I'd been walking barefoot for more than a mile, heading north on a white beach below green hills, when I saw wild thrashing beyond the breakers. Something strong appeared to be fighting for its life. I thought of sharks and the fact that I would soon have to swim across a lagoon to continue my journey to the next inn for the night. Great whites hunt seals in the area; a surfer once got mauled nearby. But my fear of shark attacks wasn't as powerful as my amazement that sharks and bare feet and the need to swim could factor into overland foot travel – along with quality beer, fresh fish, and snug country inns – only 20 miles from downtown San Francisco.
I've been exploring West Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, all my life. But I've always done what the locals do: scoot out for a day hike or rent a beach house for a long weekend. So when an old ski buddy told me he'd once strolled for days on West Marin footpaths, drifting from town to town, I knew I had to give it a shot. Tourists do this in England, walking inn to inn, but I had never heard of anybody trying it in Marin. A closer look at a map showed me my friend was onto something: West Marin has precisely the right combination of farmland, parks, and villages for such a trip. There are plenty of campgrounds, too, but the secret here is to skip all those backpacker anxieties – weather, water, and mountain lions – and amble without worry. You can bodysurf or even nap in the woods if the mood strikes, knowing that there's a meal and a bed at the day's end, neither of which you have to carry.
The trip took almost no planning: Ferries leave San Francisco for the Marin town of Sausalito about every 90 minutes, and eight miles of trail walking out of Sausalito take me across the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to my first night's dinner and lodgings, in Muir Beach. Twelve miles of walking, on day two, gets me around Mount Tamalpais and up Stinson Beach to the town of Bolinas. Day three is longer – 18 miles through Point Reyes National Seashore – but it ends at yet another great hotel and restaurant in Olema. It turns out this simple itinerary has been hiding in plain sight, unrecognized by even lifelong locals.