Hikers: Jaymi and Nat (humans) | Niner and Willow (dogs)
Start Time: 6:30 am at Fort Cronkhite and Rodeo Beach parking lot.
The Marin Headlands are part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. This 12,000-acre peninsula is located at the southernmost end of Marin County, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. It is famous for its beautiful views and breathtaking cliffside. It is also home to diverse forms of wildlife and historic military sites.
Leash Laws: Dogs are currently only permitted in three areas of the park (Coastal Trail to Wolf Ridge Trail, Loop Trail from Coastal, to Battery Townsley, and Wolf Ridge Loop to Miwok Trail). Be careful not to stray outside these areas, or you will get a hefty ticket. Well-behaved dogs under strict, reliable voice control can be off-leash. For more information on where dogs are welcome, stop by the visitor center and pick up a map. To stay up to date on the status of dogs and the GGNRA, please go HERE.
Trail Difficulty: This park is welcoming to most levels of hiking, and it is a popular place for active families. Beware of rapidly changing weather patterns, wind and thick fog are common, especially in summer. Bring layers and make sure your dog is well protected against the hard terrain and elements. Good recall is crucial here! There are cliffs near the trail, so please be safe out there.
Other information: The Marin Headlands Visitor Center, open year-round from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. We parked in the parking lot at Fort Cronkhite across from dog-friendly Rodeo Beach.
It’s always nice to be good friends with someone who loves sunrise as much as you do. The younger we are, and later in life, the older we get, getting up at the crack of dawn is not always an appealing thought. Often overworked, underpaid and never able to get enough sleep, the idea of setting your alarm for 4:30 is just plain crazy… Unless you love sunrise.
Sunrise is a very special time, and just like the proverbial “early bird”, most photographers, nature enthusiasts and (studies have shown that) some of the best entrepreneurs know what amazing treats an early morning brings within itself. It is a quiet time, when the roads are still lonely and the rest of the world is cozy in their beds. I adore quiet time, because it lets me listen to the sounds of the world that get lost once 10:00 am rolls around. So, when my friend Jaymi suggested we meet at 6:30 at the Headlands, I didn’t hesitate. We were ready for a cold morning, fresh sea air and the song of the waves; what we weren’t expecting was the epic pink sunrise that was about to take our breath away.
Jaymi and Niner have been really good friends of ours for some time now, helping us out with commercial photoshoots, hiring us for a portrait session for their family and doing fun dog-related collaborations together. Jaymi is a writer and a passionate wildlife and conservation photographer for the Mother Nature Network. Niner has a brilliant mind, true to his breed mix and Jaymi works and plays hard to keep him happy and healthy. Living in San Francisco can be challenging with herding breeds, but these two make it work and take time out to enjoy the outdoors often. Niner stayed with us for a weekend a while back, so you may remember him from our Indian Tree hike. He is one of Willow’s favorite buddies to be sure.
We started out on the trail just off of Rodeo Beach, on the Coastal Trail paved road. This is a gentle and gradual uphill climb. Whatever you do, don’t forget to look back at Fort Cronkhite and Rodeo Beach on your way up, it is a delightful sight!
We took Coastal trail to Battery Townsley area, which has smaller, unmarked trails and just followed the foot path along the coast. The light, as you can see from these photographs, was beyond crazy pink and constantly (and rapidly) changing. This was the first time I brought Willow here, so Niner was more than happy to show her all the good spots to run and sniff. Juxtaposing their silhouettes against this cotton candy sky was such a pleasure to photograph.
One thing I love about the Headlands, and this trail in particular, is the visibility (when weather permits). Without trees or rough curves, you can see the trail ahead for miles. One of the many reasons Jaymi and I share a love for hiking early is because we have the trail to ourselves for the most part, but if you go at more popular times or days, you will be likely to run into more people and dogs along the way. Visibility will help you call your dog back to you to be respectful of other’s space.
We reached the edge of the coast line here at Tennessee Point and stayed for a bit to take photos and enjoy the view. We were losing the pink skies to a warm foggy light. I put Willow back on leash here mainly because it was her first time and the cliffs made me a tad nervous for her. She’s agile and quite fearless when exploring her terrain, but I choose to err on the side of caution, always. Niner and Jaymi have been here many times before, he’s familiar with the trail and he has a rock-solid recall, allowing him more freedom on our hike.
Good friends are hard enough to find. Add on to that, a dog with special needs, such as my Willow and the bonds of friendship can really be put to the test. One of the many reasons we love Jaymi so much is because she gets it. Niner has his own set of special needs, and we have geeked out endlessly, chatting about dog behavior, training, whoopsie-daisy moments every dog person has and the challenges that come with loving and living with a special kind of dog. Willow loves Jaymi, and to see my weird, introverted, wallflower, recluse of a dog enjoy the company of another person so much is truly one of my favorite things to see. Niner, on his end is crazy about my husband, whom we call “Uncle Bill”.
We continued our loop around Battery Townsley, making our way back to the Coastal trail and enjoying the scenery. I felt like we were in the Scottish Highlands at times, and Willow enjoyed herself tremendously, showing off just how much of a mountain goat she could be. At one point, she zoomed a little too far, following her nose to something irresistible. This is where her “wild” part clicks in and something primal takes over. No dog is perfect, and no human is either; but this was a good chance for us to get our recall back in order… after she finished sniffing and finally realized we were a bit too far away. She went back on leash for a while after that. Remember this, being off-leash is a privilege, not just for us humans, but a great reward for dogs, so make sure you use it that way.
With these two around, of course there would have to be some perching to be done! I never realize just how large Willow is, until she is up against Niner, who is not small by any means. Moments like the one pictured above, are the ones that stay tattooed on me.
