Bay Model Visitor Center (credit: Randy Yagi)
As the rainy season diminishes and clearer weather beckons, Bay Area visitors and residents will spend more time sightseeing. While most visitors north of the Golden Gate are lured towards the beautiful California Wine Country, there’s a wealth of other regional attractions well worth visiting. With an impressive stand of old growth redwoods and a vast array of colorful wildflowers, spring is one of the best times of the year to enjoy the North Bay, and some outings don’t require a fee. Providing something to offer for everyone, the following five free tours afford a unique and memorable experience within the incomparable North Bay.
Sausalito, CA 94965
Less than a mile from downtown Sausalito, the Bay Model Visitor Center is an education center managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that’s described as “the only one of its kind in the world.” The Bay Model is a huge three-dimensional hydraulic model of the San Francisco Bay, San Pablo and Suisun Bays and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Measuring over 1.5 acres, the Bay Model can simulate tides and currents allowing visitors to become acquainted with the geography, topography, ecology and the human and natural history of the greater San Francisco Bay. Admission is free and ranger guided tours are available by reservation for students kindergarten through university level, with other ranger guided tours listed under the center’s Calendar of Events. Families with children may also be interested in visiting the Bay Area Discovery Museum two miles away at Fort Baker. There is a small admission fee but the property affords visitors an unforgettable view at the north base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Friends of Mount Tam
E. Ridgecrest Blvd.
Mill Valley, CA
This outstanding volunteer organization provides a number of events, informational programs and outings, in addition to staffing the East Peak Visitor Center at the top of Mount Tamalpais, the tallest peak in the Marin Hills and the historic Gravity Car Barn museum. Formerly known as the Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association, Friends of Mount Tam hosts interpretive hikes throughout the year and is open to the public. Sunday hikes offer visitors easy, moderate, faster or longer hikes and is recommended for beginner or intermediate hikers. Saturday morning hikes are more challenging, ranging from five to seven miles and up to 1,500 feet in elevation. While there is no obligation to become a member, the state park benefits greatly through volunteer work, membership fees and contributions.
Marine Mammal Center
2000 Bunker Road
Sausalito, CA 94965
The Marine Mammal Center is a non-profit organization whose mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release sick, injured or abandoned marine mammals. Located at Fort Cronkhite, a former U.S. military post within the breathtaking Marin Headlands, the road leading to the center is a popular spot for jaw-dropping views of the the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. The Marine Mammal Center houses a state-of-the-art animal care and research facility supported by donations and volunteers who assist in the rescue and care of marine mammals. Admission is free and visitors are welcome to explore the facility on their own, but groups of 10 or more must reserve a time for a self-guided visit. The Marine Mammal Center also holds a Marine Science Sunday twice a month providing a classroom series on Marine Mammal Parents and Pups. The free classroom programs complement docent-led tours for a nominal fee, but it’s not mandatory. Visitors may also be interested in visiting the admission-free Marin Headlands Visitor Center and Rodeo Beach at Fort Cronkhite.
Mill Valley, CA 94942
The Marin Audubon Society hosts a number of field trips to popular birding sites within Marin County, across from the Golden Gate Bridge. Field trips are open to the public and guests are asked to bring lunch, liquids, a field guide, binoculars and additional clothing if necessary. The length of the trip varies with each outing and individual meeting places and start times are carefully detailed online. Also of particular interest is the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Tiburon, where many of the Marin Audubon Society events take place. The public is welcome to explore the wildlife sanctuary six days a week. Visitors to Tiburon can also take a ferry to Angel Island State Park, with admission to the park included with the 10-minute boat ride.
55 Ridgeway Ave.
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
The Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club is a conglomeration of six local groups, four of which are based in the North Bay. Each month the North Bay groups host a number of outings open to visitors unless otherwise announced. A release of liability form is required to join any hike and each outing is rated in five degrees of difficulty from easy to very strenuous, length and elevation gain. Recent Sierra Club hikes included trips to Mount Tamalpais, Lake Berryessa and Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. The Sierra Club Redwood Chapter also lists “Non-Sierra Club Activities,” including a free “Saturday Saunter” with moderate walking in the Santa Rosa area.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.