There are few places on earth where the handiwork of nature and mankind meld so beautifully as at the entrance to the Golden Gate. I challenge any world traveler to cite a scene grander than the view of the San Francisco skyline beyond the Golden Gate Bridge from any number of the vertigo-inducing cliffs along the Marin Headlands. Here are two magnificent Marin Headland spots only minutes apart—one in the clouds among migrating raptors, the other on a sandy beach.
Fall means birds are on the move. As hawks, falcons and other raptors migrate, they prefer to travel over land where thermals give them lift and prey scurries about. As they move south through Marin County, San Francisco Bay is on one side and the Pacific is on the other. The narrowing Marin peninsula slowly funnels the birds toward the southern tip of the county where they converge at the entrance to the bay.
As you travel north across the Golden Gate Bridge, note the highest point on the Marin Headlands outside the gate. That is Hawk Hill. Throughout the fall, volunteers from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory assemble there to count the passing raptors. Pairs of observers look across different quadrants of the compass calling out, “Sharpie,” “Coop,” or “Golden” to the person with the clipboard as the birds pass. If migrating raptors hold no allure for you, drop your gaze from the heavens to the landscape below. You are perched a 1,000 feet above the bay. Look beyond the full span of the Golden Gate Bridge toward the city skyline; or turn toward the miles of the coastal hills beneath Mount Tamalpais.
Kirby Cove is an unlikely stretch of sandy beach notched in a shoreline landscape that otherwise dives steeply into the sea. From the Battery Spencer parking area, walk one mile down the nearby fire road to a beach where the city view is now beneath the bridge rather than above it. As a boy scout growing up in Mill Valley, I camped here many times when the land was still a military base. We scoured the hills and the concrete gun batteries finding full clips of blank ammo.
We ran through the long brick tunnel that emerges onto the beach. We explored the shallow cave at the east end of the beach and felt like daredevils as we waited for a break in the waves before scampering around a small rocky abutment to a second cave on the other side. While Kirby Cove is a great place to be 12, it is magic and beautiful at any age.
Across the Golden Gate Bridge, exit at Alexander Avenue, cross under Waldo Grade, and head back toward San Francisco. Be sure to bear right onto the road going up the hill or you will find yourself back on the bridge. Parking anywhere in the Marin Headlands on weekends requires patience, but these two places, one on a hilltop and one by the sea, are unforgettable.