Harmony in the headlands

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

Marin Headlands-Getting there

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

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

Waves rush and roll onto Rodeo Beach in a steady murmur. Sand squeaks underfoot. If you stand at the base of the bluffs separating the lagoon from the ocean, after awhile a delicate flutter―the quiet churr of feathers hitting feathers―will announce a pod of seasonally migrating brown pelicans riding the updraft overhead.

The headlands' 13,000 acres of open space, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area west of Sausalito, are Northern California's landscape at its most grandiloquent. Dramatically steep hills drop to hidden valleys and pocket beaches. Peaks offer views of the orderly houses across the Golden Gate and the wind-ruffled, wide-open expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In Tennessee Valley, you're as likely to see bobcats as horseback riders; hiking in Gerbode Valley, you're not likely to see anyone else at all.

Through a volatile century of international relations beginning in the 1870s, the coastal area of this land was a military outpost dedicated to the protection of the bay. After the Civil War, the army began building bunkers in the hills. In the 1950s, a Nike Missile Site was established, though no missiles were ever fired here in combat.

After the Cold War ended, the National Park Service began managing the space; now trails link museums, art studios, and environmental centers. Abandoned bunkers, graffiti-covered monuments from an earlier era, are enveloped this month by delicate new green grasses, orange poppies, and purple lupine. You can combine a hike with a stop at one of the headlands' intriguing cultural outposts for a spring weekend adventure that blends the area'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-old center, devoted to educating and entertaining children ages 10 and under, will complete a year-long, $19 million remodel this fall (the museum remains open during construction), including a new theater, store, indoor toddler play area, and art studios. High-pitched cries of happy chaos fill the kid-scaled construction sites and animal-themed structures that explain the headlands' past, including the traditions of the native Miwok tribes, area shipwrecks, and the place's wild residents, from seals to sea stars.

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

Nearby, a woman's alto voice fills the gallery space at the Headlands Center for the Arts, a nonprofit artist residency. During regularly scheduled open houses (the next one is April 25), dozens of visitors gather in three studio buildings to appreciate sculptures, paintings, videos, and live performances. On monthly salon 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 her studio's environs. The winner of the center's Tournesol Award―a $10,000 grant and one year of studio space at the center―Rojas says being at the headlands has helped her find focus in her work.

Musician Lee Ellen Shoemaker also finds focus here, in the form of a midcentury microphone. Known as the Tunnel Singer, she has been coming for more than 10 years to a Hawk Hill tunnel at Construction (Bunker) 129 to perform short, one-woman concerts. The tunnel is one of two that lead to gun pits built during World War II to house the headlands' biggest guns, weapons capable of firing up to 27 miles. Before construction was finished, the guns were deemed unnecessary, so they were never installed.

Inside the tunnel, Shoemaker begins her high, melancholy melody against a backdrop of redwoods. A trio of bikers outside stop in their 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 gains texture and form. It's like looking out at the world from inside a flute ― an experience to transform your view of tunnels, and of the headlands as well.