Learn how you can combine a great hike with awesome views of the bay.
On a recent hike through the Marin Headlands, I discovered a unique view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Skyline that I had never seen before. Walking along one of the trails, we saw the Golden Gate peaking through the mountains and followed the trail to one of the best overviews. Despite the weekend, we were completely alone and could enjoy the view without the usual tourist traffic.
How to get there
Get a map of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the Visitor Center (37°49’50.40″N 122°31’28.58″W) to help you navigate the trails. You can get a good description of the way to the Visitor Center on the nps.gov website.
You do not need a map if you have a GPS device; simply use the waypoints below for navigation. I have also a GPS breadcrumb trail that you can upload to your GPS unit.
Traveling north on Highway 101, take the Spencer Avenue Exit right after the tunnel. Turn left underneath Highway 101 and park at the commuter parking lot right after the underpass. The trail starts across the street. On weekdays, I recommend parking at the other side of the street at the turnout to avoid getting a ticket since the parking spots are reserved for commuters.
Carefully cross the street (cars leaving the highway) and start your hike up on the Morning Sun trail. After a few switchbacks up on the steep trail, you will see Angel Island and parts of Sausalito and Tiburon behind you. This is a great spot for some first photographs.
The Morning Sun trail emerges at the Alta Trail. Turn right and after about 100 m (300ft) go right to the viewpoint (with bench). From here, you have good views of Angel Island and the North Bay. Turn back and continue on Alta Trail. Look to your right after about another 200m (600ft); the Yacht Harbor of Sausalito grants you some nice telephoto shots of the pier and boats.
At the next intersection, turn left onto Bobcat Trail and shortly after turn left again onto the Rodeo Valley Cutoff Trail that leads uphill. It is the rougher looking trail. Clearly labeled signs mark each trail.
Follow the trail for a while until it leads downhill through some brush. From here, you will have a first glimpse of the San Francisco Skyline framed by the hills of the Marin Headlands. Take a few photographs and then continue on Rodeo Valley Cutoff Trail until you get to the next intersection. Turn left (uphill) towards the houses on top of the hills. After climbing up the grade, turn right on SCA trail toward the Golden Gate Bridge that already peaks through between the hills.
Walk down the SCA trail for a while until you clear the hill on your left. The trail starts going downhill now. Look to your left for a trampled path that does not look like part of the official trail. Climb the small mound until you see Highway 101.
View from Rodeo Valley Trail:
Million Dollar View of San Francisco:
How to photograph the views of the Marine Headlands
You have a good chance of spotting a Bobcat or maybe even a Mountain Lion (Puma) from these trails. I recommend putting a telephoto lens on your camera, keeping it ready or carrying a super-zoom compact camera with you. The latter has the advantage that you are not restricted to the telephoto range, can keep your SLR tucked away in your backpack and that you can document the hike, photograph the wildflowers or other interesting things. Especially while hiking I find this is a very comfortable way of shooting. I take my SLR out at times, but I keep my small S3 ready at all times. Due to the outrageous depth of field and super short minimum focal distance, these cameras are also good macro shooters.
Take your tripod only if you do not mind carrying it the full distance. Unless you are a large format shooter or you need to attach your panoramic head, you should be fine without a tripod during the day. The trails are no fun after dark, but you can still navigate them with a flashlight or headlamp should you decide to stay for the sunset. Of course, this also means you should bring a tripod.
During the spring, you can see different kinds of wildflowers along these trails. Sometimes birds of prey sore over your head, looking for small rodents. There is not much to see on the trails until you get to the viewpoints.
Make sure you have enough depth of field if you include foreground elements in your composition and do not forget to crop a few tighter shots around the Golden Gate Bridge with Highway 101 in the foreground.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
Afternoon light is best to photograph the skyline of San Francisco from anywhere in the Marine Headlands. Spring has the added benefit of wildflowers blooming along the trails, which can make for wonderful diversions. I even discovered a wild orchid along one of the trails.
Summer is foggy season in the San Francisco Bay Area. You may not see much at all on some days and if you wait for late afternoon to sunset light, you may be out very late until you get back to your car.
From the trail log, you can see that it took me about 3 hours, of which I spent about 30 minutes at the viewpoint. You can get to the main viewpoint on a direct path in about one hour.
- Telephoto lens
- Normal lens
- Super-zoom Compact Camera
- Circular Polarizing Filter
- UV Filter
- Hiking shoes
- Water and snacks
- jacket (it may get surprisingly windy and chilly)
Marin Headlands is part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. There are no fees.
- Golden Gate views from Marine Headlands
- Golden Gate north east views
- Point Bonita Lighthouse
- Kirby Cove
- Ft. Cronkhite
- NIKE Missile Site
- Mt. Tamalpais
- Muir Woods
- Tule Elk Reserve and Pierce Point Ranch
- Angel Island
- Sausalito and Tiburon
- Skyline views from Berkeley
- Baker Beach
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