From a rocky perch 1,500 feet above the sea, you turn for one last long backward look at the San Francisco skyline before rejoining the trail.
Ahead, a high meadow blazes with poppies, lupine and blue-eyed grass. Here, just minutes north of the Golden Gate, lies a wilderness of remarkable beauty, an Eden for hikers.
About 100,000 contiguous acres are set aside for public use under the aegis of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument, Point Reyes National Seashore and a few splendid state parks. What better way to begin exploring the pleasures of this coastal preserve than a walking tour?
With a light pack on your back, you begin your adventure by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and you finish a week later, 66 trail miles up the coast, on the shore of Tomales Bay in Inverness.
Each day's walk ends in the delightfully civilized shelter of a country inn: Nightly stop-overs in Sausalito, Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Olema and Inverness provide the creature comforts so welcome after the rigors of hiking.
The trail leads you through redwood forests, mountain meadows and over seaward-looking bluffs. For beauty and variety, it rivals any in the world.
To experience such splendor firsthand and close up, one needs to be on foot, a major reason for the enduring popularity of hiking, but not the only one. Fitness buffs tout it as the ideal aerobic exercise, every bit as beneficial as jogging but much easier on the back, knees and feet.
Hedonists among us talk of "hiker's high," the profound sense of physical and mental well-being we get while walking.
And all who have enjoyed the bonus of good company en route will attest to the many virtues of hiking as a social activity. Human communication tends to flower along the way; conversation begins to take as many interesting turns as the trail.
Now the burgeoning of San Francisco Bay Area bed-and-breakfast inns, along with the dramatic expansion of regional parklands, makes Pacific Coast trekking possible. The land and seascapes are spectacular, the inns charming. The only obstacle to setting off is knowing where the trails are, where the inns are, and how to connect them.
Before heading off, it would be wise to make a few arrangements. The most glorious day of hiking can end rather rudely at a closed inn door. Particularly because B&Bs; have a limited number of rooms, be sure to book in advance at each inn, especially during the summer months.
A good, comfortable pair of lightweight walking shoes is essential. A large day pack should suffice for carrying canteen, first-aid kit, toilet articles and clothing. Pack light--laundry facilities are available along the way. Evening wear at country inns is quite casual, jeans being acceptable at most.
Good Maps Available
Equip yourself with a few good trail maps to accompany the route directions below. You can buy maps of the GGNRA Marin Headlands, Mt. Tamalpais State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore at most any Bay Area outdoor shop. For the price of a stamp, you can obtain them in advance of your visit by writing to:
GGNRA, Marin Headlands, Building 1050, Ft. Cronkhite, Sausalito, Calif. 94965; Mt. Tamalpais State Park, 801 Panoramic Highway, Mill Valley, Calif. 94941, and Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes, Calif. 94956.
Day 1: San Francisco to Sausalito, eight miles, mostly level. From the rocky headlands of Fort Point it is just a short climb to the toll plaza above, where you begin a nearly two-mile walk north across the Golden Gate Bridge. If your schedule permits, consider joining in the gala 50th anniversary celebration of the opening of the bridge, scheduled for May 24. Planned festivities include a huge fireworks display, an outdoor rock concert and a grand pedestrian parade down the center of the span.
Arriving at Vista Point on the Marin County side of the gate, continue the walk through Ft. Baker and into Sausalito.
The inns: Alta Mira Hotel, 125 Bulkley Ave., Sausalito 94965, (415) 332-1350; doubles $55-$115. Casa Madrona, 802 Bridgeway, Sausalito 94965, (415) 332-0502; doubles $65-$175. Sausalito Hotel, 16 El Portal, Sausalito 94965, (415) 332-4155; doubles $85-$90.
Day 2: Sausalito to Muir Beach, (8 1/2 miles, moderately steep climb and descent).
Begin by climbing the Sausalito slope by a series of pedestrian footpaths up to California 101. Walk under the Spencer Avenue overpass and pick up the Morning Sun Trail, which completes the 900-foot ascent of Wolfback Ridge. Continue north along the spine of Wolfback on the Wiwok Trail before descending to Tennessee Valley and a picnic lunch at Tennessee Cove.
The Pacific Coast Trail stretches 50 miles along the coastal bluffs from the Golden Gate headlands to Point Reyes. From Tennessee Valley you get a chance to enjoy three miles of this magnificent route before descending to tranquil Muir Beach.
The inn: Pelican Inn, Muir Beach 94965; (415) 383-6000; doubles $105-$120.
Day 3: Muir Beach to Stinson Beach. Nine miles, some level stretches along with one moderately steep climb and descent.
