As we approach one of the most desperately needed long weekends of the year, I’ve been thinking about where I would ideally like to spend Presidents’ Day. It turns out that the answer was right in front of me—or rather, just below me. After giving recent billing to my adopted home of Portland, Oregon, I turn this week’s focus to my first home, the naturally stunning Marin County in northern California.
Situated on the peninsula just north of San Francisco, Marin has gained fame over the years for its liberal politics, its ruggedly beautiful coastline, its towering redwood forests, and its miles of hiking and biking trails. This is, after all, the place where mountain biking supposedly originated. And whether your idea of outdoor fun involves tearing down the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais or soaking up the sun (and wind) on Stinson Beach, Marin offers a little something for everyone—including some of the freshest and most delicious local cuisine you’ll find anywhere.
So, if you find yourself in this outdoorsman’s paradise, here are some wallet-friendly ways to get the most out of your three days.
Begin the day in Larkspur, a picturesque town of roughly 12,000 people nestled at the foot of Mt. Tam. As the sun burns off the morning fog, secure a seat at Rustic Bakery, where the freshly baked pastries—especially the almond croissants—are the stuff of local legend (1139 Magnolia Avenue). And you’re only minutes away from Woodlands Market, where the gourmet deli sandwiches, salads, and prepared foods will make the perfect fixins for today’s picnic lunch (735 College Avenue, Kentfield).
Son Of A Beach
Barely south of Larkspur is the town of Mill Valley, the launching point for a scenic drive to Marin’s favorite swimming and surfing destination, Stinson Beach. Don your wetsuit and brave the icy Pacific Ocean, or stroll along three miles of golden sand, collecting sand dollars along the way. But if 58-degree water sounds enticing to you, bathers be warned—great white sharks have been known to patrol, and even attack, in the area. Sound scary? Try growing up there.
Begin your journey to Stinson Beach at the 2 AM Club in Mill Valley (380 Miller Avenue). From there, take Montford Avenue to Molino Avenue and make a right. Several miles later, when you reach the Panoramic Highway, turn right. If you think those views are beautiful, take a short detour up Pantoll Road as you reach the Pantoll Ranger Station. On a clear day, you’ll enjoy a spectacular overlook of Stinson Beach, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, and the San Francisco skyline.
For the afternoon ride back into Mill Valley, treat yourself to different views on Shoreline Highway, Marin’s spectacular stretch of Highway One. Between the plunging cliffs and the hairpin curves, your eyes—and your stomach—are in for a treat.
Password To Larkspur Lane
Back in Larkspur, join the inevitable crowd that has gathered outside Pizzeria Picco, one of the most exciting and consistently delicious culinary destinations in Marin. Grab a sidewalk table and choose from a variety of tempting Neapolitan-style pizzas, or peruse the locally sourced menu from Picco, chef-owner Bruce Hill’s adjoining sister restaurant and bar. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll try the daily risotto, made from scratch on the half hour (316 Magnolia Avenue).
Where Have All The Cowgirls Gone?
Equator Coffee in hand (240 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur, 2 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley), take a scenic morning drive out Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through the San Geronimo Valley, beyond which is the small unincorporated town of Point Reyes Station. Poke in and out of the art galleries and photography studios on Shoreline Highway, absorbing West Marin’s hippie spirit and charm along the way. And for the next few hours, indulge in one of Marin’s favorite pastimes—shucking oysters ten miles north on the banks of Tomales Bay.
Make a picnic reservation at Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, where you’ll have your very own picnic table, grill, and shucking tools to help you enjoy dozens of sweet, local oysters (20215 Shoreline Highway). Just don’t forget to pack a few extra supplies in Point Reyes Station—namely the triple cream Mt. Tam cheese from the original Cowgirl Creamery (80 Fourth Street), a baguette or two from Brickmaiden Breads (40 Fourth Street), and a few enormous chocolate chip cookies from the Bovine Bakery (11315 Shoreline Highway).
Oysters not your thing? Fear not. The wonderfully friendly staff at Inverness Park Market make scrumptious sandwiches just across Tomales Bay (12301 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Inverness Park).
