West Marin, Point Reyes - The 71Miles Travel Guide

6:56PM February 1, 2007 30 Comments »

At a Glance: John’s Favorites

Introduction

The rolling hills of West Marin appear just as they always have—a pastoral scene of coastal bluffs dotted by century-old oaks, with hawks and eagle soaring high above the crashing surf. Just 45 minutes from San Francisco, no place feels further away than Point Reyes National Seashore, the West Coast’s only national seashore and the Bay Area’s primo spot for whale-watching, coast-side hikes, and long walks on deserted beaches.

You’d never know you were within spitting distance of America’s sixth-largest metropolitan area. Cell phones don’t work here, so if you’re looking to escape civilization, look no further. Getting to West Marin is as much fun as arriving: crisscrossed by winding country lanes, it’s an ideal place to get lost on back roads and discover tiny towns you never knew existed. And if you can’t commit to an overnight, you can make it home in time for dinner.

Why Go?

  • Connect with nature in sublime pastoral settings.
  • Hike past roaming elk atop coastal bluffs.
  • Explore forgotten 19th-century towns.
  • Kayak the mellow waters of Tomales Bay.
  • Bare it all at the Bay Area’s best nude beaches.
  • Rekindle your romance in a hideaway B&B.

How Far?

  • 45 to 90 minutes from the Golden Gate.

Drawbacks?

  • Fog—especially at Point Reyes, the Bay Area’s soupiest locale.

See & Do in West Marin & Point Reyes

I’d be remiss not to mention Mount Tamalpais State Park and its kick-ass hiking, especially now, in late winter and early spring, when the waterfalls run hardest along the lush Cataract and Steep Ravine trails. Trailside look for bay laurel trees; snap a bay leaf in half and sniff the pungent smell of the woods (but don’t keep sniffing or you’ll get a stuffy nose). Bring some home to cook with.

Part of being a travel writer is giving away secrets. Like the German Tourist Club, a Bavarian-style bier haus on the flanks of Mount Tam, overlooking Muir Woods. All I’ll say is, if you can find the place, they’ll serve you a pitcher of German draft on the patio, between 2pm and 6pm weekends (except the second Sunday of every month). Lazy folk trek in 20 minutes from the end of Ridge Ave, but I suggest you work up a proper thirst by hiking one mile into the Sun Trail from the Dipsea Trail. The rest of the research is up to you. And don’t tell ‘em I told you.

If you’re in West Marin in springtime and love the outdoors, do not miss the Audubon Canyon Ranch, where hundreds of giant snowy egrets and great blue herons nest in the tops of old-growth redwood trees—they’re like bird condominiums! The sight of these enormous creatures flying back and forth to the Bolinas Lagoon mudflats to bring food to their babies is truly one of the Bay Area’s most amazing natural wonders. Watch from strategically placed viewing platforms with preset binoculars; docents interpret the scene. A small museum in the barn shows how the ranch’s founders single-handedly saved West Marin from development in the 1960s.

Learn how West Marin was saved from developing into a sprawling, Southern California-style suburb.

The premier stretch of sand this side of the Golden Gate, three-mile-long Stinson Beach is no secret on a sunny day. But if crowds turn you off and you’re okay with stripping down, head a mile south to Red Rock Beach, a wind-protected cove that’s also one of the Bay Area’s most popular nude beaches. Winter storms have washed away much of the sand, so come at low tide or you won’t find much beach. Wear hiking boots for the 20-minute downhill trek, and arrive well before noon to snag parking in the tiny lot, located at mileage-marker 11.3 on Hwy 1, a mile south of Stinson. At the end of the day, head into town for fish and chips, pints of beer, and on weekends, toe-tapping live bands.

No, we’re not nudists, just Northern Californians, which is why we also love beautiful Bass Lake, a spring-fed freshwater lake on the southern flanks of Point Reyes, where you can cool off with in-the-know (and in-the-buff) locals. It’s the best place to swim this side of Stinson, and in summer when it’s cool and foggy at the trailhead, it’s often warm and sunny here. The meadow at the lake’s edge is a postcard-perfect spot for picnicking in the shade of tall trees. Bass Lake is a fairly easy 2.8-mile trek from the Palomarin trailhead, at the end of Mesa Rd, 4 miles north of its junction with Olema-Bolinas Rd. There are restrooms at the trailhead, but not the lake. Carry water or bring a filter.

