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Monday, 01 May 2006

Bolinas, California

Written by Richard Martin
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bolinas imageIf you’re driving down Highway One north of San Francisco don’t look for the road sign to Bolinas, CA, because this quirky coastal hamlet is the only California municipality without a sign to lead you from the highway to the city limits.


There used to be a sign that said “Bolinas, 2 miles”-- many of them in fact, but each of the signs put up in the last 20 years has enigmatically disappeared—the longest-standing sign lasting only 36 hours. Residents refer to their town as “The Republic of Bolinas,” and have torn down the signs marking the turnoff so often that the highway department finally gave up erecting new ones.


Bolinas, an unincorporated town of 2,500 located 30 miles north of San Francisco at the southernmost tip of the Point Reyes National Seashore, is surrounded by ocean and well-preserved parkland. Known for its ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude, this spirited community of environmentalists, poets, surfers, artists, writers, and aging individualists doesn't have a mayor or a city hall. Its colorful population, along with its breathtaking scenery, rare wildlife, easy-to-surf waves, handful of good restaurants and art galleries make Bolinas a perfect destination for weekenders to experience one of California’s most culturally unique communities.


bolinas imageBolinas has a rich history as a counter-culture enclave. Residents have included such bohemian luminaries as the Jefferson Airplane and poets Lawrence Ferlenghetti and Richard Brautigan. But in recent years, there has been a clash of hippie van and BMW cultures. Artists and musicians have had to make room for well-to-do San Franciscans fleeing the city, as well as more mainstream celebrities like Martha Stewart or Susie Tompkins Buell (the founder of the Esprit Corporation).


Bolinas is perched on a peninsula formed at the point where the mouth of the Bolinas Lagoon meets the Pacific Ocean. The town is divided into two neighborhoods: a residential area called, “La Mesa,” which looks over the sea and a “downtown Bolinas.” Homes on La Mesa run the gamut of architectural styles and it’s worth taking a drive through the neighborhood to see the huge Tudor-style residences and rancheros, geodesic domes and even mobile homes. Along the way, stop to snack on wild blueberries growing along La Mesa’s unpaved roads.


Downtown Bolinas sits on a horseshoe shaped road that curves past a handful of restaurants and shops, ending at the beachfront and wharf at the Bolinas Lagoon. A walk down Wharf Road offers a look at some of the town’s old Victorians, remnants of the burg's days as a summer colony for San Franciscans in the late 1880s. The downtown area is also home to Smiley's Schooner Saloon, a relic of the days from 1849 to 1933, when sailing schooners hauled lumber and dairy products from Bolinas to San Francisco and returned with food staples and farm supplies. Established in 1851, Smiley’s predates San Francisco’s North Beach tavern, “The Saloon” (1865) as California’s oldest established watering hole. These days, Smiley's serves food as well as drinks, and boasts a “simple but elegant” hotel for $69 to $89 a night. Step over the large but friendly dog that guards the door of Smiley’s, and head for the jukebox to play “Bolinas” by John Stewart. This 1990 ode to the town begins with the lyrics:


Time in Bolinas is so very small

The clock on the courthouse ain’t workin’ at all

And the Mayor of Bolinas is digging for clams

But the folks of Bolinas

They don’t give a damn.



Across the street from Smiley’s is the Coast Cafe where one can enjoy a hearty brunch under an historic display of surfboards hanging from the ceiling. Every weekend, barbecued oysters from nearby Tomales Bay are available on the patio of the Coast Café.


The Blue Heron Inn and Restaurant is the town’s four-star eatery, housed in a Victorian home with lovely gardens in the heart of downtown. The changing menu features local produce, meat, and fish, and even local wine from Bolinas winemaker Sean Thackrey, made less than a mile up the road.


The Bolinas Museum at 59 Wharf Road ( is housed in five small rooms clustered around a brick courtyard that is also home to the Bolinas Gallery and several artisans’ shops. The Museum features changing exhibits by local painters and photographers as well as a permanent collection that includes Miwok artifacts and other memorabilia from Bolinas' colorful past. Downtown Bolinas is rounded out by one of the few remaining gas stations on the West Marin coast, a liquor store housed in an 1890’s barn, and several bed-and-breakfast inns.


The Bolinas Library, the Bolinas Community Center, and the Whole Earth Natural Foods Store constitute a kind of town square that is the hub for Bolinas’ active counter-culture community. Here, enjoy the street musicians serenades while you lunch on delicious organically-grown local delicacies and peruse the unique arts and crafts sold by street vendors. Leave an old sweatshirt at the ‘Free Box’ behind the Community Center, where anyone who wishes to can take selections from the donated clothing. Or, in front of the library, take part in one of the heated political debates that always seem to be in full swing.


ImageBolinas’ Brighton Beach is easily accessible at the ends of Wharf Road and Brighton Avenue in downtown Bolinas. Strolling along the shoreline, don’t miss the harbor seals that frolic in the waves with surfers and kayakers, and comb the shore for a wide variety of collectable shells that dot the sand. Don’t be surprised if you feel compelled to express yourself artistically by adding a thoughtful contribution to the magnificent giant driftwood sculpture that stands at North end of the beach.


