Along the coast of Northern California in Marin County, north of San Francisco and just south of Point Reyes National Seashore, lies a trio of towns that boast some of the most pragmatic and pristine utilization of seascape in the San Francisco Bay Area. From the south, the first two towns are Muir Beach and Stinson Beach, respectively a reclusive upscale village and a tourist-centric beach town. The intent here is not to slight either community by use of these depictions but rather to have them serve as differentiating observations.
The third in our triumvirate of towns, Bolinas, could have followed either one of these courses but, as will be seen, an unforeseen vicissitude prevented it – perhaps inevitably given the times in which the fate of this town, and its surrounding area, was sealed. Ironically enough, Bolinas boasts a bounty of three beautiful beaches, which embody a near embarrassment of riches, for each beach graces one of three sides of the peninsula on which Bolinas rests. Then again, each of the five beaches discussed here – Muir Beach and Stinson Beach as well as Brighton, Agate and RCA Beaches in Bolinas – is singularly striking in its own inimitable way.
Muir Beach, the southernmost of this triad, has carved out a niche for itself aided primarily by geography. This community arose around a small picturesque beach, which comprises a relatively short span of sand sequestered within a terrain the surrounding hills dominate. Because of this irregular topography, a pair of winding, two-lane blacktops serves as the only means of access into and out of Muir Beach and its environs. Consequently, this sleepy little village draws scant attention despite the fact that it sits on an extremely dramatic coastline; the towering coastal hills tumble to the Pacific, culminating in a jumble of massive rock formations that smartly adorn the jagged seacoast.
The hills to the east and the rocky coastal lands to the north and south of the beach are all part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, preserved for perpetuity. Hiking and biking trails, as well as a few dirt fire roads, crisscross the high ridges and consequent vales that encircle the town. These trails and roads filter down through the chaparral that blanket these hills, most articulating with the California Coastal Trail, which runs the length of the state, from the Oregon state line to the Mexican-American border. These pathways, as they wend along the verges, rise ever higher over the ridges until they descend along their unwavering courses, appearing to be tributary rivulets frozen in the flow of their meander and ultimate merger with the major stream.
On particularly clear days, the views atop these coastal rises are extraordinary: to the northwest, the promontories of Muir Beach, Duxbury Point (at Brighton Beach in Bolinas), and faraway Point Reyes, are visible; discernible to the immediate south are the bluffs above Tennessee Cove and Rodeo Beach; farther south, Bird Island and Bonita Point at the Golden Gate can be seen; and, across the gate, the Headlands of San Francisco can be made out, beyond which, Ocean Beach sweeps away south to Fort Funston and on to Point San Pedro, above which the distant peaks of the San Bruno and Montara Mountains stand mute, providing the perfect haze enshrouded backdrop.
Serving as a supple mantle for these headlands, the vast pelagic expanse enwraps the coast in a cloak of colors born of climatic conditions. Whenever days are exceedingly clear and tranquil, the Pacific sports a deep sapphire blue and spreads placidly westward beneath a towering dome of azure sky, until both converge sharply in a taut line on the distant horizon. On brisk, breezy days, the choppy, sun-splashed sea shows a sparkling sea green, upon which windswept white-caps race away into a low outlying bank of dense gray-white fog. Contrastingly, on days when thick mists shroud the shoreline, the grim, gunmetal waters meld with the shadowy murk somewhere out in the nebulous void. Thus, the mutable, weather-driven correlation of sea, shore and sky fosters a day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour, metamorphosis of this tripartite panorama.
Three ridges rise up from the coast behind Muir Beach: Coyote Ridge to the southeast, Dias Ridge directly behind the beach to the east, and the ridge that follows the coastline to the northwest, eventually joining the large ridges that turns and rises to the east up Mount Tamalpais. Coyote Ridge is a relatively narrow crest that runs out to the sea and separates the Muir Beach area from Tennessee Valley to the southeast. Directly east, a great dome of grass covered granite at the center of its verge and a rocky knoll at its seaward end distinguishes Dias Ridge, giving it the look of an immense, humpbacked, prehistoric behemoth. This goliath sits between the coastal ridge and Dias Ridge, duly dividing the two narrow valleys that drain into the coastal wetlands and lagoon.
