Point Bonita Lighthouse and Marin Headlands: the scenic cliffs north of San Francisco

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Joel Fulleda
@joelfulleda
SOURCES CONSULTED:

wikipedia.org, lonelyplanet.com

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Today we are talking about an unfairly underrated California destination, especially if we think that it is located 2 steps from San Francisco. For those who love cliffs overlooking the sea, Point Bonita Lighthouse offers much more than a simple visit to a historic lighthouse: here you can in fact walk without any particular worries up to the end of a promontory that stretches out onto the open sea and admire a remarkable panorama, which ranges from the Golden Gate to the stacks of the Californian coast of the north.



And the surroundings are also not bad at all: the whole region of Marin Headlands boasts some nature trails that may tempt you to explore the whole area more thoroughly. Let's see how to organize a visit to the Point Bonita lighthouse and nearby attractions.

Index

  • Where it is
  • How to get there from San Francisco and the surrounding area
    • By car
    • By bus
    • Travel times from San Francisco
  • Brief history of the lighthouse
  • How to visit it
  • Marin Headlands and surroundings
  • Accomodation

Where it is

Point Bonita Lighthouse is located in Point Bonita, a promontory of the Marin Headlands, hilly peninsula of the Marin County, same region where Muir Woods and Sausalito are located, classic destinations for day trips from San Francisco.

The Marin Headlands, in addition to landscape attractions, also boast a significant military past, and are part of the protected area Golden Gate National Recreation Area, whose boundaries are quite extensive (including for example the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge and the air north of the Bay to Bolinas Ridge, which runs parallel to the San Andreas Fault).


How to get there from San Francisco and the surrounding area

Marin Headlands

To get to the lighthouse you will have to take a short path on the cliff. The entrance can be reached both by car and by bus.


By car

If you are coming from San Francisco (south) you will need to go through the Golden Gate (there is no toll going north) and then take exit 442. Coming from the north, the exit to take on 101 is the same.

There is a small one near the start of the path parcheggio (Bonita Lighthouse Parking), if you can't find a place (which is far from unlikely since it only has 10 parking spaces) you can fall back on the Point Bonita YMCA or the Battery Alexander Parking, respectively 3 and 5 minutes walk from the previous parking lot.

Our tips for renting a car in San Francisco

By bus

From San Francisco, if you want to reach the entrance to the lighthouse trail, you can take the 76X Marin Headlands Express which stops right at the Bonita Lighthouse Parking. However, we must be careful: the service operates only on weekends. The line to San Francisco (Downtown) runs from 10:30 am to 18:30 pm, while the line to Point Bonita (Marin Headlands) runs from 9:30 am to 17:00 pm.

Also remember that the bus stops at the lighthouse only in the direction of Marin Headlands while to return to San Francisco you will have to use the stop Bunker Rd & Field Rd, 1 km away from the start of the Point Bonita trail (therefore consider this additional distance before going to take the bus back to San Francisco).


Travel times from San Francisco

  • by car: from the entrance of the Golden Gate to the start of the Point Bonita Lighthouse trail it takes approximately 15 minutes, traffic permitting
  • in bus: About 40 minutes from Union Square, about twenty minutes from the Golden Gate entrance

Brief history of the lighthouse

Point Bonita Lighthouse was built in 1855, during the Gold Rush period, to solve the problem of the many ships (more than 300) that had run aground on the coast over the years. Initially, however, its location at 93 meters above sea level made it ineffective, as the high fog banks of the Pacific coast blocked the light.


In 1877 it was therefore moved to its current position (36 meters above sea level) and, to cross the cliff, a 36 meter long tunnel was dug in the rock and a walkway was created which still constitutes one of its most characteristic features today. together with its position overlooking the sea.

How to visit it

As anticipated, to get to enjoy the view, you will have to walk a short and easy path, in all 1,6 km there and back. The route is asphalted, therefore passable by everyone, and involves the passage inside the aforementioned tunnel dug into the rock.

The walk along the promontory is immediately very beautiful, especially for the numerous views it offers on the cliff, but the best views can be enjoyed from the bridge and the lighthouse, from which you can see the typical stacks of the coast of northern California. Along the path you will certainly not miss the profile of the Golden Gate, which appears as if in the background of a painting.


Do you want visit the lighthouse? Unfortunately it is only accessible on Sundays and Mondays from 12: 30 to 15: 30, in addition to any guided tours held by rangers who require registration.

Marin Headlands and surroundings


As mentioned, Point Bonita is part of the Marin Headlands, an area where you will find points of interest both naturalistic and historical. Strolling by car or even on foot along this hilly peninsula you will often come across the remains of fortifications and military settlements.

This is because since the end of the 800th century this area has been exploited several times as bastion from the military army, who built bunkers and fortifications here for the 2 World Wars and the Cold War. Many of these historical testimonies are actually reduced to the state of ruins or a little more and have easily fallen prey to graffiti artists.


However, some have been preserved and transformed into a museum, as is the case with Nike Missile Site SF-88, a missile launch site built during the Cold War (check the official website for opening hours).

Hawk Hill
Nike Missile Site SF-88

A short distance from the lighthouse there are also a series of naturalistic itineraries and panoramic points: the closest path can be taken directly from the Point Bonita car park, from which Mendell Road, a path that runs along the coast, crossing Battery Mendell and leading to another beautiful view of the ocean (and if you want you can continue the walk up to Rodeo Lagoon Vista Point).

Hawk Hill, the highest point of the Marin Headlands, is a privileged vantage point for observing birds of prey, in particular hawks, eagles and vultures are easily seen from here in the period from August to December.

Battery Wallace instead it provides the ideal setting for those who have always dreamed of having a nice picnic outdoors with a superb view of the Golden Gate (look for Bicentennial Camp Picnic Area), in the end Rodeo Beach it is a long beach nearby connected by a small bridge to the lagoon of the same name.

Marin Mammal Center
Battery Wallace

In the area there is also the Marin Mammal Center, whose mission is the rescue and rehabilitation of marine life (it can be visited for free or you can book a paid tour on the official website).

These are just a few ideas but there is also much more in the area, to get a more exhaustive overview, stop at Marin Headlands Visitor Center.

Further away, still in Marin County, are the 2 best known attractions of the area: Sausalito e Muir Woods, for which I refer you to our in-depth articles:

  • Sausalito: a charming coastal town on the San Francisco Bay
  • Muir Woods National Monument: the great redwoods 2 steps from San Francisco 

Accomodation

In 90% of cases if you decide to visit the Marin Headlands it is because you are in San Francisco, so I refer you to our advice on the best neighborhoods to find accommodation in the city (with some suggested structures), but if you are among the few who want spending more time exploring Marin County then a hotel in this area, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, might suit you.

In this case, the closest areas to look for accommodation are essentially 2: Sausalito and Mill Valley. Here are 2 links to take a look at facilities and prices:

  • Our tips for sleeping in Sausalito
  • Accommodations available in Mill Valley

Our tips for sleeping in San Francisco

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