Usually I write about mountain climbs and day-long trails, but some adventures come without the big effort and yet are just as worthy of a spot on the bucket list. These gems are easy to miss in the quest for all-day adventures and it took me over 30 years as a Californian to cross this one off my own list but let me tell you, with it’s impressive history and exciting trail Point Bonita Lighthouse is definitely one of those places you have to check out!
Located in Golden Gate National Recreation Area just across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco, the Lighthouse was built in 1855 making it the third lighthouse in California and is still in active use today. While that’s pretty cool on its own, what makes Point Bonita so worthy of the drive and the crowds is its unique location – and the bridge required to get to it.
What to Expect Hiking to the Lighthouse
While Point Bonita Lighthouse may not require hours of walking, there is a journey of sorts to get there… Ok, it’s just a cool hour outing but it really is worth it!
From the parking lot (you can find directions here), you’ll walk about half a mile to the lighthouse heading down all of ~150- 200 feet which you will of course have to climb to get back to your car. The trail starts off moderately steep as you wander down along high cliffs that drop off to the Pacific Ocean below though rest assured, there are fences all along the sides so you won’t just tumble in.
After walking down the hill, the trail comes to a large hill which you have to pass through to reach the lighthouse. When the lighthouse is closed this is the end of the visit for the day as a very large and very solid metal door blocks the way through but when things are open, the door is opened up and you get to walk through a (short) tunnel to continue along.
Passing to the other side, the trail becomes narrower than above though it remains paved and fenced in (parents, be sure to keep an eye on your kids, this would be a very bad place for them to go exploring.) There are a few places where the hill drops off and you’re looking down on both sides as well as a couple old buildings but assuming there’s no line, it’s a quick couple minute walk over to the bridge guarding the lighthouse.
Of course the entire time you’re wandering down, SF and the Golden Gate are sitting just off to your left making for one heck of a view… on a clear day (it’s SF, so good luck with that.)
The Point Bonita Lighthouse Bridge
Long ago, the lighthouse was reached by a dirt trail but that’s since eroded down and decades back a suspension bridge was added to get people over the sketchy cliffs to it.
This is of course a much more sane option than scrambling but walking up towards the lighthouse and seeing the bridge suspended over the ocean below is a pretty incredible sight.
After getting the all clear to walk on over from a staff member, it’s just a minute or two to cross the bridge but with it bouncing around in the wind, the experience is definitely not something you’ll find visiting any other lighthouse. I’ll call it an adventure worthy of a visit though if you’re afraid of heights, you may feel otherwise.
Volunteers and park staff monitor the entire trail closely controlling access to the lighthouse area to insure there are never too many people on the bridge or in the limited area around it. The result is that you may find a line up at the start but will have a lot more room once you get on through. Like I said, it’s worth the effort.
Getting to the trailhead: Directions & Facilities
Access to the lighthouse is very limited but at least it’s open now (the bridge was closed and rebuilt back in 2010). Standard hours are 12:30 – 3:30 on Saturday, Sunday and Monday only. Those are subject to change and especially likely to close on windy / wet days when conditions make crossing the bridge hazardous.
In addition, the lighthouse is a popular area with limited parking but the adjacent Marin Headlands is a great place to explore around. You’ll find beaches, hiking trails, and many old bunkers / sights to see so instead of trying to fight for parking up close, find a spot near the visitor center and enjoy the stunning hike over to the lighthouse and beyond.
As for facilities, you’ll find restrooms at the trailhead (but none once you start the hike). Beyond that, you’ll need to bring your own water, snacks and likely a few layers for the outing. I don’t believe there are any real food options in the park limits but the Visitor Center does sell some basic snacks and is always worth stopping into first for the latest conditions.
Also, the Marin Headlands Hostel is a great option for those wanting to spend more time in the area while neighboring Sausalito has several nice restaurants (or casual ones) to end your day at.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Easy+ (there’s a hill)
- Start point: Point Bonita Parking Lot (directions)
- Distance: 1 mile r/t
- Duration: 1 hour
- Elevation Gain: Under 200;
- Facilities: Vault toilets at the TH
- Water: None on the trail
- Crowds: Heavy
- Cost: None