To reach the compact, almost unseemly natural bounty that is Stinson Beach, California, you take a serpentine route across Marin County, on Highway 1, past the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument, over the glistening rock and chaparral and coastal scrub of Mount Tamalpais. The Mill Valley and Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railroad, long defunct, is said to have incorporated 281 “hairpin curves” on its eight-mile trek to the summit. Highway 1 seems to have at least as many. The road features periodic turnoffs for slow-moving vehicles, including county buses, along with frequent signs encouraging their use once a backup reaches precisely five vehicles. The regulation, like the unrelenting beauty, is quintessentially Californian.
No one drives fast here. First, because you can’t. Second, because who would want to? Sun or shade dominates alternating curves. Hiking trails shoot off in every direction. On the downward slope of the mountain, heading west, you get your first, faint, whiff of sea air. When you reach the driveway to enter the overlook for Muir Beach, in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the third national or state parkland you traverse on this short drive, you’d best take it. From the parking lot, you can walk a path to the edge of the cliffs, where a panorama of raw power awaits. You can’t see Stinson Beach from here; it’s hidden by the cliffs to the north. But if you follow the mountain down you will reach the source of Stinson’s beauty, and of its eventual demise: the Pacific Ocean.