Itty-bitty Bolinas is worth exploring, if only because the locals don’t want you to. You’ve surely heard already, but just in case: For years residents removed the green directional signs indicating the turnoff from Hwy 1; Caltrans finally gave up and stopped replacing them. The townsfolk pride themselves on isolationism—which explains why they flipped out when paparazzi-magnet Martha Stewart bought a house here. Downtown there’s a tiny, but worthwhile museum and gallery, an organic grocer, a damn good restaurant called the Coast Café (below), and a creaky old saloon favored by 1960s burnouts.

Once you’ve strolled the village, head two miles southwest to explore critter-packed tidepools at Agate Beach; they’re only visible at low tide. Bolinas has fantastic surfing: rent gear and get the lowdown on the best spots from 2 Mile Surf Shop, or take a class with Bolinas Surf Lessons, which specializes in teaching adults. But control your longboard, lest you invoke the ire of an agro local surfer dude.

To reach Bolinas, head five miles north of Stinson Beach, and turn west at the first turnoff north of Bolinas Lagoon. Wharf Rd abruptly dead ends in the village. Do NOT speed, or expect to be chewed out by a grizzled old Deadhead when you alight from your vehicle downtown at road’s end. And you think I’m kidding.

Bird-watching freaks: Head north of Bolinas, along Mesa Rd, to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, and check out bird-banding demonstrations. Bring your binocs on a walk along the nature trails surrounding the observatory. The skies positively buzz with the fluttering of wings.

Jutting ten miles from the mainland, Point Reyes National Seashore is a windswept beauty, an amazing 110sq-mile peninsula of rocky headlands, open grasslands, forested hills, and high coastal bluffs rising straight out of the pounding surf.

Explore Point Reyes. Visit a century-old lighthouse, kayak placid waters, whale-watch from towering bluffs, and hike amid roaming elk.

The hub town of West Marin, Point Reyes Station is the perfect place to stretch your legs after the drive north. Window shop along the pretty main drag and pick up picnic supplies at the grocery store, cheese at the fabulous Cowgirl Creamery, and a kite to take to the beach from Into the Blue kite shop. If you’re here for the night, the folksy-fun Dance Palace occasionally has good entertainment, including trivia contests and live music. If you’re wondering where the ’station’ is, the train stopped running through here in 1933.

Unless you like braving serious ocean waves, the best kayaking is on the mellow waters of Tomales Bay, especially for first-timers. Blue Waters Kayaking leads inspiring nature tours on weekend mornings and gives lessons too. But until spring comes, the rental shop is closed. Call ahead.

Foodies: for an only-in-Marin experience, shuck your own oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company or Drakes Bay Oyster Farm. Top restaurants in San Francisco and New York get their shellfish from these farms. You can too. Call ahead to reserve a picnic table, or take your oysters to the beach. Bring your own lemons, cocktail sauce, and charcoal if you plan to grill them. The closest supplies are in Point Reyes Station. The farms sell oyster knives, if you forget your own.

History buffs love the tiny whitewashed town of Tomales, mainly because of the Tomales Regional History Center. Operated by the old guard of Marin County, these blue-hairs predate the hippies by decades, and boy, can they tell stories. Occupying what’s left of the 1912 Tomales High School, the center is mostly an archive, but the historic photographs are way cool. Ask about the narrow-gauge railroad that ran through here at the turn-of-the-20th-century, and you’ll come to understand how the towns of West Marin and southern Sonoma counties fit together.

Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Point Reyes Station, & Inverness Restaurants: Eat Cheap

In Stinson Beach, the best cheap eats are at the Parkside Café ($) snack bar—a burger, hot dog, and ice cream stand. The food is way better at the sit-down restaurant inside, but the burgers at the snack bar are greasy-delicious, perfect for a Sunday hangover. The Sand Dollar Restaurant ($$) is everyone’s favorite hangout after a day on the sand – especially for drinkers: on weekends in spring and summer, the outdoor deck gets packed with bacchanalian revelers, and there’s usually a live band. The food is surprisingly good, with NorCal seaside standards like cioppino, crab sandwiches, oysters, and tasty grilled meats.