In the narrower of the two valleys, between Coyote and Dias Ridges, the Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center nestles just back of the coastal wetlands. Green Gulch is a fully functioning organic farm and religious retreat complete with the requisite farm outbuildings and residences as well as the Green Dragon Zen Buddhist Temple. In addition, high above the farm and accessible only by a steeply climbing dirt road, Hope Cottage – a small retreat cabin – serenely sits in the shadows of a copse, silently surveying the scene. From all appearances, it certainly seems well suited to its station.
On the northwestern side of Dias Ridge, Frank Valley stretches back northeast to Mount Tamalpais. Redwood Creek, which scored this minor canyon, runs down from the mountain, through the dale and out to the beach, leaving this valley somewhat broader than Green Gulch. Frank Valley, consequently, has a rather level floor that accommodates small areas of open grassland as well as a horse camp aptly named Frank Valley Horse Camp. This camp effectively marks the boundary between the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Mount Tamalpais State Park.
At some point in the past, a commercial heather farm utilized the slopes on the western edge of Frank Valley. This so-called “Christmas Heather”, a perennial, still comes up every winter, spreading great tufts of its lavender blooms across the slopes. Whether viewing these from atop the verges or gazing up the incline from down on the valley floor, the sight of these mauve undulations never fails to give estimable pause.
Following Redwood Creek for the most part, Muir Woods Road, the other of the previously mentioned pair of two-lane blacktops, runs along the valley floor and eventually wends it way up to Muir Woods National Monument. Because access to the area around Muir Woods was problematical, loggers at the turn of the century left uncut the great stands of giant coastal redwoods growing along Redwood Creek, deep in a narrow ravine farther up the flank of the mountain. In 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed Muir Woods a national monument, preserving these 2000-year-old colossi in perpetuity. From the monument, Muir Woods Road connects with Panoramic Highway, which twists up Mount Tam.
Beneath the rocky knoll where both the hills and the roads reach their nadir, a few discreet dwellings, some minor stables and the Pelican Inn combine to make up the portion of the town visible from the road. In addition to these, out on the coast – past the ubiquitous lagoon and marshland ecosystem that separates the road from the sea – on the northern side of the beach, a number of exclusive yet inconspicuous private homes dot the rocky outcropping as well as the coastal ridge that rises above and beyond; for surely the residents of Muir Beach are not prone to ostentatious displays of personal prosperity.
All of the above-mentioned structures represent the full extent of construction for miles around. This is certainly not due to any lack of public interest; rather, because of the contiguous public parklands, all expansion is under strict control. In the more recent past, when a contractor submitted an application for a building permit to construct the Pelican Inn, the desire to limit growth was conspicuous.
(Ironically, besides the Pelican Inn, Muir Beach suffers no commercial establishments, not even a general store. In order to purchase provisions, one must proceed north to Stinson Beach or travel south to the Tam Junction area; in both directions, an excursion traversing several miles of sinuous road that snakes, sometimes precipitously, through undulating hills and along steeply sloping coastline.)
During deliberations over whether or not to grant the building permit, the local board brought up numerous concerns that the construction of the inn would negatively affect the local environment. Principal among these qualms were certain misgivings in regard to the local wetlands. As mentioned, this area adjoins public lands, so these reservations certainly seemed legitimate. Still, one cannot help but think there was more than a little not-in-my-back-yard thinking involved. In the end, the Pelican Inn was built to replicate an Old English country inn and tavern, leaving it to look like something from the brush of an English landscape artist and fitting in quite well with the rustic character of the village.
Moving north up and away from the center of town, the road rises to mount the lofty ridge that looms over the nearly inaccessible coast. At the point where the road reaches its apex, there is a rock formation above the aforementioned dwelling dappled promontory called, appropriately enough, Muir Beach Overlook. This rocky scarp falls dizzyingly away to the resonant clash of land and sea far below. Whether the gaze drifts north or south, this aerie affords a breathtaking panorama of the drama brilliantly staged by jagged rocks, pounding surf and the sea beyond.
© Stephen Alexander 2008
A look at a Northern California coastal community