West Marin is nothing short of a miracle. For a place to have remained so authentically rural and unspoiled for so long, despite bumping right up against the Bay Area megalopolis, some beneficent power had to be at work.
And nestled under the west slope of Mount Tamalpais, a holy mountain if there ever was one, lies the miracle of miracles, Stinson Beach. Less than an hour north of San Francisco, Stinson waits at the end of what might be one of the most beautiful drives in the world, across the magical Golden Gate Bridge and over the aptly named Panoramic Highway that twists and turns up and down the mountain's lushly forested slope.
Stinson is three miles of broad sandy beach, relatively clean of seaweed and other marine detritus, capped by a village that even today is without sidewalks. The village consists of one intersection with a stop sign on Highway 1, a bookstore, two art galleries, a surf shop, a grocery store, three restaurants -- and hundreds of vacation rentals.
The surf here is chilly, but that doesn't stop the swimmers, boogie boarders, paddle boarders and kayakers who crowd here on summer weekends. Toddlers build sand castles at the water's edge and splash in the shallows while parasailors carom at near light speed, back and forth through the surf on their short boards, occasionally launching themselves airborne off the crest of a wave.
Finding a sandy spot to spread your picnic blanket and umbrella is easy on the mile-long state park beach. Finding a place to park your car can be nearly impossible, despite the large, free parking lot -- unless you arrive well before the typical morning fog burns off.
Many of the sunbathers, including nearly all of those who bring dogs, get away from the madding crowd for part of their day by the simple expedient of taking a walk. The two-mile stretch north of the public beach is lined with homes, some modest, others opulent, especially along the gated Seadrift development that occupies the last mile of beach front, ending abruptly at the rapidly flowing channel that links the Bolinas Lagoon with the ocean and separates Stinson Beach from the shy artist enclave of Bolinas.
As long as you keep a respectful distance from the dunes directly in front of the houses, nobody much cares if you stop to rest, enjoy a picnic, play in the surf, toss a Frisbee or just plant yourself in your folding chair to watch the slow-moving parade. The northern end is a lot like the public beach, only the waves are a little smaller and the crowds are tinier. There are also no lifeguard stations, snack bars, public showers or restrooms.
Here, you're more likely to see gulls, sandpipers and other shorebirds working the coast, while flocks of pelicans soar gracefully over the water, occasionally executing one of their spectacular corkscrew dives headlong into the drink for a beak full of herring or anchovies. If you're lucky, you might see a flock of snowy plovers sprinting in unison after each receding wave, then running frantically in just ahead of the next one, literally defining the ever-changing place where sea meets shore. But plovers happen to build their nests on the sand, so that delightful sight is becoming a rarity on all but the most deserted beaches.
Glance toward the hills and you might spot a less endangered species: hang gliders taking off from high on the ridge behind the village, floating almost motionless for a long time, then eventually swooping down to the beach in a lazy spiral, uncannily landing in the same spot every time.
But don't take your eyes off the water for too long. The same fish that attract pelicans also bring harbor seals, who like to play in the curl of the waves. On rare occasions, you might see porpoises, or even a whale spout in the middle distance. Last year, a baby fin whale beached itself at Seadrift and died, drawing a large crowd of biologists from the nearby Marine Mammal Center who took samples and ran tests, collecting valuable information about these little-understood cetaceans before burying the huge carcass in place.
If you walk to the other end of the public beach, toward San Francisco, you'll start to see some big rocks. Don't be discouraged. This isn't where the beach ends; in fact, it's where it really starts to get interesting. Depending on the tide (and your physical condition), you can make your way around or over the rocks to a series of hidden little beachlets, one of them clothing-optional, all the way out to the rocky point where Stinson Beach really does end.
You'll see tide pools, sea caves, even the rusted-out shell of a car that long ago took a turn on the road above too fast and plunged over the cliff. But keep an eye on the tides; that rock you were able to run around when the waves retracted may require a climb on the way back. There is a trail that winds up the hill to Highway 1, but you have to get nearly all the way to the point in order to connect with it.
