By Ali Wunderman
It might not appear on Google maps, but Druid Heights in Mill Valley holds a permanent place in the establishment of San Francisco’s legacy. Though only a handful of precarious structures and whispers of long-silenced musical gatherings remain, for over three decades, Druid Heights was the ultimate getaway from The City, one that deserves due credit for the progressive, artistic identity the region enjoys today.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin, I was in my 30s before I learned about Druid Heights’ existence. Like most millennials, an internet wormhole enlightened me. After devouring several books by writer and philosopher Alan Watts, I searched his background, only to discover that he lived and died in my very own county before I was born.
But where was Druid Heights, this mysteriously magical place mentioned on his Wikipedia page? I dug deeper.
Co-founded by out-of-the-closet lesbian poet and anarchist Elsa Gidlow in 1954, Druid Heights was created as an “unintentional community,” as she called it. A redwood-filled respite from the growing American emphasis on commercialism, conformity and conservative values.
Located near Muir Woods National Monument, the five-acre haven was dotted with buildings evoking Japanese architecture, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and nature itself (thanks to the influence of its fellow cofounder, the carpenter Roger Somers). The space welcomed all kinds of countercultural residents and visitors, like famous Beatniks Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Together, not only did they share ideas, but they had the chance to simply exist in a world that denied them the freedom to be open about their sexualitiy, politics or other factors that made them social outliers.
Druid Heights evolved and grew through the hippie movement of the 1960s and women’s liberation in the 1970s. Scores of famous artists, writers, craftspeople, musicians and other creative spirits passed through the doors of The Goddess Meditation Hut, walked along Gidlow’s lavish organic garden, and rifled through books in the Alan Watts library. Bill Graham, Lily Tomlin, Louis Armstrong and Ram Dass are only a handful of luminaries who retreated to Druid Heights over the decades.
Nonconformists were drawn to Druid Heights because it served as what any good travel destination should be: an escape. “When you arrived, you were no longer in Mill Valley; you were in the woods,” recalls Chris Howell, who lived at Druid Heights between 1974 and 1978. “Beautiful, idyllic and intensely real.” Howell gives due credit to Watts for this level of communal introspection, but does not discount a natural energy from the earth he felt there.
The Mill Valley Historical Society refers to Druid Heights as “a vortex of social and artistic energy that bloomed out of nowhere,” particularly evoked through music. “Music was deeply woven in the fabric of the community,” remembers Howell. “Roger, when not in his shop or on his daily run up the dirt road to Frank’s Valley, could be heard playing frantic bebop on his tenor saxophone.”
Howell himself played with several bands, including a waterfront reggae group called Big White and The Ivories. “The music room beneath Roger’s shop was the scene of countless, transformational sessions, perhaps the Temple Mount for much of Roger’s creative brilliance,” he adds.
By the time I was being educated in the 1990s, Druid Heights had long since lost its relevance. Gidlow died in 1986, and the gatherings began to dwindle. Though some folks still live there today, and a few structures still stand, the National Park Service currently owns the land and shows little drive to preserve it.
Though the heyday is decades in the past — and its future remains uncertain — its impact as a formative local travel destination for the most notable creative minds in San Francisco endures. More than 1,300 people are in a Facebook group dedicated to saving Druid Heights, an effort spearheaded by local carpenter and craftsman Michael Toivonen.
Toivonen believes Marin County’s history should be preserved beyond the scope of military forts and island prisons, and that doing so wouldn’t necessitate reviving Druid Heights in its full glory. “Reenactment isn’t going to happen,” he says. “But its legacy could inspire art.”
Indeed, it may feel like San Francisco and Marin transform into something new every day, but not even a particularly strong earthquake could shake the cultural foundation laid at Druid Heights.
Ali Wunderman is a fourth-generation San Franciscan and freelance travel journalist with work appearing in The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, Forbes, Condé Nast Traveler and Lonely Planet. She is also a guidebook author for Belize and Iceland, and a first-time novelist. Though she’s almost always on the road, when Ali hangs her hat, it’s in Montana, Belize or Marin and Sonoma counties.