We get it: planning a getaway is tough. Vacations get jam-packed with must-see cities and must-do check lists, and every-day life gets so busy it can be hard to remember to slow down for a few days. But sometimes we all need a little time to surround ourselves with trees instead of skyscrapers, to seclude ourselves and recharge.
And fortunately, if your next trip – or your everyday life – includes time in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve got an escape for you that’s so quick and easy, you won’t believe how peaceful it is at the same time.
Meet the Marin Headlands. A vast area containing beaches, meadows, and seemingly endless trails for hiking and biking, this former military site is now maintained by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The park overlooks the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, meaning it’s able to offer visitors a “cut off from the real world” feel even while affording them grand views of the bridge and the city skyline. Best of all, it’s home to HI Marin Headlands hostel, the perfect spot to recharge your batteries without going broke.
Check out our two-day itinerary below to find out how you can make the most of your own escape to the Headlands, no matter how tight your time , or budget.
Morning: Driving to the Marin Headlands is easy from points North and South. From the North, take Highway 101 south and get off at the last exit before the Golden Gate Bridge; from San Francisco, just cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take the Alexander Ave. exit before following signs to the park. If you're without a car, you may want to consider scheduling your visit on a weekend or holiday, when the #76 MUNI bus drops off a quick walk from HI-Marin Headlands.
Mornings in the Headlands can get foggy – the park does hover over the San Francisco Bay, after all – so now's the perfect time to explore some of the park's indoor offerings. Start with the Marine Mammal Center, a rescue-and-release center and hospital for sick and injured seals, sea lions, dolphins, harbor porpoises, and other marine mammals in distress along the California Coast. You can walk around the center for free, admiring its ocean-themed art exhibits, peeking into the "fish kitchen" where patients' meals are prepared, and even observing animals being rehabilitated on site. While admission to the facility is free, consider taking a docent-guided or audio tour ($9) to get the most out of your visit. You'll learn more about how the center returns animals to their native habitats, get a behind-the-scenes look at the facility, and contribute to the center's ongoing work with the cost of your ticket.
From the Marine Mammal Center, follow signs for the visitors' center. The center's staffed by friendly, knowledgeable staff and is a great place to start gathering information – and maps – for all of the activities available at the Headlands. Just across the road, you'll see signs for HI Marin Headlands. In the days before the Marin Headlands was a national park, it was a military base – the section the hostel now occupies was once called Fort Barry. HI USA took over a block of former officers' quarters in Fort Barry in 1980, and today, what was once military housing has been turned into cozy place to stay. Perched atop a slope overlooking a meadow full of Monterey cypress trees, the HI Marin Headlands' park-like surroundings make it feel less like a hostel and more like a historic retreat.
Though check-in at the hostel doesn't start until 3:30, you can park in the hostel's lot this morning and leave your bags in the car (or take advantage of the hostel's free bag storage service).
If the fog's still heavy, stop by the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artist-in-residence program housed in a building just next door to the hostel , to see what's happening today. The center hosts residencies for some 70 artists each year, who spend their time creating new works of art on-site. The center holds open houses several times a month, as well as annual seasonal exhibitions. Its on-site "Mess Hall" café also serves coffee and snacks, so it makes a great stop for a boost of energy before tackling the Headlands' trails!
Afternoon: Once the fog's lifted, it's time to enjoy the Headlands' main draw: an endless network of trails offering vistas of rolling hills, crashing waves, and city skylines. Staff at the hostel and the visitors' center will be able to help you plan a day full of hikes – or leisurely strolls – depending on what you're in the mood for, but there are several go-to treks worth considering.
You just can't go wrong with a trek out to Rodeo Beach, about 15 minutes from the hostel on foot. While you can also reach the beach by car, the best way to arrive is via the coastal trail that picks up near the hostel. Take in the views of the water and the craggy rock formations dotting the ocean as you come in over this easy path, then spend a lazy day relaxing on the beach with other sun worshippers.
For a more strenuous hike, try conquering Hill 88, just behind the hostel. This is the highest hill in the area, and a several-mile-long loop trail lets you take it all in on foot. While you may be out of breath by the time you reach the top of the hill, you'll be rewarded for your efforts with panoramic views of the Bay and San Francisco.
Evening: Just before sunset, drive or hike (via the coastal trail that picks up right behind the hostel) out to Conzelman Road. If you've ever seen a postcard-perfect picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline, there's a good chance the picture was shot right here. The unobstructed views of the water, bridge, and skyscrapers is stunning any time of day, but sunset casts a particularly lovely light on the whole scene.
Back at the hostel, take advantage of the fully equipped guest kitchen and get cooking. Part of the allure of the Headlands is just how isolated it is despite its proximity to San Francisco, so make sure you arrive with groceries!
The hostel has common areas with all kinds of weekend-in-the-woods amenities to help you enjoy the rest of your night, like a fireplace, board games, and even a game room complete with pool, ping-pong, and foosball tables.
Morning: If you're still feeling active after all of yesterday's hiking, head downstairs to the hostel's yoga room to greet the day with some sun salutations. From blocks, to mats, to music, the hostel has everything you need to get the most out of your practice.
Once you've got your energy flowing, jump in the car and drive down the hill to Sausalito. This little bayside town just below the Headlands can be as pricey as it is scenic, but you don't need to break the bank in order to enjoy a day here!
Afternoon: Park downtown and ditch the car in favor of walking, biking, or boating.
Sausalito's waterfront location has a huge impact on the town's image and lifestyle, so a bayside exploration is a must for any visitor. Make your way on foot to the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, where well-to-do locals park their impressive rides. The water, the boats, and the hills in the background give the harbor an almost Caribbean feel, especially when the sun's shining.
After you're done admiring the boats, it's time to get out on the water, yourself. At the Sausalito Ferry Terminal, you can catch a boat across the bay to San Francisco for around $10 each way. The boat ride takes a little under half an hour, and drops you off at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Once there, spend a few hours tasting your way through a warren of restaurants, bars, ice cream and coffee shops, gourmet grocery stores, and other culinary hot spots.
If you'd rather spend the day biking than boating, skip the ferry and make your way to Sausalito Bike Rentals, where you can rent cycles starting at $10 an hour. You'll be just a few miles from the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito's famous houseboats, either of which make perfect biking destinations.
Evening: Back in the Headlands, take advantage of one of the night hikes offered by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy or the hostel. HI Marin Headlands leads a free evening hike through different sections of the park each week; to sign up just ask at the front desk when you check in. The Parks Conservancy also leads special night hikes to the Point Bonita Lighthouse each month on the full moon (while the full moon hikes are free, they do require advance registration. Call the Marin Headlands Visitors' Center at 415-331-1540 to reserve your spot).
If you're all hiked out, consider spending the rest of the evening in Sausalito or one of the small surrounding towns. HI Marin Headlands General Manager Meghan Ellwood recommends Sauslito's Sartaj India Café for delicious, inexpensive meals, and the Pelican Inn in Muir Beach for drinks and snacks in a setting that will whisk you away to the English countryside.
Of course, there's so much to do in the area, you could easily spend more than just a few days at the Headlands! For even more ideas of how to spend your time in the Marin Headlands and beyond, check out our guides to volunteering, hiking, and more in our Bay Area National Parks.
Stay at HI Marin Headlands hostel, located on historic grounds surrounded by beautiful National Parks land.