Last winter, after a family holiday, my wife and I were returning home through San Francisco and decided to take two days outside the city to de-stress. Our mini-vacation got off to a rocky start: Two hours in, we were still downtown waiting in line with everyone else renting a car that morning. By noon, though, we were cruising over the Golden Gate Bridge on the winding road to Stinson Beach.
We joked about our mood rising from the effects of negative ions, something we had read about a couple of decades ago, when social psychologists at New York University found that wind and surf can cause electrification of the air that can make people happy. For us, it worked.
Just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, Stinson Beach feels like another world. It has a vibe of remote California and evokes an alternate reality that makes even walking blissful. Two days can feel like a week-long getaway. Even in winter, you can dip your toes in the ocean, stretch your legs, have lunch outside on the patio at the Breakers Cafe, soak up the Zen without setting foot in a yoga retreat.
A visit takes some planning, as there are only a couple of lodging options in the burg and they can fill up fast. We booked a room six weeks ahead at Sandpiper Lodging, a little hotel a short walk from the beach.
Never miss a local story.
That day, we meandered north on the 101, zagging west on Highway 1 past Muir Woods National Monument, a glory of deep redwood forest. On a previous visit, we had enjoyed a loop-trail hike among those giants, walking right through one of the massive trunks. The parkland was donated by businessman William Kent (a progressive Republican) and proclaimed a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt, who probably foresaw that it would get a brisk flow of visitors.
Feeling pressed for time, we didn’t stop there and instead continued on to Muir Beach. (Both woods and beach are named for naturalist and conservationist John Muir, who campaigned for what now is the National Park Service.) Muir Beach is a simple crescent of sand overlooked by bluffs, where we took a break for a short, steep walk that switchbacked up the cliff’s edge.
We paused from time to time to check the progress of a few surfers and the dog racing around the tiny bathers on the beach below. The afternoon light skimmed off the azure water, and we could tell that the negative ions were doing their work. They were disrupted only by signs that warned of a Tsunami Hazard Zone: “In case of earthquake go to high ground or inland.” The text wasn’t as upsetting as the image of the hapless stick figure running with no chance of escaping the huge, beautiful blue curl bearing down on him.
We drove on to Stinson Beach and nearly missed the town, even though Highway 1 goes right through it. It’s tiny.
We checked into the Sandpiper, a cozy low-slung motel with flowers vining up to the second-floor balcony, and settled into our room upstairs. It thrilled me to stand on the balcony and look out to sea. By the standards of a D.C. winter, the day felt like fall, and the gas fireplace sliced through the chill wonderfully.
Stinson Beach is a stone’s throw from several yoga retreats. With its visual beauty and proximity to San Francisco, the place has exerted a pull on Bay Area musicians at least since Jerry Garcia lived and recorded here in the early 1970s. It was here that he launched his bluegrass side project, Old and in the Way. Janis Joplin had her ashes scattered at Stinson Beach. And Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was living in a trailer when he passed through around 1986 and gave a solo concert just to impress a woman.
The town feels like an old rural version of California. The Sandpiper’s owners, John Vantress and his wife, Heather, bought the place three years ago after she had worked there for more than a decade. She grew up in Bolinas, just beyond the lagoon. Vantress grew up over the ridge in Tiburon.
Fortified by an outdoor lunch of omelets and home fries at the Parkside Cafe, we crossed the road through town and started up the hill on the Dipsea Trail. We passed a French family on a walk, strung along the trail like beads on a chain. Mostly, though, we had the trail to ourselves in long stretches of sunlight. Sometimes we stopped to soak it in, facing the sea. The view to the west went on forever. To the right, Bolinas Lagoon cut a blue slice just below the hills to the north.
Continuing on, the trail dipped into the forest of spruce and chaparral. The tree canopy filtered the light for a blue-green effect as we approached the redwoods of Muir Woods. This trail is home to the Dipsea Race, the oldest foot race in America, dating back more than a century, to 1905. Held every June, the race covers the trail’s length, with runners clambering from Mill Valley, about seven miles inland, to the ocean. The race’s organizers claim that it is one of the most beautiful courses in the world. I don’t doubt it.
Another walking option, according to a park ranger, is a mountain loop: Go up the Dipsea to where the Steep Ravine Trail forks to the left; follow that up the eponymous ravine to the Pantoll Ranger Station and then bear left to take the Matt Davis Trail west, back down to Stinson Beach.
With the late sun dropping in the western sky, our afternoon walk ended with us reaching the beach just about the time when the sun kissed the sea.
Open mike night at Breakers is popular for its range of local musical talent. On our night, it had a silver-haired jazz guitarist and a teenage keyboard player. It’s also a good place to grab dinner. It may have been on this site that Garcia and friends in Old and in the Way had their first gig in the fall of 1972, according to local lore. (Or maybe not; it’s hard to say. Breakers opened in 2009 but its building started out as a market and gas station in the 1920s.) The next morning, it attracted a line for bagels outside. It’s just a pleasant place to say hi to people.
After another barefoot stroll in the sand, we set off in the morning fog on a misty drive back through the woods to the bedroom community of Larkspur for a gradual reentry to urban America. There, we grabbed an artisanal lunch including chanterelle-and-leek risotto at Farm House Local.
Even though it lasted less than 48 hours, that trip has returned to my thoughts a lot lately. After this election season, I’m thinking that a negative-ion cleanse could be the winning ticket.