From Native American tribes to Mexican rancheros, the U.S. Army to Hostelling International, many over the last few centuries have called the stunning cliffs and fertile valley of the Marin Headlands home.
The Coast Miwok
When Spanish military, missionary, and civilian settlers began arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1776, they discovered Coast Miwok tribes living in the area north of the Golden Gate. The Coast Miwok's main encampments were near present-day Fort Baker and Muir Beach, though they moved throughout the Headlands area between temporary and permanent villages, in an annual rotation of hunting, fishing, and gathering.
Many Coast Miwoks migrated to Franciscan missions in San Francisco starting in the 1780s, and by 1810, disease, forced labor, and religious and societal indoctrination had led to the demise of their way of life.
Today, the Coast Miwok people form a single, federally recognized tribe called the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. A recreated Miwok village is maintained in Point Reyes National Seashore, near the HI-Point Reyes Hostel, 25 miles north of the Marin Headlands.
An Agricultural Tradition
As native tribes diminished, the Headlands became farmland for Spanish and Mexican rancheros, later giving way to Portuguese dairy farmers. These Portuguese immigrants, who came en masse from the Azores to the Sausalito area, formed a large community around the local Roman Catholic Church. Many came during the Gold Rush on whaling ships -- those who did not make their fortune in gold brought their dairy expertise to ranches across present-day Marin County.
The Military Moves In
As early as 1890, the Marin Headlands began to see U.S. Army settlements, placed here to protect San Francisco Bay from hostile ships and surprise attack.
By 1907, the army owned all of the Marin Headlands, building barracks and bunkers along the coast, as well as a post office, gymnasium, and even a bakery. Among the new buildings at Fort Barry were a number of officer's mansions and a large infirmary. Today, the Marin Headlands Hostel calls the converted hospital and one of the mansions home.
As World War II approached, operations in the area were considerably increased and harbor defenses enhanced. Many more men were enlisted in the Headlands, and the area was on red alert for enemy attack -- particularly in the moments following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, when the West Coast was assumed to be the next target. Despite their preparedness, no attack ever came to the Bay Area.
Many of the WWII-era military fortifications are still intact today for guests to explore, including Battery Townsley in Fort Cronkhite, located above Rodeo Beach, a little more than a mile from the hostel.
Following WWII, the Marin Headlands became a top-secret location for Cold War initiatives, including two NIKE missile sites and rumored CIA operatives. The Headlands was off-limits to any civilian, and a feeling of intrigue and secret discovery is still prevalent here. Today, the Headlands boasts the country's only restored NIKE missile site.
The Open Space Movement
In the 1960s, the U.S. government sold more than 2,000 acres of land in the Marin Headlands to a private developer who planned to build a city in these rolling hills just north of San Francisco. The city -- dubbed Marincello -- would have included scores of apartment towers, condominiums, and single-family homes, as well as shopping, entertainment, and a resort hotel. The plan would have transformed this peaceful place into a convenient suburb just minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.
A small group of local citizens, incensed by the prospect of development and the process the developers had undertaken, pursued every vein they could to put a stop to Marincello -- and were ultimately successful.
Today, there are a few remaining artifacts of the once-planned suburb, including the "road to nowhere" Rodeo Avenue exit off southbound Highway 101. Signed as "Not a Through Road," the exit ramp ends abruptly at a gate, where the road becomes a hiking trail up into the hills.
Establishing the Marin Headlands Hostel
The local effort to preserve this wide open space led to similar efforts to prevent development around the Bay Area. The movement culminated in 1972 with the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an effort supported by the Golden Gate Council of American Youth Hostels (now the Golden Gate Council of Hostelling International USA).
In 1978, the National Park Service leased the old Fort Barry infirmary building to the fast-growing youth hostel organization, making it the second of six Golden Gate Council hostels on National or State Park land. The Golden Gate Hostel (now known as the Marin Headlands Hostel) operated for 18 years before taking over a second building, the officer's mansion we now call the Annex.
Today our hostel hosts more than 17,000 guests each year, drawing people from all over the Bay Area, California, and the world. We're one of many nonprofit park partners in the GGNRA, joining the Marine Mammal Center, YMCA Point Bonita, Bay Area Discovery Museum, Headlands Center for the Arts, Headlands Institute, and others in working to preserve this unique, coastal park for visitors now and in the future.