By OurSausalito.com Events Editor Annamarie Roger
Rodeo Beach is part of Fort Cronkhite in the Marin Headlands, and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). Whether you surf, hike, run, dig around in the sand, birdwatch, or just love the smell of salt water, Rodeo Beach is a great hangout with some beautiful views. You might even see a few dolphins, a sea lion or a seal in the water.
How to get there: (See map below). You can take the Muni Route 76X from Post/Van Ness & Sutter/Sansome in San Francisco to the Rodeo Beach Fort Cronkhite Parking Lot. Click “Show bus route” on the page for the San Francisco Muni Route 76X bus stops. The Muni Headlands stops are specified on this page.
If you are driving:
From Northbound 101, take the last Sausalito exit and be sure to slow down; the abrupt stop sign takes many by surprise. Turn right onto Sausalito Lateral Road. Continue with the directions below.
From Southbound 101, Take the Alexander Ave exit and merge onto Sausalito Lateral Rd. Follow the rest of the directions below. Before long, take a slight left onto Bunker Rd. You went too far if you see East Rd.
Have a cup of tea and get your camera ready while you wait for the “5 minute tunnel” because as your car is about to peek out of the tunnel on the other side, the lighting will be perfect for a shot of the Marin Headlands.
Your journey on Bunker Road lasts about 3 miles. When The Rodeo Lagoon is on your left, keep driving along the lagoon so that you leave Bunker Rd and continue on Mitchell Rd. The Marine Mammal Center is on Bunker Rd. At the end of Mitchell Road is Rodeo Lagoon, and a pathway beyond it to Rodeo Beach.
Parking: Keep going a little further past the buildings with the red roofs. There are two parking lots, restrooms, and showers on the right before the road goes uphill. The Muni Route 76X stops in the Parking Lot near the restrooms.
Insider Tip: Bring something warm because Rodeo Beach can get really cold and windy, no matter the season.
If you surf, bring your wetsuit, wax, Zinka, board and towel; these are nor-cal waters. Generally surfers harken toward the waves that roll in just in front of the parking lot. Your runner friends can get a great workout on the nearby hillside while you catch a few waves.
Here’s a video of a surfer’s experience. The waves at Rodeo Beach are often a bit bigger than what’s shown here. Don’t worry, it is possible to access the beach without wading through the lagoon.
Rodeo Beach can also be great fun for the dogs and the kids. Children love sifting through the unique sand, which is more of a blended mixture of colorful basalt and chert stones that have been eroded down to soft pebbles. If you stay after dark, you might be able to catch sight of little sparks of light from the bioluminescent plankton hiding under a few layers of sand. Just dig really fast and you will find them.
Bring running shoes for hiking. Walk a few feet up the single-track trail just north of the parking-lots and take a family photo from the bluff that overlooks the surfers, the lagoon, the beach and the Headlands yonder.
Hiking: If you enjoy hiking but prefer trails that are less steep, you can continue on the trail along the coast from the photo op. Warning: After the initial climb it is a more level surface however it will eventually turn up into the hill and join with the steeper trails. You will also see concrete remnants of the artillery installations from 1938 and 1955 built into the hillside. Don’t bring bikes on the single-track. Hold hands with your young ones because the trail rims the cliffside.
Although this trail sounds treacherous the views of the Pacific Ocean are wonderful and sometimes I find myself craving those onshore salty winds that whip my hair off of my face. There is also no time obligation to this trail. Your hike will be wonderful and you will feel productive, whether you spend 20 minutes or 2 hours on the trail.
Bikes are allowed on the wider trail that also begins just north of the parking lot. This trail joins with the Coastal Trail and will take you to Tennessee Valley and Tennessee Beach if you continue left once you reach Wolf Ridge. This journey is several miles there and back.
You’ll want to bring a light backpack with a water bottle and a sandwich. Tennessee Valley Beach is also a very beautiful place to sit down for a picnic. Here is the map.
Watch out for bikers and bobcats. Should you come across a mountain lion, a very very rare event, here is what officials recommend that you do.
Another long hike opportunity: If you walk back to Bunker Rd, before the lagoon ends, you will see the Miwok Trail that goes northeast. If you continue from the Miwok Trail and east on the Bobcat trail, you will loop around back to the Miwok Trail, west to Wolf Ridge, and back to the Coastal Trail that will return you to the Rodeo Beach parking lot. Here is a trail map. This is quite a trek of several miles so bring food and water.
The top of the Bobcat Trail (a personal favorite) overlooks Mt. Tamalpais State Park, the rolling Headlands of the GGNRA, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, the tips of the Golden Gate Bridge towers, the Pacific ocean, and even Ft. Cronkhite from a distance.
If you would prefer to stay on the sand, you can take a romantic stroll along Rodeo Beach as the sun sets in the west. There is also a trail that runs back along the Lagoon. Here is the map. You can watch the flocks of pelicans sweep over the sparkling sea.
History: The collection of red roofed buildings south of the parking lots were initially built as a western army fort with barracks, mess halls, supply buildings, and kitchens. The buildings were finished in early 1941, just before WWII began a few months later.
Between January and December of 1944, Fort Cronkhite became a Commando Combat School.
Until nuclear technology joined the military in 1948, Fort Cronkhite also served to better the accuracy of the radar on the Battery Townsley Guns, named in honor of Major General Clarence P. Townsley, Commander of the 30th Infantry Division in France in WWI, that were stationed up on the hillside. In 1955, concrete structures where the radar for the Nike Missile Battery were improved joined them on the hill.
As the military no longer needed Ft. Cronkhite during the 50’s, locals fought for the land to be preserved along with the rest of Rodeo Beach and the Marin Headlands State Park. Instead, the government sold 2,000 acres to a developer, financially backed by Gulf Oil. Thomas Frouge was planning for the construction of apartment towers and residential communities to become known as “Marincello“. The project had already begun with bulldozers just beginning to restructure areas for roadways, however the developer failed to follow his agreement with the city planners.
After being sued and having to raise the budget considerably, Gulf Oil lost patience. A few lawyers, Bob Praetzel, Douglas Ferguson, and Marty Rosen were then able to challenge Frouge’s Marincello with evidence of illegal planning and the Court demanded a completely new plan. Soon afterward, the Marin Board of Supervisors decided not to support Marincello.
In 1972, Gulf Oil sold the Marincello land to the Nature Conservancy to become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area with the Presidio and Alcatraz. Today, the military artifacts are still preserved by the National Park Service and the military barracks with the red roofs are home to the Headlands Institute, a non-profit for environmental education.
When I was 10 years old, I went with my 5th grade class to Outdoor Ed with the Headlands Institute at Rodeo Beach. We spent a couple of nights in the red roofed buildings with our friends and explored the trails outdoors, comparing the native plants to the introduced species. We experienced the bioluminescence under the moonlight in the sand and took a closer look at the waterskippers in the lagoon. As a 10 year old, spending 3 days in Ft. Cronkhite truly made an impact on me. To this day, it is one of my favorite places.
A Film Recommendation: “Rebels With a Cause” is a film by local producers Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto about the formation of California’s parklands and the stories behind the environmentalists who fought to preserve these areas. The very inspirational film includes the tale of Marincello.
Here is a trailer of “Rebels with a Cause”: