There’s a tendency to divide Marin County into clusters: north (Novato), south (Sausalito, Mill Valley, Belvedere-Tiburon), central (San Rafael, Larkspur, Ross, San Anselmo, Fairfax), and west (Stinson, Bolinas, Point Reyes). But that neat division omits an important part of the Marin community: the San Geronimo Valley.
San Geronimo straddles Sir Francis Drake Boulevard for ten miles, extending from the town of Fairfax to West Marin. However, defining San Geronimo Valley by what you can see from Sir Francis Drake doesn’t do justice to the area—or to yourself. There are hikes, hideaways and hangouts no Marin resident or visitor should miss out on.
First, the obvious: that blanket of gorgeous green on both sides of the highway is the very public, very beautiful, 18-hole San Geronimo Golf Course. And its beauty is more than skin deep. “Creeks running through our course are protected spawning grounds for both coho and steelhead salmon,” says Chris Bright, tournament director for the facility, “so in these areas you can’t shag errant balls.” Bright also warns of nearby low-flying hawks, turkey vultures and “numerous bobcat families that are out there.”
Next, the less-than-obvious: only a small carved highway sign tells you when you’ve reached Spirit Rock Meditation Center, a 412-acre mecca of compassion and mindfulness whose classes and lectures attract adherents from around the world. “You’d never knowing from driving by—or being nearby for that matter,” says noted author Phillip Moffitt, a meditation teacher there, “but considerable energy is being expended at Spirit Rock, as people are trying to ease their suffering, and in turn, ease the suffering of others.”
San Geronimo Valley also has less cosmic attractions. “For my money, there isn’t a better place to eat in all of Marin than Stella Cucina in Lagunitas,” says Bill Howard, a San Francisco asset manager and San Geronimo resident. The ten-table restaurant, tucked in next to Lagunitas Grocery on Sir Francis Drake, offers dishes made with organic ingredients from local purveyors.
For a pre- or post-dinner libation, it’s doubtful there’s a more authentic dirt-kicking dive bar anywhere in Marin than the Papermill Creek Saloon in nearby Forest Knolls (don’t look for a phone number, it’s not listed). Two pool tables, a wavy wooden floor, a brightly lit jukebox (everything from Nat King Cole to Aerosmith), the compulsory nude oil painting (titled Pandora’s Box), a wood-burning stove and an upright piano are high points of its decor. “Wines are four dollars a glass,” says Debbie, the congenial gray-haired barkeep. “Martinis run between four bucks and five-fifty, depending on what you want.” Papermill patrons of the past included Janis Joplin and various members of the Hells Angels. Present patrons (and periodic performers) include blues singer/guitarist Elvin Bishop and Harold Jones, a jazz drummer who tours with Natalie Cole and Tony Bennett.
Other San Geronimo Valley not-to-miss locales are Roy’s Redwoods, a 377-acre grove of bay and redwood trees that’s laced with scenic trails (George Lucas’s Ewok Adventure was filmed there); Dickson Ranch, a riding school and stables off San Geronimo Valley Road; the Two Bird Café at the Valley Inn, a nice place to dine on a deck overlooking a creek or inside by a roaring fire, then stay for the night in one of four cozy rooms; and Woodacre Market and Deli and the aforementioned Lagunitas Grocery, both offering delicious salads and sandwiches and with the same owners as Hanna’s in San Rafael.
Real estate in these parts has a pastoral flavor. “A nice two- or three-bedroom, two-bath home on a half-acre parcel sells in the $800,000 range,” says Michelle Cline of Prudential California’s Woodacre office. Wanting something bigger? “No problem,” says Cline. “We have beautiful larger properties, along Railroad Avenue for example, that sells for well over a million.” The current record-holder is a three-story multiroom estate on 3.1 acres that recently sold for $2.8 million. “It was maybe a hundred years old, was once a boys’ school, and had been beautifully restored,” Cline says. “Someone in the film industry purchased it.”
The San Geronimo Valley, an often-overlooked Marin County enclave, rather silently offers something for everyone: golfers, hikers, diners, drinkers, horseback riders and, with Spirit Rock, those inclined to think deeply.