San Francisco's fog knows nothing of Carl Sandburg. It doesn't come on little cat feet. San Francisco fog clumps into your living room, hogs the couch and eats all the potato chips...
SAN FRANCISCO San Francisco’s fog knows nothing of Carl Sandburg. It doesn’t come on little cat feet. San Francisco fog clumps into your living room, hogs the couch and eats all the potato chips.
Subtle it’s not. And it always outstays its welcome.
That’s why the question of where to go in San Francisco for outdoor recreation has a simple two-word answer: Marin County.
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Marin: that enclave of New Age trendsetters, home of “healing artists” and their well-heeled clients. Where granola, if not invented, was at least fruit-enriched, organicized and given a suffix (see “granolahead”). Where the mountain bike was invented (really).
Since the 1800s, Marin (“Muh-RINN”) has been a magnet for San Franciscans looking for warmth, sun and a mountain to climb. Not far north of the Golden Gate Bridge, 2,600-foot Mount Tamalpais dominates the skyline like a wart dominates a nose, and influences the climate, creating a weather shadow that often makes much of Marin a sunny refuge when fog smothers the city.
What to do when you need a break from cable cars and museums? Here are three good ideas. Some involve guides, others you can tackle on your own:
Bike the bridge
Rent a bike and ride across the Golden Gate to the bay-front burgs of Sausalito or Tiburon, then return via a passenger ferry that delivers you back downtown.
I pulled into the “Park and Bike” garage of Blazing Saddles bike rentals near Fisherman’s Wharf on a gray, cool day. Twenty minutes had me back on the road equipped with a handlebar-mounted map and a spotless touring bike. The bicycle make, appropriately: Marin.
First a quick ride to the end of Municipal Pier at the foot of Van Ness Avenue to take in a wide view of the city, the bay, the bridge and nearby Alcatraz Island. Then past the boats and colorful homes of the Marina District and on to the Presidio, the former military reserve that is now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The bike-rental agent urged me to spend time here at Crissy Field, the Presidio’s historical airfield dating to 1919. It’s now a 100-acre shoreline park, thanks to a $34 million makeover completed in 2001.
The original grassy airstrip is preserved, but there’s also a wide beachfront promenade; sandy beaches popular with kiters and board sailors; a restored tidal lagoon and wildlife sanctuary; dune areas bursting with lupine, Indian paintbrush, sand verbena and other wildflowers; picnic areas, a visitor center, even a so-called Warming Hut with cafe and bookstore. The combination draws dog-walkers, runners and cyclists.
On a quick stop, I slurped chamomile-spearmint tea at Crissy Field Center, a base for interpretive walks, programs and summer camps. (And I came back next day for a sandwich at a butcher-block table with bridgeside view at the Warming Hut.)
I took my time on the 1.7-mile bridge crossing. If it’s a weekday, bikers share the eastern sidewalk with many pedestrians, so ride carefully. It’s usually windy, and though the traffic’s roar on the six-lane bridge makes it not very peaceful, views of sailboats, freighters and the city can be dramatic. And remember to look up for dizzying views of the bridge’s soaring cables and towers.
Why bike it?
“It’s a beautiful scene, of a world-class city,” said cyclist Jack Kissane of San Francisco, pausing at the base of the south tower with his children, Jack Jr., 7, and Chloe, 9, who were cycling the bridge for the first time.
“I tell the kids, we live in this city and people come from all over the world to stand here! But,” he said, gesturing bemusedly at his grumpy-looking son, whose nose was running from the cold, “they don’t buy it.”
Near the north tower, Marin County sun burned through the clouds to shine on fluorescent-colored sport suits worn by runners Lou and Muriel Berger from Riverside, Calif. He’s 73 and she’s a year younger. Why run the bridge?
“When we were in Sydney (Australia) last November, we ran across the bridge, so we wanted to run across this beautiful bridge, too,” explained Muriel, who took up the sport a few years ago when her husband started doing marathons.
Clouds peeled away as I looped down Alexander Avenue into sunny Sausalito. Lunch was cheap pizza gobbled on a waterfront bench with a million-dollar view of the city.
After time to window shop and wander, I dragged my bike aboard the Golden Gate foot ferry for a 30-minute dash back across the bay, with photo opportunities aplenty.
Hike in mountains and woods
That part about Mount Tamalpais being out of the fog? It’s not, well, always true especially on the ocean side of the mountain.
I discovered that when I showed up at 6 on a Wednesday evening for a free guided walk led by Ricki Gross of Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association, a citizen group that provides programs for cash-strapped Mount Tamalpais State Park.
