Ever wonder what happened to all the hippies who were in Haight-Ashbury in 1968 but had disappeared by 1970? Some of them—including many of the rock bands—moved to Marin County. A lot of other people moved there, too, and for good reason: Marin is right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, close enough to the city to be thought of as a suburb, yet nothing like preconceived ideas about suburbia.
Rather, it's made up of villages, rural landscapes and expensive homes hugging steep hillsides. It's a taste of what the farther-north portion of the state is like, though Marin is more affluent. For visitors, Marin's scenic parks and recreation areas are the biggest attractions and are well worth the short drive from San Francisco. It's also just next door to the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma counties.
San Rafael, the government seat of Marin County, is home to a replica of the 1817 Mission San Rafael Arcangel, the Falkirk Cultural Center (built in 1888) and the Historical Society Museum. If you have time, take a walk or a drive past the lovely waterfront homes. The Marin Civic Center, in the hills to the northeast, was the last project designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and is a major venue for events from literary readings to concerts. San Francisco is just a short, gorgeous (and inexpensive) ferry ride away.
Fairfax is a funky little town just a few miles/kilometers northwest of San Rafael. The downtown area has artsy boutiques, a delicious organic ice cream shop (Scoop), independent bookstores and some low-key restaurants. Fairfax is home to some of the world's best-known musicians, so it has a history of live music. In fact, there has been live music played somewhere in town every night for more than 30 years.
Corte Madera is home to Marin County's two largest shopping areas—The Town Center and The Village at Corte Madera. Located just north of The Village is Shorebird Marsh, a 31-acre/13-hectare wildlife habitat, which is popular with bird-watchers during migrating season. More scenic is the Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve, a windy ridge located on top of the Tiburon Peninsula. With sweeping views of San Francisco Bay, the preserve is home to some rare plant species, due to the location's unusual microclimates.
The largest island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island State Park was formerly a quarantine station for Asian immigrants, a prisoner-of-war camp and a missile site. It's now a retreat for cyclists, hikers and picnickers and offers great views of the bay, lots of neat little coves and hundreds and hundreds of far-from-timid seabirds. Tours of historic buildings are available on weekends and holidays April-October. Get there by taking the Angel Island State Park Ferry from Tiburon, Oakland, Alameda or San Francisco. There is limited ferry service in the winter. Phone 415-435-5390. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=468.
Muir Woods National Monument, just across the Golden Gate Bridge and up a beautiful, winding road, provides an opportunity to stroll through giant, primordial redwoods towering hundreds of feet/meters high. (You can actually step inside some of the trees.) Muir Woods also has several nature trails of varying degrees of hiking difficulty. The park is generally cool and moist year-round. Take rain gear and umbrellas if visiting October-May. This park is located only 30 minutes from San Francisco. http://www.nps.gov/muwo/index.htm.
A little farther, over the coastal mountains, is Stinson Beach, a miles-/kilometers-long white-sand shore area where San Franciscans often rent cabins for a weekend getaway. Information on fog and swimming conditions on Stinson Beach is available at 415-868-1922. http://www.nps.gov/goga/stbe.htm.
About 3 mi/5 km north on Highway 1 is the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a wildlife sanctuary with large populations of great blue herons and great egrets. Since its founding in 1962, it has grown to encompass more than 5,000 acres/2,023 hectares of protected tidal flats, marshland and woodlands. The parking lot gets full early in nice weather, so prepare for a little bit of walking from a spot in the neighborhood. http://www.egret.org.
Point Reyes National Seashore, an outstanding park on the Point Reyes Peninsula, has secluded beaches and miles/kilometers of hiking trails along verdant ridges. Whale-watching is possible from shore during the annual gray-whale migration (January-April). For the best views, climb the steps down to the 1870s-era lighthouse. The visitors center at the top of the steps contains exhibits on lighthouse history, whales and wildflowers, and tule elk can be seen in the park. Lodging is available in the nearby towns of Point Reyes Station and Inverness, or try the Point Reyes Hostel in the park. Backcountry hike-in camping and boat-in camping are also available for those inclined. http://www.nps.gov/pore/index.htm.
The oceanside beaches and parks of Tomales Bay, while beautiful, can get pretty cool. For a protected beach area a little farther inland, stop at coastal estuary Tomales Bay State Park, a day-use site with hiking trails and picnic areas. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=470.
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