The 71,000-Acre Wood
It’s a short and scenic drive along the western edge of Tomales Bay to Point Reyes National Seashore, a 71,000-acre peninsula that happens to be on an entirely different tectonic plate than the rest of North America. Walk along the stark white cliffs surrounding Drakes Bay (which is believed to have been the landing spot of Sir Francis Drake in 1579) and try to spot gray whales migrating past the Point Reyes Lighthouse. But for one of the most extraordinary views of the peninsula, follow signs toward Chimney Rock and pray for clear skies over the footpath. But it seems that God is often busy—you’re standing in the second-foggiest place in North America.
Here Comes The Sol
In 2004, San Rafael native Sol Hernandez brought a little piece of Puerto Rico to Marin by opening Sol Food, her energetic tribute to the island’s traditional dishes. As the years have passed and Sol Food has expanded to three San Rafael locations and one in Mill Valley, Marinites have cheered every step of the way. No matter which outpost you choose, expect a crowd—and some of the most delicious pollo al horno you’ll find anywhere (901 Lincoln Avenue, San Rafael, 401 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley).
The Grateful Undead
For more than 35 years, downtown Mill Valley was home to the Sweetwater, an unassuming 81-seat nightclub that became the favored clubhouse venue of Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, Clarence Clemons, and other legends of music. Musicians and music lovers alike were devastated when the venue closed in 2007, but thanks to investors such as Bob Weir, the new Sweetwater Music Hall opened in downtown Mill Valley in 2012. Spend your night listening to blues or rock and roll at this treasured new landmark of Mill Valley’s rich musical history (19 Corte Madera Avenue).
To Market, To Market
In a community that lives by fresh, local, and organic, the Agricultural Institute of Marin’s Sunday farmers market is, in many ways, the source. During peak season, nearly 200 local farmers, food purveyors, and artisans gather at the third-largest farmers market in the state of California to sell produce, breads, cheeses, and other specialty products. And all of this happens in the shadow of the Marin Civic Center, the final commission of Frank Lloyd Wright (10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael).
The BIG Salad
As you leave San Rafael, make a pit-stop at Comforts in the adjacent town of San Anselmo, the home of Marin’s absolute favorite Chinese chicken salad. With simple, fresh ingredients that are frustratingly impossible to recreate at home, you’ll soon understand why certain displaced Marinites frantically stockpile Comforts’ bottled dressing when they’re in town. Grab one of the prepacked salads, and you’ve got a hiking picnic ready to go (335 San Anselmo Avenue).
The Old Man And The Dipsea
Nearly every year since 1905, brave men, women, and children have congregated at Mill Valley’s old train depot to begin America’s oldest trail race, the 7.4-mile Dipsea Race to Stinson Beach. Although the Dipsea punishes runners—and in our case, hikers—with 688 grueling steps up the side of Mt. Tam, it ultimately rewards them with panoramic views of towering redwoods, the Pacific Ocean, and Mt. Tamalpais State Park (find the trailhead on Cascade Way behind Old Mill Park, 300 Throckmorton Avenue).
Whether you hike the entire trail or turn back halfway through, be sure to pause and admire the old growth coastal redwoods of Muir Woods, the national monument honoring naturalist and national park crusader John Muir. Between redwood trees up to 1,200 years old and the Marin Melt grilled cheese at the Muir Woods Trading Company, it’ll be a worthwhile afternoon.
On The Road Again
Rest your aching limbs during dinner at the Buckeye Roadhouse, a warm, rustic, ski-style lodge that has been highlighting Marin’s local ingredients since 1937. The house favorite Oysters Bingo and baby back ribs are not to be missed, but I suspect diners keep coming back for the positively decadent s’more pie (15 Shoreline Highway, Mill Valley).
And there’s no better way to end the evening than by driving through the adjacent town of Sausalito to admire its commanding view of San Francisco’s skyline. Continue on Alexander Avenue until you reach the Marin Headlands, the hilly peninsula anchoring Marin’s side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Park your car and take in the spectacular evening views around you, as the sun sets on another long weekend well done.
TITLE: Drakes Beach | FRIDAY: Mt. Tamalpais; Mt. Tamalpais State Park, from Pantoll Road; Stinson Beach, from Pantoll Road; Stinson Beach | SATURDAY: Point Reyes Station; Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station; Tomales Bay; the rural landscapes of Point Reyes National Seashore; Point Reyes poppy fields; the Point Reyes coastline; Drakes Beach; the view from Chimney Rock | SUNDAY: Produce at the farmers market; Muir Woods National Monument; the view from the Marin Headlands; Mt. Tamalpais at sunset.