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Hill 88

Started: 2016-09-04 16:08:44

Submitted: 2016-09-04 18:21:44

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator hikes to SF-88C in the Marin Headlands

In April I visited the Nike missile site SF-88 in the Marin Headlands, which boasts of being the only Nike launch site open for tours. The tour covered the launch site, designated SF-88L, but did not cover the command-and-control center on top of the neighboring hill, where the tracking radar and command facilities actually sat.

On the last Saturday in August, I drove into the Marin Headlands to hike in the hills rising from the ocean. I walked up the Coast Trail, past an old fort and the naval gun displayed in front of the fort, and turned inland to climb the ridge leading up to Hill 88.

Coast trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Coast trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Hlil 88 is the informal name for the top of the hill that was leveled out to form the command-and-control center for SF-88. (In Army Air Artillery parlance, it became SF-88C.)

At just under a thousand feet above sea level, Hill 88 gave a commanding view of the launch site across the valley. A low cloud cover hung over the bay, giving the sky a gray cast. The road leading up to the top of the hill narrowed as a chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, converged on the road as it led up to the guard station at the entry gate.

The entry gate was abandoned and cracked open, revealing a derelict guard station painted in an incongruously bright lime green. All of the buildings on the site were painted the same color. (I imagine this was an anti-graffiti effort by the Park Service, though the buildings were still covered in dramatic designs.)

Ruins at SF-88C
Ruins at SF-88C

All of the military hardware had been removed when the site was decommissioned in the 1970s, but the buildings and antenna pylons remained. I couldn't obviously identify most of the concrete block buildings; one appeared to hold the fittings for a generator, and there was a barracks down a set of stairs on the far side of the hill.

Abandoned circuit breaker at SF-88C
Abandoned circuit breaker at SF-88C

I was especially interested in the antenna pylons, built out of reinforced concrete. According to the pictures I saw in the visitor's center, they originally held large domes protecting the tracking radar antennas -- one radar to track the attacking bombers, and another radar to track and guide the missile fired at them.

Ruins at SF-88C
Ruins at SF-88C

In the valley below I could see the Nike Hercules missile raised into firing position on its launch pad, as part of the missile site's tours -- and behind it the Golden Gate and the city of San Francisco, protected against Soviet bombers by the Nike launch site.

Nike missile site SF-88L, the Golden Gate, and Ocean Beach
Nike missile site SF-88L, the Golden Gate, and Ocean Beach

I was struck by the mundane concrete block construction -- unlike the older artillery installations littering the coast, there was no real attempt to armor any of the buildings because there was no practical way they could be armored against a nuclear attack. This site seemed current in a way that the other artillery installations weren't -- while this site was decommissioned before I was born, the Cold War was very much underway when I was born and for the first ten years of my life.

Golden hills in the Marin Headlands
Golden hills in the Marin Headlands

I continued my circuit around Hill 88, descending the hillsides covered in dead grass in the color that Californians charmingly call "golden". I'm pleased I found this wild oasis next to San Francisco -- and I'm still amazed I can drive across the Golden Gate Bridge on a whim to get there.

I've always thought someone could make a killing by selling the
"for dummies" books for $200 a piece using infomercials! :-)
- Yanthor, on Content Solutions chatter, 17 December 2001