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."Oh, my God!" said a silver-haired woman I met on the trail some three miles from Muir Beach, when I told her and her husband what I was up to. "We walk inn to inn every year in England! We had no idea you could do that here! Who's your travel company?"

She was referring, I knew, to the travel companies that make hotel reservations and even shuttle your luggage between accommodations for inn-to-inn walking in France and England.

Honestly, I just booked a few rooms and started walking. I wasn't carrying much – a warm layer, a rain shell, a few pairs of underwear and socks – so I didn't really need a luggage transfer. I later found a book called Walkabout Northern California, with itineraries. But the makeup of West Marin County makes such planning unnecessary. The route runs through Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Mount Tamalpais State Park, and Point Reyes National Seashore (set aside in 1962 to protect the area from pending development). Throughout, there are small pockets of villages and private land that were preserved – mostly maritime towns at the time – and now house tourists, weekenders, surfers, and a smattering of leftover hippies. Places like Muir Beach, my first destination. In this town of 300, you can find Pelican Inn, a replica of a 16th-century English country lodging, built by a well-off Brit out of Silicon Valley. After a long day on the ferry and the trail, I took a hot shower, put on clean clothes, and sidled up near the fire, ordering Pacific-cod fish-and-chips and a Pelican Pale Ale, custom-brewed for the inn by Lagunitas Brewing Company, just 35 miles away.

I ate a British breakfast the next morning at the Pelican – bangers, oatmeal, coffee – and was on the trail by 8:30 am, climbing steep hillsides among 250-foot-tall, thousand-year-old redwoods. I crested Mount Tamalpais at noon, with vast ocean views. I descended into Stinson Beach, a quaint surf town, for lunch at a burger-and-ice-cream stand next to the bookstore and surf shop. Putting my shoes into my pack, I stepped off the streets and onto the sand, walking north toward Bolinas. I was about halfway up the beach when I saw all that splashing beyond the breakers, making me think of sharks. As I got closer, I saw that it was actually dolphins jumping.

Stinson Beach ends where the big Bolinas Lagoon, home to seals and seabirds, cuts an opening in the sand, flowing in and out with the tide. When I arrived, the tide happened to be dropping, and a 10-knot current ran across the lagoon mouth like a river. Seals bobbed up and down, searching for salmon, and I saw a little fishing boat beached on the opposite shore, below a cliff. I could have walked seven miles on road around the back of the lagoon – but I had a dry bag and, as a longtime surfer, a tolerance for cold water, so I decided to swim. I stripped to my board shorts, stuffed my belongings into the dry bag, and jumped in. On the other side, I walked dripping wet for one village block to my next lodging. Bolinas was one of the great counter-cultural incubators in the 1960s, and it's still just a cluster of artsy old cottages on a dead-end country road. Wealthy weekending San Franciscans have squeezed the old-time hippie culture, but it's still the kind of town where you can feel perfectly comfortable wandering wet and bedraggled out of the sea, past Smiley's Schooner Saloon, and up to the natural foods store to score a banana. I'd booked a room at the Grand Hotel, which turned out to be an old junk shop with two attic rooms for rent. So it was time for a shower and a big halibut dinner at the nearby Coast Cafe, and another Lagunitas.

Day three included five straight miles on deserted beaches littered with abalone shells; swimming in freshwater lakes; and a dinner of local king salmon in Olema. I could easily have woken up the next morning and wandered still more trails and swum yet another lagoon en route to the little town of Inverness – maybe stopping at an oyster farm for lunch, or a local butcher for grass-fed steaks pastured miles away. Given enough time, I could have looped through Mount Tamalpais State Park clear back to the ferry without repeating a hotel or more than a few miles of trail. Instead, I took a taxi down Route 1 and back to the ferry.