Two coastal towns north of San Francisco offer beaches, hikes, and scenic drives.
When was the last time you built a sandcastle? A perfect spot to re-discover this simple delight is the three-mile swath of golden sand called Stinson Beach, 40 minutes north of San Francisco on Highway 1, replete with picnic grounds and summer lifeguards. A sturdy shovel helps, as does an imaginative pal to conjure crocodiles in the moat and ferocious tigers firing rocket blasts from the turrets.
That's one way to stake a claim to oceanfront property. It's the first step on your full mission here—to soak in the laid-back spirit of California's majestic Marin County coast. That doesn't mean taking it easy, though. There are kayaks and boogie boards to rent, breathtaking bluffs to hike, and two eccentric towns to poke around in. Popular Stinson Beach, a modest stretch along Highway 1, features a bookshop, a couple of gift stores, and inviting restaurants that swell with weekend crowds. Then there's less visited, hidden, hippierific Bolinas, whose reclusive residents were known for repeatedly swiping the main road sign pointing visitors to the town—until transport authorities finally gave up.
You'll find five galleries specializing in local history, photography, and art spanning 120 years in the Bolinas Museum's complex of historic buildings. 48 Wharf Rd., (415) 868-0330,www.bolinasmuseum.org .
Stinson and Bolinas sit with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the rising grandeur of Mount Tamalpais on the other. The ancient, cathedral-like groves of Muir Woods National Monument and the forests and windswept open spaces in Point Reyes National Seashore make worthy side trips.
Visitors won't lack for culinary delights. "Stinson is more than just a nice beach surrounded by national and state parks," says Claudia Chapline, whose namesake gallery on Highway 1 showcases Northern California artists. "Organic farms and ranches are all around us. We have very good food."
You'll find many gourmet treats at the Stinson Beach Market, a small-scale grocery that's packed with picnic essentials. And just off Stinson's main drag, on Arenal Avenue, the Parkside Café warrants visiting for three meals a day. You might try fluffy blueberry pancakes in the morning, organic greens with local goat cheese for a light lunch, and fresh-caught salmon at dinner.
Opportunities to burn off those calories abound. The Pantoll Ranger Station in nearby Mount Tamalpais State Park is an intersection for some of the best hiking trails: Matt Davis, Dipsea, and the appropriately dubbed Steep Ravine.
Just north of Stinson on Highway 1, Audubon Canyon Ranch opens its visitor center and paths at Bolinas Lagoon Preserve each spring, when birders can spy on the local population of herons and egrets from a hillside viewing station equipped with benches, helpful docents, and telescopes.
Continue north on the highway to find the notoriously unmarked route to Bolinas. In the unassuming town center, fun, funky shops post visualize impeachment signs in their windows and surfers mingle with long-haired (albeit graying) former flower children. Make your way to the Bolinas People's Store for sandwiches. And be sure to pick up some Maddy's Jammin' blackberry-cherry jam—sweet summer in a jar.
Great egrets and great blue herons nest at Audubon Canyon Ranch, 3.5 miles north of Stinson. (415) 868-9244.
Up the street, the delicious Coast Cafe presents some tough choices: Should you sit on the colorful front patio and people-watch or enjoy the cozy interior decorated with vintage surfboards? Order the grilled oysters or the Marin Sun Farms burger? After lunch, you're on to your next adventure: exploring the nearby Duxbury Reef tide pools or trekking into Point Reyes National Seashore from the Palomarin Trailhead. Feeling less ambitious? Hit the Bolinas Beach and spread out a blanket—then build your sandcastle, of course.
Photography by Sean Arbabi 
This article was first published in May 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up the Northern California & Nevada TourBook and the San Rafael and Sausalito–Mill Valley maps. For more local information, visit www.stinsonbeachonline.com . For a list of recommended Marin County beaches, see www.visitmarin.org/beaches.html . Area code is 415 unless noted.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Mount Tamalpais State Park Camping, trails. 3801 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley, 388-2070, www.parks.ca.gov . Muir Woods National Monument Coast redwoods. Head south, about nine miles from Stinson, turn off Highway 1 onto Muir Woods Road, 388-2595, www.nps.gov/muwo . Point Reyes National Seashore Hiking, biking, beaches. The main entrance is off Bear Valley Road south of Point Reyes Station, 464-5100, www.nps.gov/pore .
BARD ON THE BEACH
Shakespeare at Stinson The 2007 season includes two Shakespeare plays—The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night—as well as the musical Oliver! 15 Calle Del Mar, about 300 feet from the beach, 868-1115, www.shakespeareatstinson.org .
FOR THE BIRDS
PRBO (Point Reyes Bird Observatory) Palomarin Field Station Netting and banding demonstrations. Four miles north of Bolinas on Mesa Road (partly unpaved), 868-0655, www.prbo.org .
Stinson Beach Surf & Kayak Boards, kayaks, wet suits, and bikes for rent. 3605 Hwy. 1, 868-2739. 2 Mile Surf Shop Lessons and rentals. 22 Brighton Ave., Bolinas, 868-0264, www.2milesurf.com .
Coast Café Organic salads, oysters. 46 Wharf Rd., Bolinas, 868-2298, www.bolinascafe.com . Parkside Café Local organic fare; snacks to go. 43 Arenal Ave., Stinson Beach, 868-1272. Sand Dollar Restaurant Cioppino, clam chowder, steaks. 3458 Hwy. 1, Stinson Beach, 868-0434, www.stinsonbeachrestaurant.com . Stinson Beach Grill Elegant dinners, lamb chops. 3465 Hwy. 1, Stinson Beach, 868-2002. Stinson Beach Market Barbecue and picnic supplies, deli. 101 Calle Del Mar, Stinson Beach, 868-1923, www.stinsonbeachmarket.net . Surfers Grill Fish-and-chips, corn dogs. On the beach at Stinson, 868-1777, www.surfersgrill.com .
Blue Heron Inn Two B&B rooms, restaurant. 11 Wharf Rd., Bolinas, 868-1102, www.blueheron-bolinas.com . Highway One Properties Vacation rentals. 3605 Shoreline Hwy., Stinson Beach, 868-0288, www.hwyoneprop.com . Pelican Inn Lodgings, English pub. 10 Pacific Way, Muir Beach, 383-6000, www.pelicaninn.com . The Sandpiper Six rooms and four cabins. 1 Marine Way, Stinson Beach, 868-1632, www.sandpiperstinsonbeach.com . Steep Ravine Cabins Rustic cabins. Book far in advance. On Highway 1, (800) 444-7275, www.reserveamerica.com .