A 3-day, 2-hike, 1-shark vacation
A family takes a long walk on the northern California coast instead of an exotic, expensive getaway.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
It was not a good sign: the need to explain to our children that the holiday we’d planned, 15 miles from our Northern California home, was a legitimate vacation and that people from across the country, maybe even the world, would fly thousands of miles for the pleasure.
Their friends had flown to Hawaii. Or Paris. We told our daughters, ages 8 and 10, to each put a couple of changes of underwear, a clean shirt, a fleece jacket, a toothbrush and a book in a backpack. Then we threw our stuff in our Subaru, drove east across the Golden Gate Bridge, parked in a casual lot just off Highway 101 in Sausalito and headed up a trail.
We travel for beauty, for the exotic; to bond with our loved ones out of context, exhumed from the quicksand of daily life and parted from our smartphones. Staycations, in my opinion, are bunk. Or, more generously, it takes a stronger person than I am to find the beautiful and the exotic, and to lose the smartphone, in one’s own home.
But this trip was different; that was the party line. My husband, Dan, and I were not flaking on our parental duty to show our children the world. We were taking them on an enriching adventure, just one that happened to be nearby.
The plan — Day 1: Hike 8 miles on trails from the sparkly tourist town of Sausalito up and over the Marin Headlands to the rugged cove of Muir Beach. Day 2: Walk 10 miles on trails from Muir Beach to Stinson Beach, which is sort of the Hamptons of Northern California. Then hike 2 more miles down the sand and swim (yes, swim!) across the lagoon mouth to gorgeous-but-surly Bolinas. Day 3: Surf and loaf around Bolinas, hoping to avoid the great white sharks that congregate there. Then return to Sausalito via bus and resume being resident Californians once reunited with our car.
Keeping the kids happy
The Marin Headlands are unspeakably beautiful — God’s country for investment bankers and hippies who made smart real-estate moves. Being locals, we had day-tripped there dozens of times. But that first day, just an hour up the dusty single-track road, the rolling hills looked different. Yes, still emerald green and affording knockout views, but without the car and the knowledge that we’d soon be back in it, the same terrain we’d walked on many times looked wilder — less like a park, more like a fantasy wilderness.
Still, wherever you are, hiking with children is a high-stakes game. To win, you need candy or humor, and probably both. That first afternoon we stumbled on a comedy gold mine: the bro hug. A bro hug, for the uninitiated, is a handshake that flows into a shoulder-first, backslapping embrace.
My 8-year-old daughter, Audrey, claimed to have bro hugged me by mistake after I offered her some sunscreen. This was just 10 minutes after she’d given her father a big I-love-you-Daddy embrace to thank him for a piece of chocolate, so I’m not sure I believe her. No matter. The bro hug became our trip’s leitmotif, a real gift. We bro-hugged our way up and over Wolf Ridge and along the Coastal Trail.
Perhaps worn down toward the end of our 8-mile day, this frivolity gave way to lingering status anxiety. Dan and I began to wonder if we should have become lawyers instead of writers, allowing us to jet the family off to tropical paradises. As we descended the rugged slope toward Muir Beach, we, along with the girls, indulged in a collective fantasy that we were slipping down the water slide into the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui pool.
As anybody who’s been to one of those resorts can tell you, you can travel halfway across the planet and learn nothing besides the pool bartender’s name — or you can travel 500 yards and have your mind blown. Entering the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, the Zen Buddhist practice center where we spent our first night, we were stunned into silence.
Our rooms were clean and simple. The grounds were breathtaking. And the place was zazen quiet. For dinner, we ate a delicious tagine in a room filled with silent, bald, black-robed monks. (The dozen other guests there for a workshop, “Transforming Depression and Anxiety: A Path of Skillful Compassion,” didn’t lighten the mood much.) In the morning, after breakfast, Hannah, our older daughter, darted for the front gate. Audrey followed, rapping, “Om in the house with the freaky freaky quiet people.”
Walk and eat
Day 2 was ambitious: 12 miles plus a frigid lagoon swim. During summers past we had backpacked in California’s High Sierra to camp at nearly 11,000 feet; the 4 miles to Chickenfoot Lake involved Homeric complaining and a pace slower than an ambitious baby’s crawl. But this time, with little gear and at low altitude, the girls ran like wolves.
By noon we’d started down the Dipsea Trail into Stinson Beach. By 1 p.m. we had covered 8 miles and hit the pavement of Route 1. To celebrate, we bro hugged. Then we consumed a zillion calories: bacon cheeseburgers at the Breakers Cafe, followed by chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream cones.
Instead of foot-dragging, Hannah and Audrey trotted the 2 miles down Stinson’s white sand. (Occasionally, Hannah insisted that Dan pull her like a rag doll.) We’d aimed to reach the lagoon mouth at dusk, during low tide, when the crossing would be around 30 yards. But we arrived at 3:30 p.m. and found the lagoon mouth gaping: 50 to 60 yards. You can walk around, but circumnavigating adds more than 7 miles, plus you lose the surfy romance of the swim. So we stripped down and placed our clothes and backpacks in the plastic bags we’d brought to keep them dry.
Then, as I was trying to convince Hannah that underwear and a camisole really is just like a tankini, I heard Dan say, “Um, honey? See that?” as he pointed in the water toward a dark gray animal the size of a beagle: a baby shark.
Did this make our vacation more legit or less? We’d meant to push the girls toward their limits but not to scare them all that much. Dan swam first, alone, testing the waters, so to speak. He reached Bolinas without meeting the shark’s mama. Still, when a man fishing offered his canoe, Dan said yes and ferried the girls across. For the record: I swam out of pride.
The next morning we woke at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and all felt fabulous. We’d intended to rent surfboards, but there was no swell so we bunched together reading “Dear Dumb Diary, My Pants Are Haunted!” aloud by the sea wall. The girls’ bodies sprawled, lithe, spent and relaxed. On the ride to Sausalito I asked if they’d tell their friends that our trip was as good as Hawaii. They said no, of course, but they also said they wanted to repeat the walk next year, with a couple of caveats. One, they wanted to add a day — 15 miles up to the town of Olema through the Point Reyes National Seashore. And two, they wanted to swim.