There’s something I can no longer say in front of my two children now: “San Francisco.” They are so in love with the city that saying its name leads to annoying pleas to go there…now! The younger one thinks he sees the Golden Gate when we drive around Sacramento. But I can’t blame them for their fascination with San Francisco. It’s also my favorite U.S. city and never ceases to fulfill my travel lust. I can say the same for its surroundings, the outdoor playground of Marin County just across the water from San Francisco. This look at what to do with kids in Marin County, specifically the Marin Headlands, is the latest in my new series, Secret California, about lesser-known places to travel in this beautiful state.
The Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, is a hilly peninsula at the very southern end of Marin County. Joined by the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, the headlands offer the best views of the bridge and the city but also plenty of open space to enjoy the outdoors and feel completely lost in the beauty of nature.
During a recent stay in Marin County, we spent a day in the Marin Headlands. Like most of my trips, this was a family affair–my two boys, ages 6 and 3, were with us, so we planned for as much nature and wildlife as possible to keep us all happy. In fact, we skipped the nearby children’s museum and opted for my preferred travel activity: just being outdoors.
Stop 1: Marine Mammal Center
After a beautiful drive through tunnels and down winding roads through the headlands, our first stop was the Marine Mammal Center, located on a hill overlooking the Pacific. I’d actually heard about this place while teaching a unit on voluntourism in my reading class. The Marine Mammal Center rescues sick or injured marine mammals and nurtures them back to health until they can be released.
When visiting the center, you can choose a guided tour, the fee for which helps maintain the center, or a self-guided tour. Because we were with two small kids, we opted for the latter but supported the center at the gift shop. The observation deck allows visitors to see the animals, but we found out that the number of animals being treated at the center varies; this time there was only one adult seal in view, and we saw just its tail. There were also some seal pups that were too vulnerable to be viewed. The solar panels and rugged backdrop made an interesting view, though.
Much of the Marine Mammal Center’s exhibits are focused on educating the public about the dangers marine mammals face, from plastics to people getting too close to mothers and babies on California beaches–in fact, many of the rescued pups have been separated from their mothers for that very reason. The new campaign called “The Ghost Below” uses haunting imagery to teach the public about the dangers of pollution in the ocean.
Even though there weren’t mammals on view at this time, it was still a worthwhile stop because we saw the important work that the center does, learned more about the dangers facing marine life, and exposed our children to these issues. I hope to go back when there are animals on view so that my kids can better understand the effects that humans have on ocean life.
Next, we continued just a few minutes down the peninsula to the area near the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
Stop 2: Point Bonita Lighthouse
The lighthouse sits on the tip of the peninsula that looks out to the Pacific Ocean, with the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge in the distance behind. After parking, you have to walk down a path, but there are plenty of ocean views and even seals resting below the cliffs.
When visiting San Francisco and Marin, it’s easy to forget this progressive area’s former military role. All along the headlands are bunkers and fortifications. In the late 19th century, many of these were built to allow military to watch for incoming ships and were, of course, used again during World War II.
The walk to the lighthouse is beautiful but pretty long for little kids. We got almost all the way there but would have had to keep carrying the little one over the precarious bridges and ended up having to turn back. I regret that, but when exploring the outdoors with two little ones, we have to stay flexible and accept their limitations, so we headed back.
Despite the sun coming in at the wrong angle, we tried one last attempt at a family pic…but the kids were ready to be done with this excursion.
Stop 3: Sausalito for lunch & houseboats?
Honestly, this was my third time in Sausalito, and it’s still too crowded and touristy for me. We have family friends who live there and have a charming little place above the village, but we made the mistake of going to the waterfront to get lunch, which took so long due to the crowds that we didn’t make it to the marina to see the houseboats.
My recommendation is to skip the crowded waterfront village completely, find a quieter place for a meal and then head to the water for the houseboats.
Stop 4: Fairfax for craft beer (for the adults) and hiking
Marin County is full of places to enjoy the outdoors, and we based most of our hiking and relaxation in the hippie town of Fairfax, where roads lead to hiking trails, and live music and local beer blend with mountain bikers in the tiny downtown. We loved the vibe there so much that we dream of owning a vacation rental there someday. In the meantime, we’ll be back for more hiking this summer.
So, this is the kind of day we enjoy when traveling with our kids. Have you been to Marin? What are your suggestions for what to do with kids in Marin County, California?
This post is part of Friday Postcards at a favorite family travel site, Walking on Travels.
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