In Bolinas, the comfort food at the Coast Café ($$) is a consistent crowd-pleaser, including all-American comfort-food standards like meatloaf, homemade pot pies, pizzas, and big crunchy salads. This is one of my favorite places to eat lunch after the beach. Vegetarians have lots to choose from, and everything is made with organic or natural ingredients from all the right purveyors, like Niman Ranch (which began in Bolinas). Service can be apathetic—the local badge of honor—but it’s worth braving because the food is damn good.

In Point Reyes Station, food fetishists flock to the Cowgirl Cantina ($–$$), a side business of the famous Cowgirl Creamery cheese makers. The short café menu lists mostly salads and sandwiches made with seasonal ingredients and—of course—fabulous cheeses. On a cold, damp day, there’s nothing quite as delicious as the raclette (melted cheese over potatoes). Alas, the café closes at 6pm.

Alternatively head to the back patio at Cafe Reyes ($–$$) for big salads, stir-fries, wraps, and burritos made with a blend of Latin and Asian ingredients. The food is okay, but the best thing about eating here is the setting: the patio looks out to the forested ridgelines of Point Reyes, perfect on a sunny day.

In tiny Inverness Park (just west of Point Reyes Sation) head to Perry’s Delicatessen ($) for arguably the best to-go lunch in West Marin: Order the vegetarian sandwich—with bacon. Loaded with cheese, avocado, tomato, sprouts, and other crunchy ingredients, it’s deelish, perfect for a picnic.

Just north in Inverness (as opposed to Inverness Park), the last town before the national seashore, Priscilla’s Pizza Café ($–$$) is good for a quick bite before or after exploring the peninsula—especially if you’re with kids. They also have coffee and pastries in the morning.

On Point Reyes proper, adjacent to the Drakes Beach visitors center, Drakes Beach Café ($–$$) has remarkably good eats—or so trusted sources tell me; I’ve yet to get there when they’re open because of their limited winter hours. Following the seasonal-regional trend, the kitchen uses lots of locally grown ingredients in its eclectic menu—friends recommend the chowder. NB: Verify the café is open before venturing out; otherwise you’ll have to head back to town to eat.

Restaurant Prices

  • $ = entrées under $10
  • $$ = $10 to $15
  • $$$ = $16 to $22
  • $$$$ = $22 and up

Stinson Beach, Olema, Point Reyes Station, & Inverness Restaurants: Splurge

The bad news on the West Marin food scene is that the main building at Manka’s Inverness Lodge burned down this winter, so the fabulous little restaurant—one of Marin’s best—is gone, at least for now. The hotel remains open; scroll down the page to read more.

The good news? The Olema Inn ($$$-$$$$) is going strong, and though it may not break any new culinary ground, I love its 19th-century Americana look and feel—the big front porch, plank floors, and simple country elegance. The cooking is earthy—housemade ricotta gnocchi and Niman Ranch pork chops with apple butter are standouts—and it’s made with local ingredients. Prices are high (think $30 entrees), but it’s worth a splurge on a romantic overnight out of town. On Monday, locals’ night, there’s a less-expensive small-plates menu, discounted wines by the glass, live music, and a raucous-fun crowd.

The long-running Station House Café ($$-–$$$), in Point Reyes Station, has been resting on its laurels for a long time, and the New American menu hasn’t changed much, but it’s generally a crowd pleaser, especially the fresh hot popovers in the bread basket (though the cooks sometimes overmix the batter, rendering them too gummy). The meatloaf is pretty good, as are the barbecue ribs, but nothing is spectacular, least of all the service and the ugly brown slaw-strewn carpeting (sit outside if it’s warm enough).

The Parkside Café ($$–$$$) was the top spot in Stinson Beach a couple years ago, but lately it’s slipped. Stick to simple grilled meats or come for breakfast, which is generally the best meal here.

