• Beyond the Golden Gate

    Discover a conservation milestone hidden in plain sight.
    By Julian Smith
    Photographs by Ian Shive


ature Conservancy scientist Robin Cox shakes her head

and gazes over Gerbode Valley in the Marin Headlands, a 10-minute drive from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The only signs of human presence in the wide gray-green bowl are scattered stands of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress, planted as windbreaks by early ranchers.

We’ve been hiking for half an hour, and for most of the way we’ve been talking about a huge housing and business development started in the 1960s that, if not for the determined efforts of local conservationists, would have filled this valley and the next one over with houses and high-rise apartments. Instead, the hilly headlands are protected within one of the most popular national parks in the country. These wild, sea-scrubbed slopes host twice as many visitors each year as Yosemite and Yellowstone combined.

It’s amazing enough to have such a pristine landscape so close to one of the country’s largest urban centers. So the image of all this country filled with concrete and glass is almost too much to put into words. But Cox, who is the Conservancy’s associate director for conservation science in California, sums up what we’re both feeling in only four: “What were they thinking?”

The Golden Gate Bridge links the Marin Headlands with San Francisco, but aside from their hills, the two peninsulas couldn’t be more different. One has grown into the country’s 13th-largest city, while its northern counterpart in Marin County has kept most of its population on the bay side, leaving its central hills and coastline almost completely undeveloped.

Today, the Marin Headlands is part of the vast Golden Gate National Recreation Area, along with Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods and the Presidio of San Francisco. But the peninsula’s wildness has its roots in good old-fashioned military vigilance. In 1851, California had been part of the United States for only three years, and the gold rush was already in full swing. The thought of foreign warships steaming unopposed through the Golden Gate was enough to make President Fillmore order a large swath of real estate around the mouth of San Francisco Bay set aside for military defenses.

Army engineers gouged out roads, put up buildings and dug out gun emplacements on the southern end of the headlands. Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite kept civilians and development at bay through World War II, when lookouts kept watch for Axis vessels. A Nike missile silo joined the arsenal in 1958, but by then the military and private landowners in the headlands were already looking to hand over control of the area. The question was, to whom?

We had started our trek that morning at the Miwok trailhead near Rodeo Lagoon, a brackish pond near Rodeo Beach, on the peninsula’s southwest corner. The trail began as a dirt road, making for an easy walk past willow thickets and signs alerting hikers to the presence of the threatened California red-legged frog. It’s one of 36 threatened and endangered species within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
As the road starts to climb, Cox explains how the dry summers and salty ocean winds sculpt the low, tough vegetation. The Marin Headlands are within what scientists call the Mediterranean biome. Characterized by cool, damp winters and hot, dry summers, it’s the rarest of the Earth’s major terrestrial habitats. Like a map of the world’s wine country, it is found only in five small regions in California, southern Australia, southern Africa, central Chile and the Mediterranean. It’s also one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, collectively home to 20 percent of all plant species. (See “Mediterranean SOS,” autumn 2008.)

“Every 10 steps you see something different,” Cox says with the delight of someone who has spent her life researching and protecting plants. She points out clumps of sword ferns, cow parsnips and wild strawberries. For all its diversity, she says, this is also one of the most poorly protected habitats in the world: For every acre that is protected, eight are paved over or plowed up.

A mountain biker rolls past us as a gradual curve in the road reveals the Gerbode Valley to our right. Compared with the Pacific beaches and redwood groves nearby, its beauty is subtle and serene. But the view could easily have been very different.

In late 1964, a huge sales campaign announced Marincello, a $285 million, 2,100-acre planned community that would fill Gerbode and neighboring Tennessee Valley. Up to 30,000 residents would occupy 50 high-rise apartment towers and possibly thousands of single-family homes. There would be areas set aside for light industry, a church-bordered plaza, and a mile-long central mall. A “landmark hotel” on the headlands’ highest peak would have clear views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge—and vice versa. The proposal was the brainchild of Thomas Frouge, a Pittsburgh-based developer who secured backing from a subsidiary of Gulf Oil to purchase part of the land.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors and local newspapers gave the plan a thumbs-up, parroting sales pitches about how the dense development would let other areas stay wild.

Nevertheless, a small group of citizens decided to take a stand. Lawsuits in state and federal courts stalled the project, and Gulf Oil boycotts helped spread the word. Two sisters in their 80s blocked traffic on Highway 101, brandishing petitions and donation jars. The prolonged battle galvanized the northern California environmental movement like nothing before. Meanwhile, the developers pushed forward by building a pair of stucco entry gates and a wide boulevard leading up Tennessee Valley.

An hour from the trailhead, past a field of invasive fennel and a banana slug the size of a cigar, we crest Wolf Ridge and look into Tennessee Valley. The hills of the East Bay are just visible in the other direction. Another minute’s scramble brings us atop a stone outcrop from which we can see the Transamerica Tower and most of western San Francisco.

A set of old wooden fence posts marks the start of the Wolf Ridge Trail, which soon narrows and starts to climb steeply. The uphill side cuts expose fern-feathered layers of radiolarian chert—a form of quartz that often contains fossils—crumbling in bricklike precision. There aren’t many places with this kind of sedimentary rock so well exposed and easily accessible, Cox says. “Geologists come from all over the world to see this.”
We’re breathing heavily by the time we crest the next ridge, but our reward is a horizon-wide view of the Pacific. We take a final look back at the steeply rolling hillsides of Tennessee Valley, imagining what might have been.

By 1967, ongoing lawsuits and rising public opposition had halted construction on the project. The end of the line came in 1970, when Frouge went bankrupt and the Conservancy started talking with Gulf Oil about acquiring the land for a new national park. A celebratory “hike-in” on December 3, 1972, marked two milestones: the Conservancy’s purchase of the Marincello site for $6.5 million, and the group’s debut into large-scale conservation efforts in the Bay Area. Three years later, the Conservancy handed over the land to the National Park Service as a central part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

We take the Coastal Trail down toward the ocean, alternating between 50-year-old asphalt and steep, rocky switchbacks. The Golden Gate Bridge gradually comes into view around the southern tip of the headland. It’s chillier now, with a stiff sea breeze and the lonely clank of buoys below. We can see a group of school kids in bright rain jackets exploring the gun batteries of Fort Cronkhite, but they’re gone by the time we descend to the Battery Townsley. A house-sized doorway and a short tunnel open onto an empty concrete terrace that once supported two massive cannons.

The foghorn from the bridge—just three and a half miles away—sounds like a lost animal bawling in the mist that creeps out the mouth of the bay. It’s been guiding ships safely under the vermilion span since it was built 75 years ago. It’s a sound that says San Francisco as much as the bells of cable cars and the bark of sea lions on Fisherman’s Wharf. And it’s a fitting note to signal the end of a hike through an iconic landscape that locals fought to protect and keep just the way it was.

"It’s amazing to have such a pristine landscape so close to one of the country’s largest urban centers."

Julian Smith, author