From the coast, a pair of roads—Panoramic Highway and the Shoreline Highway (Hwy-1)—twist up and over the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais (elev. 2,586), the signature peak of the San Francisco Bay Area. Known usually as “Mt. Tam,” the whole mountain has been protected in seminatural state within a series of state and national parks, and its voluptuous slopes offer incredible views of the urbanized Bay Area and the untouched coastline. Drive to within 100 yards of the top for a 360-degree panorama, or stop at the Pantoll ranger station (415/388-2070) for a map of Mt. Tam’s hiking routes and fire roads. One of the world’s great trails, the Dipsea Trail between Muir Woods and Stinson Beach, hits its highest points and gives its greatest views within a short stroll of the Pantoll parking lot and walk-in campground.
If you plan ahead, you may also be able to spend the night on the mountain, indoors, in the comfort of West Point Inn (415/388-9955, $50 adults), a hiker-centric walk-in only lodge (two mostly-level miles from Pantoll), that was built back in 1904 as part of a long-vanished scenic railroad, whose right-of-way is now one of Mt. Tam’s most popular hiking trails.
Muir Woods National Monument
A deep, dark valley between the coast and Mt. Tamalpais holds the last surviving stand of Marin County redwoods, preserved for future generations as the Muir Woods National Monument (daily 8am-dusk, $10 adults) and named in honor of turn-of-the-20th-century naturalist John Muir. A paved mile-long trail takes in the biggest trees, but since the park is often crowded with busloads of sightseeing hordes making the tour from San Francisco, you may want to explore the farther-flung areas, climbing up Mt. Tamalpais or following Muir Creek two miles downstream to the crescent-shaped cove of Muir Beach, along Hwy-1. Besides stunning scenery, Muir Beach is also home to the welcoming Pelican Inn (415/383-6000, rooms $224 and up), an Olde English-style pub serving food and fine beers; overnight guests get cozy rooms and access to a delightful room called “The Snug,” with a fireplace.
Another enjoyably ersatz experience awaits at the junction of Hwy-1 and the US-101 freeway, where a historic roadside restaurant has been resurrected as the Buckeye Roadhouse (15 Shoreline Hwy., 415/331-2600), near Mill Valley on the SF Bay side of the coastal mountains, where you can feast on fine barbecue, great steaks and burgers, and delicious desserts in a lively retro-Route 66 atmosphere.
If you can avoid the magnetic pull of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, take the last turnoff from US-101 (northbound drivers take the second turnoff after crossing the bridge) and head west to the Marin Headlands, a former military base that’s been turned back into coastal semi-wilderness. A tortuous road twists along the face of 300-foot cliffs, giving incredible views of the bridge and the city behind it. The road continues west and north to the Visitor Center (415/331-1540), housed in an old chapel, with a reconstructed Miwok shelter and details on hiking and biking routes. And if you’re so inclined, on Wednesday-Friday afternoons and the first Saturday of each month, you can tour a restored Cold War-era Nike missile silo (free).
Nearby, the barracks of old Fort Barry have been converted into the very peaceful HI Marin Headlands Hostel (415/331-2777, dorm beds $31 and up, private rooms $105 and up), which has dorm beds as well as private rooms.