West Marin Motels & Hostels: Budget

There are surprisingly few motels near the water in Marin, but it’s just a two-block walk to the surf from the Stinson Beach Motel ($$–$$$). All eight rooms (some with kitchen) are bright and cheery, and though utilitarian, they’re refreshingly non-generic. Outside, the gardens are a riot of color. Score good rates before May 1st—especially on weekdays.

Further north, Motel Inverness ($$) is also non-cookie-cutter in its decor, and has better-than-average bed sheets as well. It’s on the edge of Point Reyes, surrounded by a stunning expanse of grassland, but the motel was built backwards: guest-room windows overlook the parking lot, not the surrounding wildland. However there’s an adjoining lodge lined with picture windows, where you can cozy up by a fire and play backgammon or shoot billiards.

The best rates—by far—are at the Point Reyes Hostel ($), a slightly ramshackle building smack dab in the middle of the park. It costs a mere $18 for the dorms; private rooms are harder to come by and are reserved exclusively for families with kids under 5. If you’re with your sweetheart, make out in a tent at the beach, then save bedtime for sleeping.

Hotel Prices

  • $ = standard double under $100
  • $$ = $100 to $200
  • $$$ = $200 to $300
  • $$$$ = $300 & up

West Marin Hotels and Inns: Splurge

High on the flanks of Mt Tam, abutting 40,000 acres of gorgeous parkland, Mountain Home Inn ($$$–$$$$) has killer views of the bay. Several giant redwood trunks rise through the three-story building, lending a woodsy romance to the architecture. All rooms have a fireplace, whirlpool tub, and a balcony overlooking either the lush forest or the brilliant panorama of the Bay Area’s twinkling lights. For an easy escape, it’s hard to beat.

In Muir Beach, just south of Stinson, the Tudor-style Pelican Inn ($$$$) nods to the 16th-century inns of the English countryside, with whitewashed plaster walls, rough-hewn wooden beams, leaded-glass casement windows, Oriental rugs, and hidden nooks and crannies perfect for a game of hide-and-seek. (But leave the kiddies home; this is a romantic retreat.) Every detail looks so authentic, you’d never know the place was built 30 years ago. Downstairs there’s a pretty good pub, an atmospheric spot for dinner on a foggy night, especially near the crackling fireplace.

At Point Reyes, the fabulous Manka’s Inverness Lodge ($$$$) is still open—at least partially—following a fire in December that burned the main lodge (Jake Gyllenhaal, a guest that night, helped firemen douse the blaze; Joel Cohen and Frances McDormand were also apparently there, but no word on whether they grabbed hoses). The outlying rooms and cabins remain standing—good news because these are some of the most sumptuous hideaways in Marin County, all styled in woodsy Pendleton-chic with log furniture, heavy wood paneling, and delicious float-away beds. Most have fireplaces too. Break open your piggy bank: you won’t find a room here for much below $300.

The most refined digs in Point Reyes are at Olema Druids Hall ($$$-$$$$), a four-room inn built in 1855 as the meeting place of the Ancient Order of Druids. Today it’s decked out with high-end European furnishings and fine art from the owners’ travels. Every room is different, but all have 14ft-high ceilings, marble baths, and the requisite zillion-thread-count sheets.

Up the block, the 1876 Olema Inn ($$$) has comfy beds and a few choice antiques in the otherwise small, stark rooms. They’re great for a one-nighter with your paramour because, unlike at other nearby inns, there’s no two-night minimum here. Have dinner downstairs, head to bed upstairs, and leave for home the next morning. But request a quiet room; otherwise pack earplugs and Xanax: the old windows don’t block much road noise.

For maximum quiet, stay in the woods at the Blackthorne Inn ($$$$), which is quite literally a tree house, built high in the canopy of oaks and surrounded by an enormous 3500-square-foot deck. Of the five rooms, everyone loves the Eagle’s Nest, a circular-shaped tower room with oversized windows overlooking the treetops (late sleepers beware: light floods the room at dawn). Alas, the furniture is kind of tired (think Levitz), but the house’s deliciously wacky architectural details—including a fireman’s pole—are so fabulous that you probably won’t even notice.