Where else can kids explore a rock tunnel, sway over a suspension bridge and marvel at the biggest night light they’ve ever seen? Just 10 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge pavilion, the Point Bonita Lighthouse is a beacon for passing ships and adventurous tykes.
Built in 1855 to safely guide gold-seekers through the perilous waters of San Francisco Bay, the Point Bonita lighthouse sits on an incredibly scenic perch overlooking the Pacific and jagged cliffs of the Marin Headlands. The building and its stories are intriguing — like the fact that despite the lighthouse, 300 boats still ran aground during that time! — but getting there is definitely half the fun. You and your smaller half will ramble down a trail that skirts brilliant wildflowers, cool pillow basalt (underwater lava) rock formations, and churning sea coves. And then there’s those knockout bay vistas. Your Instagrams should let the folks at the California Travel Bureau go home early that day.
Bridge & Tunnel Crowd
There’s also a pretty nifty bridge and tunnel too. No pejorative connotation here: just another cool adventure for your little one. The 118-foot tunnel was hand carved over a period of 6 months just after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. With a low rocky ceiling sprinkled with moss, it twists with the curve of the mountain and delivers you back on the trail on the other side.
From there you’ll actually cross a series of platforms before arriving at the remarkable suspension bridge. It’s no Santiago Calatrava, but it is pretty cool. The Point Bonita Lighthouse was the third lighthouse built on the West Coast, but it’s the only one reached by suspension bridge. If you visited before 2012, you know that the first bridge that was built in the 1950s didn’t instill confidence given that only two people could cross at a time. Today, the new bridge accommodates all with a slight and safe sway.
There’s usually a docent on hand to both limit the amount of people on the lighthouse side (max is 49) as well as share info and stories about the lighthouse. For example, you’ll learn how Karl foiled the first location when the lighthouse’s beam couldn’t be seen above the fog line, so they moved the lantern to the present, lower location.
The brick lighthouse building is diminutive, but it’s fun to learn of the lives of the lightkeepers — or Wickies as they were called after the pre-electric wicks — and their families. A ten-item scavenger hunt makes discovery fun for wee Wickies. They can scour the site and get docents’ help with inquiries like locating a nearby gull rookery, describing the lighthouse rain spouts, and identifying what and where the “Potato Patch” is.
Gulls and Grills
The lighthouse keepers led isolated lives with no visitors…or BBQ grills. You can have both by throwing a picnic at the killer grill-equipped spot near Battery Wallace that sports a sweeping view of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. You can also explore nearby Battery Mendell and the short path that leads to a scenic overlook of Bird Island and Rodeo Beach.
Good to Know
- Tunnel access and the lighthouse are only open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., a potential challenge during those precious nap hours. Docent led tours are offered each open day at 12:30 p.m.
- There’s porta potties at the trailhead. Full restrooms with flush toilets can be found at the nearby Visitors Center.
- Bonita means “pretty” in Spanish, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it means “windy.” Even when the rest of the Headlands is warm, it’s chilly out on the point. Bring layers.
- While you’re in the Headlands, consider becoming a Junior Ranger.
Have you visited Point Bonita lately?
— Garrick Ramirez (photos too!)