Because of Bolinas' unique coastal position, the surf is protected from the winds and huge swells that make other beaches in Northern California too dangerous for beginners. In recent years, Bolinas has been discovered as one of the very best surf spots for beginning and intermediate surfers, and Bolinas has turned into a surf town. Most of the surfers in here are beginners themselves so everyone is accepting and helpful.



imageDespite its populatriy with surfers, if you’re planning to go in the water, keep in mind that the mouth of Bolinas Lagoon constitutes the northernmost tip of California’s “Bloody Triangle,” where the vast majority of the Golden State’s shark attacks have taken place. From Bolinas to Santa Cruz, sharks that sup on the many harbor seals that habituate the area have been known to confuse surfers with food. While shark attacks are rare, they have happened; California’s most recent attack occurred at the mouth of the Bolinas Lagoon in 2001 when a Great White bit a surfer. His surfboard was destroyed, but the surfer survived the attack with only a scar. Nevertheless, if you can brave the 56-degree water and your fear of 18-inch incisors, you will likely find some small and slow-moving waves reminiscent of Waikiki Beach that are easy and fun to ride. Lessons, surfboards and kayaks as well as critical accoutrements like wetsuits and boots, may be rented Monday through Friday 10am - 6pm, at the 2 Mile Surf Shop (415-868-0264,


But don't spend the whole day in town—some of Bolinas's best assets are the surrounding natural attractions. Drive west on Mesa Road and wind through eucalyptus trees, magnificent views, and windy bluffs to the Point Reyes National Seashore. Where the pavement ends, there is a parking lot that serves as a nexus for several hiking trails. One that is easy but rewarding is the three-mile Coast Trail to the beautiful and surprisingly warm Bass Lake. If you'd rather hike up along the ridge for views of Point Reyes National Seashore and the ocean beyond, trek along the Ridge Trail, 16 miles long, culminating at Glen Camp. Because this national park has some of the best bird watching opportunities in the nation, don’t forget to stop at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (999 Mesa Road).


Environmental activism and extremism, have been a staple of Bolinas history since the Audubon Canyon Ranch was founded in 1962 to save the heron and egret-nesting colony at the Bolinas Lagoon from developers. The Bolinas Lagoon Preserve, which you will pass on your way into town, supports a major heronry of Great Blue Herons and Great and Snowy Egrets. The egrets and herons nesting at Bolinas Lagoon are the main attraction of this preserve, but you can also find black-tail deer, bobcat, badger, gray fox, raccoon, brush rabbit, meadow mouse, as well as numerous land birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The Preserve's frontage along Bolinas Lagoon also brings more than 60 species of water and shore birds into view—from sandpipers to osprey to pelicans—as well as some of the resident harbor seals sunbathing on sand spits.


Whether a weekend getaway or just a day’s sojourn from city life, a trip to Bolinas provides memories to treasure and stories to tell. But remember--if you’re looking for the road sign to Bolinas, you’ll have to look in the Bolinas Museum; there aren’t any on the highway…




Who should go :


Hikers, surfers (novice or otherwise), environmentalists, motorists, shell-collectors, beachcombers, art collectors and enthusiasts of 60s counter-culture movements.


Where to stay :


Bolinas Bed & Breakfast

11 Wharf Road

Bolinas, CA 94924

(415 868-1102)


Dog's Inn On The Mesa

20 Mesa Rd

Bolinas, CA 94924



Grand Hotel

15 Brighton Ave

Bolinas, CA 94924



Smiley's Schooner Saloon and Hotel

41 Wharf Road

Bolinas, CA 94924



Where to eat :


Blue Heron Inn

"Wonderful Local Food"

Dinner: Thursday to Sunday, 5:30 - 9:30

11 Wharf Road, Bolinas, CA 94924

Reservations only: 415 868-1102


Coast Café

"Local Seafood and Organic Produce" Open for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner Sunday to Thursday: 7:30 am - 2 pm, 5:30 - 8 pm

Friday and Saturday: 7:30 am - 3 pm, 5:30 - 9 pm

46 Wharf Road, Bolinas, CA 94924

415 868-2298


How to get there:


Bolinas is about 30 miles north of San Francisco. Take State 1 north past Stinson Beach and around the Bolinas Lagoon. Just before the highway starts to climb, turn left on Olema-Bolinas Rd. (look carefully; remember the street sign is missing) and follow it about 2 miles to downtown.


Sources Cited:


John Stewart The Lonesome Picker Rides Again “Bolinas.”

New York Times “Welcome to Bolinas, now leave…”

The Bolinas Museum: ( “History of Bolinas”

Bolinas Foundation News: “River Otters Visit the Bolinas Lagoon”

Website of the County of Marin CA ( demographic, historical and legislative information.

Personal Interviews: “Raven,” Mike Parrish and Steven Thackery



©Richard Martin

Pictures ©Leslie Levitas



Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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