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Day-tripping to the Marin Headlands the Marine Mammal Center


By Patricia Arrigoni

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — Driving north from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, take the first right to arrive at a Roadside Ecological Viewing Area called Vista Point that affords spectacular views of the City by the Bay. Below, the San Francisco Bay is dotted with sailboats, motor yachts, heavy tankers and cruise ships. Beyond is the panorama of the San Francisco skyline, the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, Alcatraz Island, the cities of the East Bay, the Marin shoreline and headlands, and Angel Island.

The headlands, which were once military installations, contain Forts Barry, Baker and Cronkhite. These old forts consist of coastal hills, valleys, steep cliffs and uninhabited shorelines. Once a strategic part of the U.S. coastal defense system, this area is now the heart of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Visitors can explore the remains of the military bunkers that once housed large coastal guns set up in defense of the Golden Gate from 1870 through World War II. Today cracks appear, weeds grow, iron rusts and cement crumbles, though wildflowers carpet the hills in a rainbow of color each spring.

Leaving Vista Point, take Highway 101 north to the Alexander Avenue exit, bear right toward the town of Sausalito, then take the first left to a one-lane tunnel following Golden Gate National Recreation Area-Marin Headland signs. When the light turns green, drive through the tunnel and follow the main road to the Marine Mammal Center's newly rebuilt $32 million facility at 2000 Bunker Road, Fort Cronkhite.

Founded in 1975 by Lloyd Smalley, Paul Maxwell and this author, the center has become one of the world's leading rescue and research hospitals with field operations in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Mendocino counties in California.

This is a unique rehabilitation hospital for seals and sea lions as well as an educational research center that is open to the public. It is located in a former NIKE missile site in Fort Cronkhite with spectacular views of Rodeo Beach, Bird Island and the Pacific Ocean, and is federally and state licensed to rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured marine mammals. It also provides education, conducts research into marine mammal health, maintains a marine mammal tissue bank and publishes its findings in scientific journals.

The center services an area covering 600 miles of California coastline. On average, volunteers pick up approximately 600 orphaned and injured marine mammals each year and transport them to the Sausalito hospital to be nursed back to health. The goal is to release them back into the ocean after they are well.

The Marine Mammal Center, which is primarily supported by private donations, a small staff and more than 800 volunteers, was in 1989 named one of the 18 national winners of the President's Volunteer Action Awards. Volunteers also helped with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 and other oil spills along the coast of California. When sea lions appeared by the hundreds on Pier 39 in San Francisco, the Marine Mammal Center set up a sea lion natural history program at the pier and later a store with exhibits and merchandise.

Today visitors enjoy seeing live marine mammal patients at the Marine Mammal Center in Fort Cronkhite from an upper viewing level at the back of the animal care building, a green facility powered by solar panels with radiant floor heating, recycled steel and sustainable certified wood.

Executive Director Jeff Boehm says he is thrilled to have the facilities open again after nearly four years of rebuilding and believes the new facility will help inspire the public to care about marine mammals.

The marine mammals the center rescues and treats include elephant seals, harbor seals, California sea lions, fur seals, Steller sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and occasionally sea otters.

Visitors who want to learn first-hand about the work of the center can easily do so by peering into large windows in viewing areas to watch patient food preparation in the "fish kitchen," science lab work and post mortems. Visitors on the upper viewing area can see the animals fed between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Other parts of the center they can view include interpretive exhibits and the classroom inside the community education building as well as the gift store. There are also some spectacular art sculptures scattered through the facilities.

The Marine Mammal Center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is free.

While in the Marin Headlands, visitors can also take a stroll on Rodeo Beach, visit the NIKE Missile Museum, the Point Bonita Lighthouse, the Marin Headlands Visitors Center and the Bay Area Discovery Museum.


The Marin Headlands are just north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge and make an excellent one-day outing.

The Marine Mammal Center, 2000 Bunker Road, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA, 94965; 415-289-SEAL (7335),

Where to stay:

The Marin Headlands Hostel in Fort Barry can be reached by turning uphill on Field off Bunker Road, Building 941, Fort Barry, Sausalito, CA, 94965; 415-331-2777;, Prices start at $24 per night. This authorized concessionaire of the National Park Service is located in two historic 1907 buildings and offers private and bath-shared rooms, kitchens, laundry and free parking. Great views of Rodeo Lagoon and Beach plus the Pacific Ocean.

Cavello Point Hotel, Marin Headlands, 601 Murray Circle, Fort Baker, Sausalito, CA, 94965; 415-339-4700; Hotel buildings surround grassy parade grounds of historic Fort Baker military post. Sixty-eight historic and 74 contemporary accommodations. Historic two-bedrooms suites are a roomy 836 square feet. A double for both contemporary or historic accommodations starts at $240, and a AAA discount is available.

Where to eat:

Murray Circle at Cavello Point Hotel and the Farley Bar. Other restaurants and hotels are located in the nearby seaside town of Sausalito.

A California sea lion named Fruitvale frolics in one of the new pools at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands. Photo courtesy of the Marine Mammal Center. (end caption3)

Patricia Arrigoni is a freelance travel writer and author of "Making the Most of Marin" and "Harpo, the Baby Seal." To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



1 Comments | Post Comment
The Marine Mammal Center is truly one of the most extrodianry places. I volunteered there for three years on the Saturday night crew from 1992 to 1994. The work done there is amazing and rewarding. I went back to visit after the center was renovated and it brought tears to my eyes. There were no more plastic kiddie pools and temporary chain link fences in the parking lot for the overflow of animals during the heart of pupping season! Seeing the new center was like watching your child mature into a graceful, beautiful adult. I think it represents that one person (or in this case 3 people) truly can change the world and that people really do have goodness in their heart. There is no other way to explain the why so many people would volunteer so much of their time and donate the amount of money they have to this organization.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Tonia Harrington
Wed Aug 1, 2012 11:37 AM
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