A Dream Drive Through Marin County

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Road through the midst of Marin County’s Point Reyes National Seashore

There’s never a bad time to clear the cobwebs in your head. To get the job done in any season, we highly recommend grabbing a sweater and jumping in the car to drive wild and farm-studded backroads, eat beautifully, and stroll on a wide, blustery beach in Northern California’s Marin County.

From Point Reyes to Inverness, Kehoe Beach to Olema, and through nature preserves and historic bedroom communities, a day’s drive here will have you both seeing life in color again.

So, let’s say you’re starting out in Oakland, or have just left San Francisco via the Bay Bridge.

Hop on the 580 West.

Before you cross over the San Francisco Bay on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, say hello to the hills of Adam’s birthplace, Point Richmond.  (As a little kid, he used to perch up here and watch the trains below, like a Lionel set come to life.) Be sure you’ve brought a handful of dollar bills for the ever-changing bridge toll. The views here are of tiny islands in teal water, clouds settling on distant mountain peaks, and glamorous San Quentin on your left.

Soon after the bridge, split off to the 101 North. Here, the 101 is called the Redwood Highway, because along the way you’ll see…redwoods.

Take the exit for Lucas Valley Road. (Though filmmaker George Lucas’s fabled Skywalker Ranch and Big Rock Ranch facilities are along this winding road, there’s no connection between his holdings and the valley’s name.  Both Lucas facilities are located far off the road, it’s likely you’ll never know you passed them.) The Lucas Valley is largely an open space preserve, and the grasses turn golden when summer begins. You’ll be on this road for about a half-hour, so slow down and give yourself over to the gentle quiet here.

After about 20 minutes of driving, you’ll pass through a small grove of towering redwoods. Pull over for a few minutes and take a walk or a deep breath.

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A small grove of Nicasio Valley redwoods

At Nicasio Valley Road, take a right and wind around tiny Nicasio’s town square. You’ll soon pass the town’s now-private “little red schoolhouse,” as well as the small school that replaced it. A bit further on, the road circles around three sides of the picturesque Nicasio Reservoir, a popular fishing hole that attracts a wide variety of birds throughout the year.

When Nicasio Valley Road reaches a “T” intersection with (cleverly-named) Point Reyes-Petaluma Road, take a left and continue on to the only stop sign for miles and you’ll know you’ve come to the Platform Bridge.

At the bridge, turn right and remain on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road for about 10 more minutes. This road ends at Highway 1, where you’ll turn left and drive down a hill into Point Reyes Station.

POINT REYES STATION

Point Reyes Station is the largest town in West Marin, though there’s (thankfully) little to do besides eat and sit, wander into the one bookstore, or visit Toby’s Feed Barn, a general store/grocery/art gallery geared toward both the area’s tourists and its ranching community.

But did we mention eating? This town is a little slice of foodie heaven.

Aim to arrive before noon, and you just might beat the lunch rush at Tomales Bay Foods. An indoor farm-stand market run by the women behind the Cowgirl Creamery, the rainbow of artisanal cheese and produce here could simply not be more fresh, organic — or popular. The one small, central sandwich counter promotes crowds instead of orderly lines, which means that unless you arrive early, you’re elbowing your way into the fray. Seating is outside in the back at picnic tables or on the grass, or you can take your bounty with you for later.

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Cheese, glorious cheese at the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station

If you’re feeling more hungry than patient, head over to the friendly Station House Cafe to sit down for a spell. You can try those Cowgirl Creamery cheeses on a cheese-and-olive plate or in salads and sandwiches. My personal favorite here, though, is the organic mixed greens salad, with strawberries, walnuts, and Point Reyes Blue Cheese.

For a little nip of to-go dessert, try the homemade treats (like enormous chocolate-covered macaroons) from Bovine Bakery down the street.

After you’ve either eaten or stocked up, walk/waddle to the car and hop back on Highway 1.

MARSHALL

If you head north out of Point Reyes Station, you’ll find three excellent places to buy and sample oysters in the spread-out town of Marshall, 20 minutes away: the Marshall Store, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, and Hog Island Oyster Company.

