The Ghosts of Hill 88

The top of Hill 88 in the Marina Headlands

By Tyler Shewbert

North of San Francisco is the Marin Headlands. Now part of the National Park Service, all of this area north of the Golden Gate was once belonged to the U.S. military. As one travels about the area, the remnants of its military past can be seen. I have spent a decent amount of time exploring this area but my hike up Hill 88 on June 28th, 2016 had probably the most profound impact of any of my journeys in the area.

I started at Rodeo Beach, with the intention of just walking up a hill because it was there. I did not have any idea what I would find. As I climbed, I climbed past the history of the area. First was Battery Townsley, which guarded the Golden Gate until the end of World War Two. This was a mere three-quarters of a mile hike, and not that high above the beach. I continued hiking, spying a hill in the distance that appeared to be the highest in the immediate area, and therefore the one that I would to climb.

As I approached the middle point between Battery Townsley and that hill, I found the concrete remnants what appeared to be more fortifications. These still had a World War Two feel about them, and from this place I could see my eventual goal even better. It was surrounded by a fence, so I was not even sure if I would be able to make it all the way to the top, except that I had seen people coming down from there.

Hill 88 from a distance

I continued, finally arriving at the top. I was greeted by the guard house.

The guard house

I was intrigued by what I found. The top of this hill, 1053 feet above sea level, had been flattened and there was what appeared to be some sort of former military installation.

The stands for the radar domes

The site was covered in graffiti. The concrete design screamed Cold War to me. This was not a World War Two facility. Upon walking around, I found the old helicopter pad, which solidified my reasoning that this was a Cold War facility and not part of the batteries from WWII.

Helicopter pad

I continued to explore. I found some ravens who were enjoying the amazing weather.

Ravens enjoying the view

The view from the top was amazing. The wind was light. In the East Bay, the temperatures were nearing triple-digits, but at the top of this hill it was nice and cool, with a light breeze.

Facing San Francisco

Looking towards the exit of the Golden Gate

Looking towards the Financial District and the East Bay

The site had an ominous vibe to it. I found a place to sit and eat my lunch, and having great cell phone service, I proceeded to look up what this place was. I found this site. It said that Hill 88 had been the site of the radar control station for the Nike missile base that existed in the area during the Cold War.

Having visited a Nike missile site across the valley a few years before, I understood their purpose. The Nike site SF-88 in the Marin headlands used Nike Hercules missiles. These had a range of 87 miles, and could carry a 20 kiloton nuclear warhead, if desired, or a conventional payload. At sites in the United States, the payload was almost always the nuclear payload. Fitted with such a payload, the missile could theoretically be launched and destroy several high-altitude bombers or missiles that were inbound to a target. There were over 145 such sites in the United States, until they began to phase out during the 1970s.

For me, this was a reminder of a frightful time before I was born that my parents had spoke of. This was the time of duck and cover drills and nuclear brinksmanship. I am grateful that somehow the United States and Soviet Union managed to wade through this tenuous time without destroying one another and a good chuck of the planet with them. I hope that those lessons are not forgotten by my generation and that nuclear disarmament continues.

Hill 88 in operation

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