We started to make our way back down to Rodeo Beach at this point. Watch your knees going down, it is a little steep and the gravel and rocks can be a little loose. Good traction on your shoes and hiking poles are never a bad idea. Once you reach the paved Coastal trail, it is easy all the way down.
Now, the first thing you need to notice once you get down to Rodeo Beach is the beautiful array of pebbles at your feet. I could not get enough of walking around them, photographing them, our feet, our dogs’ feet and delighting in all the different shades, colors and textures I saw. It was truly beautiful.
Though Willow and Niner did not care for them, we did find a few crab bits along the beach; a word of advice, best not to let your dog enjoy these as a meal, it can cause great stomach upset and the shell pieces can be jagged and dangerous on a GI tract.
Every time we hike with someone, we’ll ask these same questions and share their answers with you. I hope to highlight the things we all share as hiking enthusiasts, while learning from one another and creating a caring community of like-minded people.
In Jaymi’s Words:
Who are you/ who’s your canine hiking buddy? (names/ dog’s age / breed(s))
Jaymi and Niner. Cattle dog-border collie mix. Four years old.
When and how did you get started hiking together?
I can’t really remember when our outings turned into solo adventures. When I first adopted Niner I thought he’d be like my old labrador — mellow and ready to play with just about any other dog. Typical mistake by novice dog owner! The more group play settings we had, the more I realized that Niner really doesn’t function well with a lot of other dogs around. He’s too nervous, too anxious and insecure, and ultimately too reactive. One or maybe two mellow dogs are an ideal play date for him but setting that up takes effort and planning that doesn’t always work out easily. So, maybe it was two years ago or so, we switched to going to outdoor spaces before sunrise to have off-leash beach romps and bouts of fetch without any other dogs around, and that eventually ended up including hiking trails. We got a fresh boost of enthusiasm about getting out when we heard about the 365 Hikes project. It’s inspiring to see the trails that others are hiking, especially those our friends are enjoying. And that has helped to get us out on the trail even more!
Why do you like hiking with your dog/ what do (both) get out of it?
Early morning hikes are our time to be outside of the city, to be alone (finally!) and interact just the two of us, taking in nature’s sounds and smells and sights. We are both happiest when we’re outside and by ourselves or with only a couple good friends with whom we can be comfortable. Both Niner and I are the same in that too much hustle and bustle around us stresses us out, and it’s inevitable with city living. Our daily walks are filled with interactions with strangers, dodging traffic, being overwhelmed with noise. We need time away to recharge our mental and emotional batteries. We hike, run, skip, chase each other, explore, watch wildlife, and sit together — and we come home mid-morning tired and very, very happy.
What’s your favorite trail to hike and why?
I can’t answer for Niner — I think every trail is his favorite. But my favorite right now is the Coastal Trail in the Marin Headlands. It offers up some gorgeous views and while there is poison oak, the trail is wide enough that we can avoid running into most of it. There are spots that are poison-oak-free where we can run and get the zoomies out. And there is little wildlife on the trail compared to other parts of the headlands which is great since Niner has a fairly intense prey drive when it comes to bunnies and deer.
Do you and your dog have any rituals while hiking? (i.e. we always pack a lunch, we sit at the top for a while etc.)
We prefer sunrise when no one is out yet. And that’s because we always start out by going off-leash for a good run. At least 10 minutes of being super excited to be outside and free. That’s a big part of our morning: letting ourselves be exuberantly happy and free. After that we’ll start going into work mode a little — doing some tricks for treats that help reign in Niner’s attention so that he can stay off leash on the dog-friendly portions of the trail and be in the right mindset if we encounter any other dogs or wildlife. As the sun starts to come up and more people arrive on the trail, we usually go back on leash and enjoy speedy hikes, pausing once in awhile so I can take in the views and Niner can have a good roll in the grass.
What is the one thing you would advise other dog hikers?
I think my number one piece of advice is to be honest about your dog’s personality and know when to have your dog on leash, even on off-leash trails. I have to be honest with myself and while I love Niner being off-leash, if there is wildlife around I simply can’t trust his recall — even if I had a pork chop dangling from my belt, a bunny would be more interesting. But we’re entering the home of these wild creatures when we hike, and it’s damaging to the ecology of a trail to allow dogs to chase animals or go off trail. I am honest about my dog’s personality and know that when Niner sees an animal and starts to go all wild-thing on me, it’s on-leash time. It is also on-leash time when there are joggers, other hikers, cyclists and other dogs on the trail — not because I think Niner will misbehave but because they don’t know my dog, and it is a courtesy to anyone we come across to have my dog on leash, under control, and out of their way. So being really aware of the impact of your presence on a trail to the ecology and other people, and being considerate about leashing up, is about the best advice I can offer hikers to make everything about your outing more pleasant.
See you next time hikers! Hope to see you on the trail. Be safe and be kind to others and help keep our trails enjoyable and protected.
Nat + Willow
Directions to Marin Headlands via Fort Cronkhite and Rodeo Beach:
From the North
• Take Hwy 101 southbound.
• Exit at second Sausalito exit, just before the Golden Gate Bridge.
• Bear right onto Alexander Avenue; proceed back under the freeway.
• Follow Alexander Avenue 0.2-miles; turn left onto Bunker Road.
From the South
• Take Hwy 101 northbound across the Golden Gate Bridge.
• Exit Alexander Avenue; bear right.
• Follow Alexander Avenue 0.2-miles; turn left onto Bunker Road.
Directions to Fort Cronkhite
• On Bunker Road, pass through one way Baker-BarryTunnel.
• Follow Bunker Road 3-miles and continue pass Rodeo Lagoon. Head toward the ocean and Fort Cronkhite will be on your right-hand side
For more information
Marin Headlands Visitor Center
Fort Barry, Building 948
Sausalito, CA 94965