The Point Bonita Lighthouse, just north of San Francisco in Marin County, is often referred to as a secret “Jewel of the Bay”. While you probably won’t find it on many “Best Of San Francisco Bay Area” lists and in fact, many locals don’t even know it exists, it is one of the most interesting and beautiful places in the Bay Area and was one of the highlights of our trip. The third lighthouse built on the West Coast, the Point Bonita Lighthouse has been guiding ships through the Golden Gate Straits for over 150 years.
To get to Point Bonita from San Francisco, make your way north over the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s toll-free in this direction!) and then follow the signs for Fort Baker/Marin Headlands Tunnel Route. You’ll drive through the 1-way Baker-Barry Tunnel (there’s a five-minute light, so wait for it to turn green) and then follow the signs for the Visitor Center.
You can check out the Visitor Center (housed in a historic military chapel) or continue on to the Point Bonita parking lot in roughly 3/4 mile. If the small parking lot is full, park along the road or in the larger Battery Alexander parking lot.
The foggy coastline with the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco behind it. The trail to the Point Bonita lighthouse offers great views of the coastline, the bay, and the city… assuming you can see through the fog.
The kids loved watching the harbor seals resting on the rocks and swimming around in the water.
As the fog lifted, we could finally see the beautiful San Francisco skyline behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
There was a storm brewing out over the Pacific in the other direction, and the kids had fun making up weather stories as we walked along the trail.
Summer weather in San Francisco can be quite chilly, especially when the wind kicks up. The kids were wishing they had jackets to wear even though the sun was so bright they could barely open their eyes which was definitely a mom fail on my part. Next time, we’ll wear layers! We love these Amazon Basics Packable Jackets when we’re traveling since they provide wind/rain protection and have their own carrying case.
Another attempt at a group photo (minus Ellie) but the combination of sun and wind still made it difficult. At least they’re smiling!
The half-mile hike to the Point Bonita lighthouse involves a partially steep and precarious trail, a tunnel, and a suspension bridge– so basically, it’s every kid’s dream trail!
The only way to get to the lighthouse is through this tunnel and currently, the tunnel is only open Sunday-Monday from 1230-330pm. The hours are so limited that we planned our entire San Francisco trip around them, so make sure to double-check that the tunnel will be open if you want to get all the way down to the lighthouse.
In 1876, the Chinese workers that built the transcontinental railroad tunnels in the Sierra Nevadas were brought in to hand carve a tunnel leading to the lighthouse. Because of the proximity to the San Andreas fault line, dynamite couldn’t be used and it took 6 months to carve the 118-foot tunnel by hand.
The kids absolutely loved going through the tunnel and it may have even been the highlight of the visit for a couple of them. They made their way through, dragging their hands along the rough, moss-covered walls, and we talked about how scary it must have been to build the tunnel.
With the population explosion from the Gold Rush in the 1850s, another lighthouse was needed in order to mark the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay and reduce the number of shipwrecks on the cliffs. The Point Bonita Lighthouse was originally built in 1855, on the highest hill in the area but that proved to be a devastating mistake.
On the east coast (where the lighthouse designers were from), lighthouses needed to be as tall as possible so that they could be seen over the fog. But in the San Francisco area, the fog often starts thirty feet above the ground and extends upwards of three hundred feet, meaning that the tall lighthouse could not be seen in the dense fog, and the shipwrecks continued.
In the 1870s the lighthouse was moved to lower ground where it sits today and it still guides ships into San Francisco Bay. The US Coast Guard is responsible for maintaining the lighthouse and the National Parks Service is responsible for visitor access since the lighthouse is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The Point Bonita Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in America that can ONLY be reached by a suspension bridge (and one that’s designed after the Golden Gate Bridge, at that). It was also the last manned lighthouse on the California coast!
The lighthouse still uses the original 1855 Fresnel lens in a three seconds on, one second off pattern so that it can be differentiated from other lighthouses in the area. An electric foghorn is now used, replacing the original warning cannon and steam siren, when the light is too difficult to see through the dense fog.
The Point Bonita Lighthouse helps to protect ships from crashing into the incredibly beautiful but incredibly dangerous cliffs of the Marin Headlands to the north of the lighthouse.
A redesigned bridge opened in 2012 and though it does sway and move a bit, it was designed to withstand the 100mph winds that commonly occur in the Bay area. The lighthouse itself can only accommodate 49 visitors at a time, so you may have to wait a bit on busy days. There’s always a ranger stationed at the entry that can answer any questions you have (our kids asked a ton!) and let you know when it’s safe to head across the bridge to explore the lighthouse.
The Point Bonita Lighthouse was one of our favorite Bay area stops and one that we’ll definitely repeat next time we’re in the San Francisco area. The hike to the lighthouse was fun and the lookouts were absolutely breathtaking- it definitely offers one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge in the area if you can make the trip on a clear afternoon.
Things to Remember For Point Bonita Lighthouse Visit
- The tunnel to the lighthouse is ONLY open on Sunday and Monday from 1230-330pm.
- Verify that the lighthouse is open in cases of inclement weather.
- Bring your own water– there is nowhere to purchase food/drink at Point Bonita. We love these water bottles when we’re hiking.
- Even if it’s warm in the city, it will be noticeably cooler in the Marin Headlands– wear layers!
What’s your favorite hidden gem in the Bay Area??
If you’re looking for more things to do in the San Francisco area, check out these posts:
- Things to Do In San Francisco With Kids
- Alcatraz Night Tour | San Francisco, CA
- The Walt Disney Family Museum | San Francisco, CA