Follow the windy roads to the west and you’ll ultimately end at Stinson Beach, a dreamy, quiet coastal community with down-home residents, multimillion-dollar beachfront second homes, and a beautiful, expansive sandy shoreline.
To get to Mount Tamalpais by car, cross the Golden Gate Bridge heading north on Highway 101, and take the Stinson Beach/Highway 1 exit. Follow the signs up the shoreline highway for about 2[bf]1/2 miles, turn onto Pantoll Road, and continue for about a mile to Ridgecrest Boulevard. Ridgecrest winds to a parking lot below East Peak. From there, it’s a 15-minute hike up to the top, where you’ll find a visitor center with a small exhibit and a video, plus a helpful staff. Visitor center admission is free; it is open weekends 11am to 4pm. Park hours are 7am to sunset year-round. For a list of guided hikes, see friendsofmttam.org. You are welcome to hike in the area on your own; it is safe, great for little ones, and the trails are well-marked.
Where to Eat - Right off Highway 101 at the turnoff to begin the climb to Mount Tam and beyond is Buckeye Roadhouse ★ (15 Shoreline Hwy., Mill Valley; tel. 415/331-2600), an extremely popular, historic restaurant serving updated versions of familiar comfort foods in an atmospheric lodge-like setting. It’s seriously overpriced, but it’s got some of the best atmosphere in all of Marin, a small but fun bar scene, and delicious oysters bingo and chili-lime brick chicken. Because they serve continuously from lunch through dinner, this could be the perfect stopover on your way in or out of the area. Note that if you come during prime dining time without a reservation, you’re likely to have a long wait. High up on the mountain, the Mountain Home Inn ★, 810 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley (mtnhomeinn.com; tel. 415/381-9000) offers a swell brunch and panoramic views from the outdoor deck.
If you make it over Mount Tam, just past Muir Woods, look for the Pelican Inn ★, 10 Pacific Way, Muir Beach (pelicaninn.com; tel. 415/383-6000). Built in 1979 to resemble a 16th-century English cottage, it’s a perfect place to grab a beer at the old-fashioned bar—dartboard and all—and sprawl out on the lawn for lunch after a hike.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.