Once you've had your fill of sand, surf and scrambling, you can adjourn to the large lawn behind the beach parking lot, where you'll find picnic tables and grills. Or head into the village to catch a little live music on the patios at the Sand Dollar Restaurant or the Parkside Cafe, browse the excellent bookstore, check out the art galleries, play a little basketball in the city park or watch your toddler play in the kiddie park -- or maybe even peruse the shadowy world of Al's Alleged Antiques, if you happen by on one of the rare days it's open.
Or you can get back on the highway and check out the unspoiled towns just north of Stinson Beach: Bolinas, if you know how to find it (see sidebar); Olema, a charming near-ghost town whose entire population could dine together in either the gourmet, upscale Sir and Star restaurant or the decidedly more casual Farm House; Inverness with its quaint shops and little beaches lining placid and picturesque Tomales Bay; or Point Reyes Station.
Or just head back to the beach, set that deck chair under a wide umbrella and laze the day away.
Beach House 101
Vacation homes don't come cheap in a place like Stinson Beach, of course, but that's good news for renters. Many owners are in hock up to their eyeballs -- and they depend on rental income to help pay the mortgage. Here's what you need to know, if you're looking for a vacation spot, starting with the three basic categories of Stinson rentals.
Beach houses: The most expensive rentals are on the beach -- and the most expensive of these tend to be in the gated Seadrift community at the north end of the beach. You get what you pay for, though: The beach is literally right outside the front door, it's the farthest strand from the crowded public beach and some of the houses are truly spectacular. The other beach houses are on what locals call the Calles or the Upton Tract (the Patios). Unlike Seadrift, these aren't directly on the beach but on short roads that dead-end on the beach.
Lagoon houses: Houses on the Bolinas Lagoon are all in Seadrift, so expect to pay a premium, though your rental dollar will go further than it would for a beach house. Odd-numbered houses on Seadrift and Dipsea roads front a man-made lagoon that's great for kayaking and paddle boarding (no motor boats). Those on Dipsea Road have the added advantage of being across the road from the natural Bolinas Lagoon, a large salt marsh of rare beauty and serenity. Seadrift renters can access either lagoon via boat ramps. The beach is accessible from the end of the sandspit, where the lagoon connects with the ocean.
Hill houses: The least expensive rentals are tucked in the hills above the village. Some have spectacular beach views; others do not. Expect to pay bargain prices here, but keep in mind, you'll have to walk or drive down to the beach and it's a very steep hill.
Resources: Seadrift Realty (www.seadriftrealty.com) handles rentals at Seadrift. Oceanic Realty (http://oceanicrealty.com) and Highway One Properties (www.hwyoneprop.com) handle Seadrift and other listings. Or you can use an online service like VRBO (www.vrbo.com).
Find weather and surf conditions by calling 415-868-1922 for a frequently updated recording from the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.
Years ago, the residents of Bolinas, the artsy enclave near Stinson Beach, decided they'd had their fill of weekend tourists and gawkers. So they took down the highway sign that marked the turnoff from Highway One to their town. Caltrans tried to replace the sign several times, without success, and finally gave up.
Today, motorists have nothing to guide them -- but the town is overrun with outsiders anyway, so no serious harm can come from sharing these simple directions:
Drive north past Stinson Beach on Highway One about five miles, until you come to the end of the Bolinas Lagoon -- slowly because the curves here are tight, and the egrets, herons, kingfishers and other birds that inhabit the lagoon are well worth seeing.
The Bolinas turnoff actually is marked by a yellow highway sign that indicates a four-way intersection. Turn left around the head of the lagoon, then left again and follow the road along the opposite side of the lagoon for about two miles, until it climbs a gradual hill and dips down into Bolinas.
Interesting tidbit: Every Fourth of July, a heavy rope is strung across the channel that divides Bolinas from Stinson Beach, and the residents of the two towns compete in a lively tug-of-war. There's one contest for the men and one for the women, although dogs of both genders play an active role in both events. The warm-up is a study in contrasts. On the Stinson Beach side, a coach barks last-minute instructions rapid-fire from the back of a pickup truck, while in Bolinas, the team starts with a little meditation on the sand, then moves into some yoga stretches. It's hard to tell which works best. This year, Bolinas won the women's rope war and Stinson won the men's. The trophy now proudly occupies a place of honor behind the bar at the Sand Dollar restaurant in the middle of town.