Find cultural and natural wonders beyond San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge

Marin Headlands-Getting there

The Marin Headlands, the dramatic bluffs and canyons justnorth of the Golden Gate Bridge, are a perspective-altering place.From lookouts at Battery Spencer, it seems you might just be ableto reach out and touch the bridge's north tower; from beachfrontKirby Cove, the same structure looks impossibly mammoth and faraway.

It's a spot for visions too, with views that can take in theSierra Nevada on clear days and reach endlessly westward. And theheadlands are rich in another sense: Keep your ears open here andyou'll hear the world's best sounds.

Waves rush and roll onto Rodeo Beach in a steady murmur. Sandsqueaks underfoot. If you stand at the base of the bluffsseparating the lagoon from the ocean, after awhile a delicateflutter―the quiet churr of feathers hittingfeathers―will announce a pod of seasonally migrating brownpelicans riding the updraft overhead.

The headlands' 13,000 acres of open space, part of the GoldenGate National Recreation Area west of Sausalito, are NorthernCalifornia's landscape at its most grandiloquent. Dramaticallysteep hills drop to hidden valleys and pocket beaches. Peaks offerviews of the orderly houses across the Golden Gate and thewind-ruffled, wide-open expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In TennesseeValley, you're as likely to see bobcats as horseback riders; hikingin Gerbode Valley, you're not likely to see anyone else at all.

Through a volatile century of international relations beginningin the 1870s, the coastal area of this land was a military outpostdedicated to the protection of the bay. After the Civil War, thearmy began building bunkers in the hills. In the 1950s, a NikeMissile Site was established, though no missiles were ever firedhere in combat.

After the Cold War ended, the National Park Service beganmanaging the space; now trails link museums, art studios, andenvironmental centers. Abandoned bunkers, graffiti-coveredmonuments from an earlier era, are enveloped this month by delicatenew green grasses, orange poppies, and purple lupine. You cancombine a hike with a stop at one of the headlands' intriguingcultural outposts for a spring weekend adventure that blends thearea's past and future.

Voices in the wind

At the expanding Bay Area Discovery Museum on the headlands'east side, past and future coexist beautifully. The 17-year-oldcenter, devoted to educating and entertaining children ages 10 andunder, will complete a year-long, $19 million remodel this fall(the museum remains open during construction), including a newtheater, store, indoor toddler play area, and art studios.High-pitched cries of happy chaos fill the kid-scaled constructionsites and animal-themed structures that explain the headlands'past, including the traditions of the native Miwok tribes, areashipwrecks, and the place's wild residents, from seals to seastars.

A different kind of cry welcomes visitors at the Marine MammalCenter, a rehabilitation hospital near Rodeo Beach for sick andinjured elephant seals, harbor seals, otters, and sea lions. Atthis time of year, the center is filled with injured and abandonedpups, which volunteers tend to while visitors look on.

Nearby, a woman's alto voice fills the gallery space at theHeadlands Center for the Arts, a nonprofit artist residency. Duringregularly scheduled open houses (the next one is April 25), dozensof visitors gather in three studio buildings to appreciatesculptures, paintings, videos, and live performances. On monthlysalon evenings, visitors dine and talk with artists.

"It's so inspirational to be surrounded by such magnificence,"says painter, musician, and filmmaker Clare E. Rojas of herstudio's environs. The winner of the center's TournesolAward―a $10,000 grant and one year of studio space at thecenter―Rojas says being at the headlands has helped her findfocus in her work.

Musician Lee Ellen Shoemaker also finds focus here, in the formof a midcentury microphone. Known as the Tunnel Singer, she hasbeen coming for more than 10 years to a Hawk Hill tunnel atConstruction (Bunker) 129 to perform short, one-woman concerts. Thetunnel is one of two that lead to gun pits built during World WarII to house the headlands' biggest guns, weapons capable of firingup to 27 miles. Before construction was finished, the guns weredeemed unnecessary, so they were never installed.

Inside the tunnel, Shoemaker begins her high, melancholy melodyagainst a backdrop of redwoods. A trio of bikers outside stop intheir tracks, amazed; a small crowd gathers. It's a mournful,ethereal sound, one you might hear in a medieval cathedral.

The concrete walls reverberate until the music nearly gainstexture and form. It's like looking out at the world from inside aflute ― an experience to transform your view of tunnels, andof the headlands as well.

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