In the Marin Headlands, the Perfect Family Day

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.

What to do with kids in Marin

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.

What to do in Marin with kids

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.

What to do with kids in Marin

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.

What to do with kids in Marin

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.

What to do in Marin with kids

The small road passes the ocean, cliffs, and houses in the Marin Headlands

Stop 2: Point Bonita Lighthouse

What to do in Marin with kids

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.

What to do with kids in Marin

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.

What to do in Marin with kids

What to do with kids in Marin

What to do in Marin with kids

For a kid, not a bad place to explore

What to do with kids in Marin

Volcanic rock can be seen on the headlands, and the manmade tunnel to the lighthouse

The manmade tunnel to the lighthouse, and yes, the kids loved it

The manmade tunnel to the lighthouse, and yes, the kids loved it

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.

What to do with kids in Marin

What to do in Marin with kids

What to do in Marin with kids

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.

What to do in Marin with kids

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.

Sausalito marina and waterfront

The marina in Sausalito

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.

Marin County

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.

More about the Bay Area:

A Day in Nature at Point Reyes, California

An Outdoorsy Winter Vacation in California

24 Hours in San Francisco

Getting Back to Nature in Marin County

9 Comments

  • This was so interesting! I love lighthouses, and would have been excited to walk through that tunnel to see the Point Bonita Lighthouse! San Francisco is also one of my husband and my favorite cities! We have visited a few times and hope to go again soon. I am bookmarking your blog to read all your posts about it and the surrounding area.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks, Pat! I have lots of posts about the San Francisco area. One of my favorite places 🙂

  • I know I have beauty in my own neck of the woods, but there is something about northern California that just takes your breathe away! Bit jealous you get to do all of these adventures. Maybe this is the kick in the pants I need to explore what we have around here a little more again 🙂
    Keryn from Walking On Travels recently posted..Friday Postcards: Skagit Valley Tulip FestivalMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I keep telling my kids about the nature you have up there because we are planning to visit my dad in the Bremerton area later this year.

  • Leigh says:

    When my kids were slightly older than yours we visited Marin County as part of a longer trip. I remember thinking what a beautiful area it was and anything close to the ocean with kids – I think is a treat. Everyone is happy.
    I love the photo with you and your sons.
    Leigh recently posted..Cycling the Annapolis Royal Area of Nova ScotiaMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I hesitated to include that photo because they were so tired and not wanting to pose…but there are so few photos of me on my site that I decided it would be nice for a change. 🙂

  • My son would love running around exploring, but I think my wife would freak out seeing him want to get close to edge of those overlooks. I hope to be able to make it there next time we’re in northern California.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted..48 Hours in New Orleans on NBA Road TripMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I wondered if I should have added some kind of caption to that photo of my son close to the edge–it was less dangerous than it looks! I’m pretty paranoid about safety but never worried. 🙂

  • I’ve spent some time visiting friends in the East Bay area, and I’ve been fortunate to come out here to the Marin Headlands, too. Seeing your bright photos with sunny skies are making me long to come back down to the Bay Area. 🙂
    Henry | @fotoeins recently posted..Germany’s urban G-E-M-S: HamburgMy Profile

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