The Robin Williams Tunnel in Sausalito
Highway 101 near Spencer Drive, Sausalito CA 94965
Insiders Tip: The only safe way to see the rainbows on the Robin Williams Tunnel up close is by car driving northbound on Highway 101 in Sausalito. There is no safe place to park nearby and it is not safe to approach on foot, so please do not try to do so. We have tips below on where to safely see it at a distance.
I took the photo above of the Robin Williams Tunnel as a passenger in a car, the only safe way to capture this image. You can see the rainbows from a distance at the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point and while you are walking northbound across the Golden Gate Bridge. The rainbows are only painted on the northbound side (the approach from San Francisco) and the uphill ends of the tunnels are not decorated. The rainbows shine most brightly in mid afternoon, when the sun hits them directly and they seem to glow.
This Robin Williams Tunnel (sans its rainbow and then called the Waldo Tunnel) was originally built at the same time as the Golden Gate Bridge, with just a single bore and two lanes each way. In 1953-54 a second bore was added and the highway widened to four lanes each way. It’s sometimes called “tunnel” and sometimes “tunnels” since it is a single structure but has two bores.
The rainbows were added in 1969 by a retiring Caltrans executive on his own initiative, and were originally slated for destruction by his angry superiors. When the community expressed a love for the rainbows the local politicians ordered them to be saved. In the 1970’s money was collected to replace the paint with colored ceramic tile, but the effort fell short and ultimately there were problems with disposition of the money.
The Rainbow Tunnel Renamed the Robin Williams Tunnel
From 1937-2015 the official name of the tunnel was The Waldo Tunnel, since it is located on the Waldo Grade. (Waldo was a 19th century California politician). After 1969 it was much more commonly referred to as The Rainbow Tunnel because of the striking colors on the southern approach.
In 2015 the State renamed the tunnel The Robin Williams tunnel, in honor of the late actor and comedian who grew up and lived in the area. Although he was famous for wearing rainbow suspenders as Mork from the TV show Mork and Mindy, he had already worn them as part of his stand up comic act before being signed for the show.
The Unpublicized View
Although the view northbound of the Robin Williams tunnel entrance is the most famous, the tunnel is actually most dramatic when you drive through it headed south. San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge are not visible from the highway as you enter the tunnel, but as you pass through it first the Bridge and then the City appear in a window of bright light at the end of the dark corridor. This view is a surprise for many visitors, and I’ve had friends say how it’s something they’ll always remember.
In the Movies
The Robin Williams tunnel appears (sans rainbow) in the 1947 film Dark Passage with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (with the original narrow two-lane Highway 101 and a single bore), and with its rainbow in the build-up to the climactic scene in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film Dirty Harry, where the modern two-bore version is shown.