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Spirits Of The Bay: Marshall’s Beach

Written by Gary Kamiya | Illustration by Paul Madonna

The Batteries to Bluffs Trail, which opened in 2007, is one of the great additions to the City in the past few decades. Created by staff and volunteers from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust, the 3,664-foot trail runs from the bluffs just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, weaves down a blue-green serpentinite hillside to Marshall’s Beach, and climbs back up to Battery Crosby, near the sand ladder to Baker Beach. More than 500 box steps made of pressure-treated wood were installed to make the trail, with materials delivered by helicopter to avoid damaging the sensitive surrounding habitat.

With its stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, Baker Beach and the Pacific Ocean, the Batteries to Bluffs Trail is a worthy complement to the equally dazzling, and much more heavily used, Lands End Trail a mile southwest.

Before the opening of the newer trail, Marshall’s Beach, the sublime little stretch of sand just past the rocks that form the northern end of Baker Beach, was the most secluded and remote of all the City’s beaches. It is now easily accessible to all. But as we shall see, the opening also had one unintended consequence for a subset of San Francisco’s population.

The Batteries to Bluffs Trail takes its name from several artillery emplacements nearby, part of a formidable array of batteries that the U.S. Army installed between the Civil War and World War II to guard the Golden Gate strait. (The largest guns, enormous 16-inch cannons capable of hurling a 2,100-pound shell 30 miles — beyond the Farallon Islands! — were mounted at Battery Davis, Fort Funston, Battery Townsley and Fort Cronkhite.) The two batteries that bookend the trail, Battery Godfrey and Battery Crosby, were both so-called Endicott-era installations, after the Endicott Board, which was convened by the U.S. government in 1885 to upgrade the nation’s outmoded harbor defenses. Battery Godfrey (1895), a few hundred yards north of the trail on the bluffs opposite Fort Winfield Scott, stands on higher ground than Battery Crosby and featured larger guns: three 12-inchers that could fire a 1,070- pound shell 10 miles. Battery Crosby (1900), which is actually on the trail just below its southern entrance, had a more specialized function. Its two 6-inch disappearing rifles, each with a range of 8 miles, were intended to defend the minefields outside the Golden Gate against minesweepers.

Like all the artillery emplacements that ringed the Golden Gate and the coastal heights, Battery Crosby was rendered useless by advances in military technology. It was closed in 1943, and its two 6-inch disappearing rifles were scrapped.

During the long era when big guns stood guard at the Golden Gate — and for more than 60 years afterward — little Marshall’s Beach, hundreds of feet below the top of the bluffs, was reachable only by semi-bushwhacking along a few informal trails that meandered down the hillside. The beach’s inaccessibility resulted in an outcome familiar to wanderers off the beaten track in cities around the world: It was a major gay cruising scene, similar to the hidden trails at Lands End. The beach, known as “Nasty Boys Beach” by the cognoscenti, was definitely X-rated: On one occasion, I walked around a boulder to discover that the era of the 6-inch disappearing rifles had not ended after all. However, the advent of the Batteries to Bluffs Trail spelled finis to this gay erotic Shangri-la.

The Batteries to Bluffs Trail has opened up a singularly spectacular corner of the City. Among its many wonders is the view depicted in Paul Madonna’s dramatic drawing. The massive boulders at the northern end of Marshall’s Beach are a stunning sight in their own right. The apparition of the twin towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising up behind them is one of the most dramatic views of the iconic landmark to be found anywhere — and worth braving a few hundred box steps for.

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