Though the summit was in sun when I got in my car to head up that way, wind-whipped fog galloped past when I arrived at Rock Spring trailhead. I wasn’t dressed for the cold, but a fellow hiker loaned a spare fleece top. Another loaned a hat.
Even midweek, 15 hikers showed up for a 4.5-mile loop hike through chaparral and woods of oak, fir and redwood on the mountain’s flanks. For visitors, it’s a great chance to meet locals.
On clear evenings, National Geographic views of the city and ocean reward hikers. “Here’s where you pretend you see a fabulous view of San Francisco Bay!” Gross said with irony, pointing into a cloud at trailside. But even in fog, Mount Tam (as it’s commonly called) offered new and interesting sights for a hiker accustomed to alpine meadows. Hiker Karen Hooper of nearby Mill Valley pointed out rose-colored rattlesnake grass, which carpets the open hillsides.
“The seed pod resembles rattlesnake rattles, and they make a rattling sound when they dry out and blow in the breeze,” she said. “And oh, there’s a scarlet larkspur. Pretty, huh?”
At the height of wildflower season each April, flowers paint the mountainside with color.
Mount Tam has plenty of actual rattlesnakes, said Hooper, who also guides hikes. Other wildlife includes blacktailed deer (which we encountered), cougars, bobcats, turkey vultures, woodpeckers and more. Just recently: the mountain’s first bear sighting in 100 years.
You’re not into groups? Or, perhaps, hills? For a solo walk through one of the few remaining old-growth forests of coast redwood, I set out the next morning for Muir Woods National Monument, at the base of Mount Tam.
Muir Woods fills a ravine around Redwood Creek, where salmon spawn. Just 560 acres, Muir Woods can be explored by foot in an easy two-mile loop walk, including wheelchair-accessible paved paths and boardwalks.
Entering shortly after gates opened at 8 a.m. before tour-bus crowds arrived I breathed deeply of fresh, cool air beneath 300-foot-tall trees in cathedral-like quiet. (The redwoods’ rich tannins discourage boring insects, a primary food source for birds, so there’s not a lot of birdsong here.) The primary background music was from the burbling stream, accented by my low whistles every time I came across another tree whose girth was three times my 6-foot-3-inch height.
Conservationist John Muir, in whose honor the woods were named when he was still alive, said, “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.”
Full-moon kayak paddle
Here’s an outing that could easily fizzle. You could get a cloudy night. You could get wind, fog, maybe rain.
But we got a clear, calm, warm evening, and it was magic.
“The full moon at summer solstice is called the Strawberry Moon,” guide Buffy Lundine called from her kayak as we launched at 8:30 p.m. from Schoonmaker Point Marina in Sausalito. The sun had just sunk behind Mount Tamalpais.
A collective gasp rose from our group of 16 paddlers as we turned and saw the full moon rising directly over the San Francisco skyline across the bay.
At first the moon was huge and ghostly, then it became the color of an early June strawberry not quite ripe, but pink, pretty and hinting of sweeter things.
As we paddled in and out of Sausalito’s famed houseboat community, once home to free-thinkers such as Alan Watts, Shel Silverstein, Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsberg, the moon turned pure white, shining a path on the water like a locomotive’s headlight.
“What’s wonderful is that no matter where you are, the path of the light always comes straight to you,” said Cheyenne Berry, the guide in the back of my two-seat kayak.
Guides taped glow sticks to paddles to make us visible, adding an eerie green light to the moonglow. As we paddled past anchored boats, Berry chatted about the bay and the people who live on it.
“There was one boat out here that we called The Farm. They had chickens! And one man who lived on a houseboat decided he wanted a lawn, so he built a little barge and filled it with dirt and planted grass. He watered it and he got a lawnmower, and sometimes he put a little outboard motor on it and he used to take it places, until the Coast Guard made him stop.”
A nighttime paddle on San Francisco Bay might sound intimidating to beginners, but this trip stayed entirely on Richardson Bay. A relative backwater, its lowest tidal depths average a mere 3 feet.
“In Sausalito, you can pull your kayak out and get a glass of chardonnay or a latte if you want,” said Lundine, who grew up on Vancouver Island. “When I first came here, I was amazed at the diversity of paddling experiences you can have within five minutes of the Golden Gate.”
We took a break from paddling and rafted up in kind of a kayak group-hug so everyone could simply gaze at the big moon. Beneath it: a diamond necklace of sorts, formed by sparkling lights outlining the Bay Bridge.
Very California. Pretty lucky. Pretty nice.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com