The section of the Coastal Trail between Wolf Ridge and Rodeo Beach is one of the more scenic walks in the Marin Headlands. The trail features an old paved road with some great ocean views as well as some old coastal defenses. To add some variety, the loop starts with a climb through the scrub-covered Gerbode Valley. Admittedly this first half of the hike is kind of dull, though, so a lot of hikers just do an out-and-back on the Coastal Trail.
The entire loop is very popular, with about 1–2 groups per minute on a nice weekend. However, that’s actually pretty typical of trails in the Marin Headlands.
Because of all the old military buildings and roads, this area has more of a developed feel than the neighboring Tennessee Valley.
The hike starts at the large Rodeo Beach parking lot. If the lot is full, which it might be on a nice weekend, drive three-quarters of a mile back and park at the Miwok trailhead (the dirt pullout next to the white building) instead. Parking is also available at the Gerbode Valley trailhead, although that adds about a mile to the hike.
The beach has a small shore break, so there are usually surfers around and the sound of breaking waves permeates the area.
Take the roadside path back along the street that leads to the parking lot. The road runs past the World War II-era barracks of Fort Cronkhite and has some nice views of Fort Barry, across the Rodeo Lagoon. After about three-quarters of a mile, at the large white building and just before the road crosses over the lagoon on a low bridge, cross the road to reach the Miwok Trail.
The Miwok Trail starts out level and then climbs gently through the wide and somewhat stark, scrub-covered Gerbode Valley. This part of the hike can be a little dull, but still seems to be fairly popular.
Turn left onto the singletrack Wolf Ridge Trail. The trail climbs steeply up through the dense scrub on the north side of Hill 88, with views of the Tennessee Valley.
The good part of the hike begins when the trail reaches the paved ridgetop road. Turn left to climb to the peak; this short stretch of road has some of the best views of the hike. The peak itself isn’t actually very attractive, since it’s topped with an old graffiti-covered radar station. The station was built to guide Nike antiaircraft missiles, the last line of defense against Soviet bombers.
The best view is from a concrete platform off to the right, where the missile tracking radar used to stand. After checking out the view, turn around and return along the access road. At the Wolf Ridge Trail intersection, continue straight along the Coastal Trail, which descends gently along the side of a high ridge. The relatively level road is a nice place to appreciate the views.
Parts of the road have eroded away, and the trail bypasses these parts using two sections of singletrack with lots of steps. This is one of the best parts of the hike, with great ocean views from the winding flights of stairs.
The singletrack ends at Battery Townsley; finished in 1940, it’s the northernmost and most recent of the Marin Headlands artillery sites, and it had the biggest guns. By 1948 it was obsolete and the artillery was removed. Underground tours of the battery are offered the first Sunday of the month from 12–4 pm.
Near the bottom of the road, there’s a singletrack bypass trail with a nice view of Rodeo Beach and Fort Cronkhite.
© 2016, 2022 David Baselt