We couldn’t believe how fast the drive over to Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands was! It only took us about 30 minutes to reach the Point Bonita Lighthouse and Battery Mendell parking area from San Francisco, which meant we had extra time to do some more exploring.
After hiking down to the Point Bonita Lighthouse and back, we followed the short 0.1 mile trail over to the old, abandoned Battery Mendell fortification.
Battery Mendell, sitting high on the cliffs above Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands, was the first of five batteries built at Fort Barry, which also included Battery Alexander, Battery Smith-Guthrie, Battery Samuel Bathbone, and Battery Patrick O’Rorke. Battery Wallace was built several years later, followed by Antiaircraft Battery No. 2 and Battery 129.
What’s amazing is that all of the old bunkers, abandoned buildings and lookouts, and historic military fortifications are open to the public for free with trails and picnic areas to enjoy. While many structures are covered in graffiti on both the outside and inside, the main green Battery Mendell building was fairly clean on the outside with the majority of the graffiti visible only by peeking in the windows.
Almost the entire first floor was gated, sealed, and closed to visitors, so we headed up one of the concrete staircases to the second floor, where we found another staircase that lead to a lookout tower, staircases to the cliff trails above the battery, and the huge circular emplacements for the giant guns.
History Of Battery Mendell
Part of the Harbor Defense of San Francisco, Battery Mendell was a reinforced concrete, Endicott Period coastal gun battery that was in operation from 1905-1943. Endicott-style batteries were built with concrete, partially buried, and hidden in the hills and natural landscape and hills. Ammunition rooms and enclosed battery commander stations were built underground for protection. There was however, no roof because an attack from the sky wasn’t considered a threat at the time.
Construction of Battery Mendell at Fort Barry began atop the stunning Marin Headlands cliffs in 1901, and in 1902 it was named for Colonel George H. Mendell, Corps of Engineers. Mendell was involved in the planning and design of military structures and supervised most of the early Endicott fortifications that protected San Francisco Bay.
In 1905 the battery was was transferred to the Coast Artillery and the giant loading rifles arrived. The two 12-inch guns, mounted on disappearing carriages, were prepared to fire 1,100 pound artillery shells more than eight miles away. Located behind concrete parapets buried by land and mounds of dirt, the guns rose up above the wall to fire a single shot then dropped back down out of sight so soldiers could reload ammunition.
While many of the coastal defense guns were removed during Word War I to be mounted on mobile carriages and sent to Europe, the guns at Battery Mendell remained intact.
During World War II, the battery received an upgrade. Anti-aircraft guns were added and camouflaged nets were stretched across the top to keep it hidden. Then in 1943, when the casemating of nearby Battery Wallace was was completed, Battery Mendell was decommissioned. Battery Wallace was originally an open air battery like Battery Mendell, but when the threat of aerial attacks became a reality, a “roof” was constructed with steel reinforced concrete and covered with earth and natural vegetation.
After that, the guns were removed, the carriages were scrapped, and Battery Mendell was abandoned. Over time the old army fortification fell into disrepair. The steel rusted and corroded, the aged concrete cracked and began to crumble, and the graffiti began to grace the walls.
Today Battery Mendell at Fort Barry is part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area (GGNRA) administered by the National Park Service. To preserve the historic battery and maintain safety for area visitors who come to hike, explore the buildings, and take in the incredible views of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, the National Park Service performed repairs on the Battery over several years.
While the guns are no longer in place, you can visit the battery site, explore the old buildings, ammunition rooms, and underground bunkers, and hike along the cliff trails in the area taking in the spectacular vistas.
World War II Lookout
After exploring the graffiti-covered, dilapidated old ruins of Battery Mendell, we set out on foot, following a trail left from the top of the Battery Mendell building. The narrow dirt trail, hugging the edge of the steep, windy Marin Headlands cliffs was a bit more risky that I would have liked, but the short hike was absolutely worth it.
We first reached an abandoned, concrete, two-story Word War II lookout post on the top of the cliffs at Point Bonita. We would safety walk inside this one and the bold colors of the paint made it a great place to snap a few quick photos.
The trail then continued a bit further, passing more abandoned military buildings and lookouts also covered in graffiti. Standing at the edge of the cliffs, we could see the Point Bonita Lighthouse and the Golden Gate Bridge to the left and Bird Island and the rocky Marin Headlands coast to the right.
While the view was absolutely stunning, we didn’t stay long because the wind was ripping over the cliffs, it was getting really cold, we were hungry, and we had the Dark Star Orchestra concert to get ready for that night! We had also already climbed the Lyon Street Steps, explored Crissy Field, and toured Fort Point. After a picnic lunch, we checked out the acoustic Wave Organ, wandered through the Palace Of Fine Arts, and hiked out to the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
Bird Island Overlook
Following the clifftop trail from the top of Battery Mendell in the opposite direction is a much safer bet — a railing stands between the trail and steep Northern California cliffs. This trail leads past abandoned Battery Mendell base end stations on the way to the Bird Island Overlook. From the overlook you can also see the blinking light of the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
Separated from the mainland, Bird Island, also called Bird Rock, is a popular resting spot for seabirds like the endangered brown pelicans. The roughly two-acre island is protected from predators and covered in guano (poop) from it’s inhabitants.
Know Before You Go
- Battery Mendell, part of Fort Barry in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is located on Mendell Road in Northwest Marin, California 94950.
- Open daily, all day with free admission.
- Restrooms are located by the parking lots for the Visitor Center and Battery Mendell.
- Download the self-guided Fort Barry history tour and learn about the military history of the fort and its batteries.
- Pack water, food, and snacks because there are no restaurants or food services in the Marin Headlands.
- Trails lead away from the top of Battery Mendell, following the cliffs in both directions. One way takes you past abandoned army lookout towers to a vista point of Point Bonita Lighthouse and the other takes you to the Bird Island Overlook.
- San Francisco MUNI Line 76x Marin Headlands Express serves major sites in the Marin Headlands on Saturdays, Sundays, and most holidays.
- Fort Baker, Fort Barry, and Fort Cronkhite together make up a historic district that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.