From Muir Beach, a three-mile walk along Redwood Creek Trail takes you to Muir Woods. There you stroll through the shade of the giant redwoods before ascending the Ben Johnson Trail to Tamalpais's western flank. Then, with the Pacific Ocean in view below, you descend the meadows of the Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach.
If you are thinking of hiking in midsummer, steer clear of the trail on Sunday, June 14, unless you want to sign up for the 77th running of the Great Dipsea Race that day. The annual eight-mile foot race from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, now a major event, has been popular among running enthusiasts since 1905.
The inns: Ocean Court Motel, 18 Arenal Ave., Stinson Beach 94970, (415) 868-0212; doubles $55-$75. Sandpiper Motel, Marine Way, Stinson Beach 94970, (415) 868-1632; doubles $45-$50.
Day 4: Stinson Beach to Bolinas. 10 miles, mostly level, with two miles of climb and descent.
You ascend the mountain ridge above Stinson Beach by steep Willow Camp Trail, then join the magnificent Pacific Coast Trail, which you follow north for the next three miles. You descend the ridge by Bourne Trail into Audubon Canyon Ranch, a wildlife sanctuary on the Bolinas Lagoon.
From there, a three-mile walk on the car road takes you into colorful Bolinas. To find it, you may need to ask directions, because its residents periodically remove all road signs to deter passing motorists from invading their enclave.
The inns: Bolinas Motel, 41 Wharf Road, Bolinas 94924, (415) 868-1311; doubles $30. Grand Hotel, 15 Brighton Ave., Bolinas 94924, (415) 868-1757; doubles $25.
Day 5: Bolinas to Olema, 12 miles, level. From Bolinas, 2 1/2 miles of country road takes you to Shoreline Highway and the Olema Valley trailhead. First the Olema Valley Trail, then the Bolema Trial to Five Brooks. After a picnic lunch, take the Rift Zone Trail four miles through the Vedanta Retreat, a tranquil setting for contemplating the teachings of Swami Vivekenanda, and finally into the town of Olema.
The inns: Bear Valley Bed and Breakfast, 88 Bear Valley Road, Olema 94950, (415) 663-1777; doubles $60. Olema Inn, P.O. Box 10, 10001 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Olema 94950, (415) 663-8441; doubles $70-$80.
Day 6: Olema to Inverness Park, nine miles, steep ascents and descents. This walk in Point Reyes National Seashore begins with an exploration of Earthquake Trail, a vivid reminder of the great quake of 1906. Of geological interest is the Point Reyes peninsula's position on the edge of the Pacific plate, setting it off from the rest of the continent on the North American plate. Between the two lies the San Andreas Rift Zone.
At Bear Valley Trail Head take Bear Valley Trail to Divide Meadow. Begin your climb on Old Pine Trail to Sky Trail toward Sky Camp and Mt. Wittenberg.
Take the Wittenberg Trail northwest along the ridge, with magnificent views of Point Reyes Peninsula and Drake's Bay. Descend via Sky Trail to Limantour Road, then Bayview Trail, Drake's Summit Road and Balboa Avenue into Inverness Park and your choice of inns.
The inns: Holly Tree Inn, P.O. Box 642, 3 Silverhills Road, Point Reyes Station 94956, (415) 663-1554; doubles $64-$81. Blackthorne Inn, P.O. Box 712, 226 Vallejo Ave., Inverness 94937, (415) 663-8621; doubles $85-$135.
Day 7: Inverness Park to Inverness, 8 1/2 to 9 miles, some level stretches, moderately steep ascents and descents.
The first two miles, up Balboa Avenue and Drake's Summit Road to the crest of Inverness Ridge, is the only real climb of the day. From there take Limantour Road and Sunnyside Drive to the top of Point Reyes Hill. Pass the white navigational aid station at the crest and continue along the windswept ridge top to Mt. Vision overlook, 1,282 feet above the sea. Descend via Vision Road to the lovely hamlet of Inverness on Tomales Bay.
The inns: Golden Hinde Boatel, 12938 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Inverness 94937, (415) 669-1389, doubles $60-$90. Inverness Lodge, Callendar Way and Argyle, Inverness 94937, (415) 669-1034, doubles $36.50-$49.50. MacLean House, P.O. Box 651, 122 Hawthornden Way, Inverness 94937; (415) 669-7392, doubles $75. Ten Inverness Way, 10 Inverness Way, Inverness 94937, (415) 669-1648, doubles $85-$95.
Day 8: Inverness to San Francisco. To return to San Francisco, take Golden Gate Transit Bus 65 on weekends or 22 on weekdays. Call (415) 332-6600 or (415) 453-2100 for a schedule.