Just shucking around outside The Marshall Store

Just shucking around outside The Marshall Store

If you head south, on the edge of Point Reyes Station you’ll cross the Green Bridge (which really is green). Turn right onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and head westward. You’ll drive alongside a long, narrow stretch of marsh and then the often-foggy Tomales Bay, passing through the towns of Inverness Park and Inverness.

INVERNESS

In Inverness, you’ll find wooded hillsides full of enviable, rustic-chic homes, many built by ex-San Franciscans who fled the 1906 earthquake; turn off Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and drive up any side road to ogle these for yourself. The colorful onion domes of a fairy tale vacation cottage called The Dacha set a dreamy, Eastern European tone from a wooden perch out in the bay.

The Dacha, a Russian-style vacation home in Inverness

The Dacha, a Russian-style vacation home in Inverness

Inverness is my stepfather-in-law’s favorite place in California. We hope to come back here ourselves for a long weekend’s stay at the Inverness Secret Garden Cottage, a little gem that offers guests their own secluded vacation home…and garden.

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE

Further West, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard climbs a steep hill; take aright on Pierce Point Road and head for the northernmost portion of the Point Reyes National Seashore. This road meanders through windblown ranchland, replete with old barns and that incomparable new-cow smell.

Just past Abbott’s Lagoon, look for signs for Kehoe Beach. We sought out this beach largely because it’s dog-friendly, and on our last trip north we had our beloved corgi, Toby, with us.  (We’re aware that in cases like this we become Travels With Three…but that’s a whole other domain name.)

The wild beauty of Kehoe Beach

The wild beauty of Kehoe Beach

Kehoe Beach is also people-friendly, dramatic, wild, and flat-out gorgeous. Park on Pierce Point Road and hit the outhouse before you venture the ten-minute walk through a marshy field, past an inlet stream, and over a sand dune. Thundering waves crash the shore, pelicans swoop overhead and granite cliffs offer shelter from the wind. During our visit, a few romping dogs all but kicked up their heels for joy, and every person we met had a warmer smile than the last.

When you’ve had your fill of the Pacific, retrace your route to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and make your way back to Highway 1, where you can turn right and head south, bound for the town of Olema.

OLEMA

You’ve got a long drive back to the Bay Area from here, so we’d suggest a stop here at the wine bar or patio of the elegant Olema Inn. The dress code is more relaxed than the stately architecture would suggest, and your road clothes will be just fine.

Golden hour on the outskirts of Olema

Golden hour on the outskirts of Olema

Try to hit the post-Olema portion of the drive at golden hour for the best light: 4 PM in fall and winter, 6 PM in spring and summer.

OPEN SPACES, FAIRFAX & SAN ANSELMO

From Olema, head uphill on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. At first, you’ll travel through the stunning Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The road winds through ranch land with weathered fences penning in black and white Holstein cows. This open landscape soon gives way to thick, tangled woods reminiscent of a Lord of the Rings set.

You’ll pass through Samuel P. Taylor State Park and into the San Geronimo Valley where the towns of Lagunitas, Forest Knolls, San Geronimo, and Woodacre line the road. In San Geronimo, a left turn onto Nicasio Valley Road will quickly take you to the lovely Roy’s Redwoods Open Space Preserve.

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Horse and pony show near the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

After Sir Francis Drake Boulevard crosses Whites Hill, you’ll find yourself in the 1930s-era, Bay Area bedroom community of Fairfax. Stop here to poke around a little, see a movie, or just grab some ice cream at Fairfax Scoop. Often called “Hairfax” by the locals, this town is a quirky mix of hippie and yuppie — or in other words, a prosperous village in Northern California.

Still on Sir Francis Drake, coast through antique-but-tony San Anselmo (a town best visited during the day, to explore its antique stores and small historical museum). You’ll soon wend your way through San Rafael and back to Highway 580.

Take the 580 East back, the lights of the Bay winking at you and your newly-clear head.  

*Sigh.*

 

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Comments

  1. judy Merrill says:

    What a great description of a wonderful outing! I will definitely do this sometime.

  2. I’ve done variations of this drive many times. Whenever I have a rough week, I remember the feeling of driving through the forest on my way to the coast – beautiful & such a cleansing feeling! Looking forward to making another trip. Thanks for the memories. 🙂

  3. KJ, that’s exactly how it feels to drive up in Marin — cleansing! There’ll be more to come on this gorgeous little slice of America.

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