Standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, it seems silly to point out how windy it is. But the wind is all I can think about. It's chilling my hands and beating on the hood of my fleece jacket, all while making me look a bit like a dog with its head out the car window.
The wind has come in suddenly, forcefully, and I mention this to a woman in a heavy coat and knit cap standing nearby. She's huddled behind a giant wooden sign marking the head of the Point Bonita Lighthouse trail, and even though she's just a few feet away, she can't hear what I'm saying. I'm grateful for the excuse to inch towards her and her impromptu shelter. "That wind really came out of nowhere, huh?" I repeat, half-yelling. "Well, no -- it came off the ocean," she answers with a smile.
She's right, of course: as badly as the wind's pummeling us up here, it looks a lot worse down in the water. There are thickets of cream-colored spume everywhere, like the ocean's a well-poured Guinness with a frothy head, and every few minutes the wind picks up a patch and spins a tiny, frothy tornado out there on the water.
Despite the conditions, there are about 20 of us gathered here, chatting and laughing and pulling our jackets closer, standing willingly at the edge of this brutal cliff at 6:15 in the evening.
By 6:30, our salvation shows up in the form of a retired physics teacher named Ek. Ek's been volunteering with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy for some 25 years: he's the kind of guy who knows the elemental make-up of every pebble and boulder in the Marin Headlands, who can explain the precise circumstances that create all that foam on the ocean, who gets a kick out of detailing the difference between an equinox and a solstice. Bottom line: this is not the first time Ek's taken a group of hikers out in the Headlands. But he's still particularly excited tonight.
"I'm expecting tonight's moon to rise right up between the North and South towers of the Golden Gate Bridge!" he tells us, grinning. "The fog's all blown off and it looks like a clear night… this is going to be a good one!"
In fact, the moon tonight is going to be completely full, which is why we're all here: each time the almanac calls for a great, big, saucer-in-the-sky full moon, the Parks Conservancy schedules a special night hike to the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
But before the moon can rise, the sun has to set, and Ek promises to take us to the best spot in the park to watch the show. We start walking down a narrow path along the side of a rocky hill, while Ek talks about the earthquakes and volcanos and under-sea uprisings that formed our current surroundings. After about ten minutes, we come to a wall of solid rock with a heavy, locked door. This is the point where, on any other night, hikers would have to stop: the light house is normally only open to visitors a few days a week, from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. But tonight, a Parks Conservancy volunteer hurries up to the door and unlocks it, heaves it open, and we all shuffle into a dark tunnel. It's like walking through a mine shaft, but instead of headlamps on helmets everyone's got flash bulbs on iPhones.
When we come out the other end of the tunnel, it's like – well, to be honest, it's like we've come out the other end of a tunnel. The dim light we were squinting through just minutes ago has transformed to a pink-and-orange glow, reflecting off the surface of the Pacific as the sun starts to dip. The waves below us are still frenzied, thick white caps barreling up towards us like an avalanche in rewind. But it's calm here on the cliff's edge; the wind we felt earlier has been banished by the mountain whose belly we've just walked through.
There's a narrow wooden bridge connecting our sheltered cliff-side path to a mound of rock that juts out into the ocean, and at the end of the bridge sits California's third-oldest light house. I can already see the low sun glinting off the lighthouse's Fresnel lens, the whitewashed walls of the little building getting rosy in the changing light. I can hear the oohs and the aahs from our crowd of hikers as the sun keeps sinking and the clouds start to blush.
It says a lot, though, when a sunset like this one isn't even the main draw. And tonight, amateur photogs with DSLRs and tripods the size of baby giraffes aren't training their lenses out to the west: they're too busy framing the perfect shot facing the opposite direction. Tonight, all eyes are looking out over the San Francisco skyline.
"OK, almost show time!" Ek calls out. "The moonrise should start about 7:18." And even though he says this, even though he specifically uses the term "moonrise," I'm already looking high above the horizon for the kind of silvery-white disc that coyotes and werewolves howl at. I'm expecting the moon to just be there already, expecting the darkening sky to suddenly draw our attention to it as if it's been hiding behind a curtain this whole time waiting for its big reveal.
But a few minutes later, I see an intense orange light begin peeking up over the water just under the Golden Gate's southern span. The rising moon looks exactly like the setting sun did 20 minutes ago; there's a giant, glowing tangerine floating up from a bridge that's almost the exact same color.
And then it's done. By the time I turn back to retrace my steps, to creep back through the tunnel and up to the wind-beaten parking lot where I left my car, the moon's gone from fiery to gilded, and as I drive away it's paled to its normal silvery-white. It's stopped painting the sky and started lighting my way home. It's become a normal full moon on a normal night. Unless, that is, you were at the Point Bonita lighthouse with a warm coat, a camera, and an almanac.
Want to join one of the Parks Conservancy's full moon hikes the next time you're in the Marin Headlands? First, consult a full moon calendar, then call the Marin Headlands Visitors' Center at 415-331-1540 to reserve your spot on the moonlit night of your choice. While the hikes are free and open to the public, space is limited, so make your reservation as far in advance as possible.
Even if you're not able to get out to the Headlands during a full moon, you can still take a free night hike around the park through HI-USA. The HI-Marin Headlands hostel leads weekly nighttime strolls through different parts of the Headlands; just sign up to reserve your spot when you check in at the hostel!
Stay at HI-Marin Headlands