In October 1994, the Presidio passed from the U.S. Army to the National Park Service and became one of a handful of urban national parks that combines historical, architectural, and natural elements in one giant arboreal expanse. (It also contains a previously private golf course and a home for George Lucas’s production company.) The 1,491-acre area incorporates a variety of terrain—coastal scrub, dunes, and prairie grasslands—that shelter many rare plants and more than 200 species of birds, some of which nest here.
This military outpost has a 220-year history, from its founding in September 1776 by the Spanish under José Joaquin Moraga to its closure in 1994. From 1822 to 1846, the property was in Mexican hands.
During the war with Mexico, U.S. forces occupied the fort, and in 1848, when California became part of the Union, it was formally transferred to the United States. When San Francisco suddenly became an important urban area during the gold rush, the U.S. government installed battalions of soldiers and built Fort Point to protect the entry to the harbor. It expanded the post during the Civil War and during the Indian Wars of the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1890s, the Presidio was no longer a frontier post but a major base for U.S. expansion into the Pacific. During the war with Spain in 1898, thousands of troops camped here in tent cities awaiting shipment to the Philippines, and the Army General Hospital treated the sick and wounded. By 1905, 12 coastal defense batteries were built along the headlands. In 1914, troops under the command of Gen. John Pershing left here to pursue Pancho Villa and his men.
The Presidio expanded during the 1920s, when Crissy Army Airfield (the first airfield on the West Coast) was established, but the major action was seen during World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Soldiers dug foxholes along nearby beaches, and the Presidio became the headquarters for the Western Defense Command. Some 1.75 million men were shipped out from nearby Fort Mason to fight in the Pacific; many returned to the Presidio’s hospital, whose capacity peaked 1 year at 72,000 patients. In the 1950s, the Presidio served as the headquarters for the Sixth U.S. Army and a missile defense post, but its role slowly shrank. In 1972, it was included in new legislation establishing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; in 1989, the Pentagon decided to close the post and transfer it to the National Park Service.
Today, the area encompasses more than 470 historic buildings, a scenic golf course, a national cemetery, the Walt Disney Family Museum, several good restaurants, an inn, miles of hiking and biking trails, scenic over-looks, beaches, picnic sites, and a variety of natural habitats. (It is also home to Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’s groundbreaking special effects and film production company, which is behind much of the special effects in all the Star Wars films; that facility, however, is not open to the public.)
The National Park Service offers docent- and ranger-led tours, as well as a free shuttle called PresidioGo. The newly renovated Presidio Visitor Center (nps.gov/prsf; tel. 415/561-4323) open 7 days a week, 10am to 5pm, is the perfect place to start, offering several interactive historical exhibits as well as a large-scale model of the entire park. To reach the visitor center, take bus no. 28, 29, or 43.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
The largest urban park in the world, GGNRA makes New York’s Central Park look like a putting green. It covers three counties along 28 miles of stunning, condo-free shoreline. Run by the National Park Service, the Recreation Area wraps around the northern and western edges of the city, and just about all of it is open to the public with no access fees. The Muni bus system provides transportation to the more popular sites, including Aquatic Park, Cliff House, Fort Mason, and Ocean Beach. For more information, contact the National Park Service (tel. 415/561-4700; www.nps.gov/goga).
Here is a brief rundown of the salient features of the park’s peninsula section, starting at the northern section and moving westward around the coastline:
Aquatic Park, adjacent to the Hyde Street Pier, has a small swimming beach, although it’s not that appealing (and darned cold).
Fort Mason Center, from Bay Street to the shoreline, comprises several buildings and piers used during World War II. Today they house museums, theaters, shops, and organizations, and Greens vegetarian restaurant, which affords views of the Golden Gate Bridge. For information about Fort Mason events, call tel. 415/345-7500 or visit www.fortmason.org. The park headquarters is also at Fort Mason.
Farther west along the bay at the northern end of Laguna Street is Marina Green, a favorite local spot for kite flying, jogging, and walking along the Promenade. The St. Francis Yacht Club is also here.
Next comes the 3 1/2-mile paved Golden Gate Promenade, San Francisco’s best and most scenic biking, jogging, and walking path. It runs along the shore past Crissy Field (www.crissyfield.org) and ends at Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge. Be sure to stop and watch the gonzo windsurfers and kite surfers, who catch major wind here, and admire the newly restored marshlands. The Warming Hut Café and Bookstore (tel. 415/561-4030) is open daily from 9am to 5pm (9am–7pm summer weekends) and offers yummy, organic soups, salads, sandwiches, coffee drinks, and a good selection of outdoor-themed books and cards. Kids go crazy for House of Air (tel. 415/345-9675; www.houseofair.com), a warehouse packed with trampolines, a dodge-ball court, and places to climb and jump off of. But be warned: there’s a reason they make you sign a waiver and show an explicit video about safety and playing at your own risk; with a ton of kids wildly hopping about and bouncy surfaces, somebody’s bound to get hurt—and plenty of them do.
Set on the outermost point of land under the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point (nps.gov/fopo; tel. 415/556-1693) affords stunning views of the ocean to the west, the bay to the east, and Golden Gate Bridge overhead. (You may even see a few thrill-seeking surfers trying to ride the turbulent waves while avoiding the treacherous rocks that surround the fort.) The fort actually pre-dates the bridge, having been built between 1853 and 1861 to deter entrance to the harbor, pro-tecting the valuable commercial and military infrastructures within the bay. Designed to house 500 soldiers manning 126 muzzle-loading cannons, the fort never saw active battle, and by 1900, the fort’s soldiers and obsolete guns had been removed. Check the website for current operating hours, as they change with the seasons. Guided tours and cannon demonstrations are given once or twice a day on open days, depending on the time of year.
Lincoln Boulevard sweeps around the western edge of the bay to Baker Beach, where the waves roll ashore—a fine spot for sunbathing, walking, or fishing. Hikers can follow the California Coastal Trail from Fort Point along this part of the coastline to Lands End (visit www.presidio.gov/explore/trails).
A short distance from Baker Beach, China Beach is a small cove where swimming is permitted. Changing rooms, showers, a sun deck, and restrooms are available.
A little farther around the coast is Land’s End, looking out to Pyramid Rock. A lower and an upper trail offer hiking amid windswept cypresses and pines on the cliffs above the Pacific.
Still farther along the coast lie Point Lobos, the ruins of Sutro Baths (www.sutrobaths.com), and the Cliff House. The Cliff House which underwent major renovations in 2004, has been serving refreshments to visitors since 1863. It’s famed for its views of Seal Rocks (a colony of sea lions and many marine birds) and the Pacific Ocean. Immediately northeast of Cliff House you’ll find traces of the once-grand Sutro Baths. Built by mayor, Adolph Sutro, in 1896 as a bathing facility for the smelly masses without indoor plumbing, the baths turned into a swimming facility that was a major summer attraction accommodating up to 24,000 people. It burned down in 1966. See photos of the baths and a life-sized model in an antique Speedo inside the Cliff House.
A little farther inland at the western end of California Street is Lincoln Park, which contains a golf course and the spectacular California Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum.
Though technically not inside the GGNRA, the San Francisco Zoo is located across the street where Sloat Boulevard meets the Great Highway.
At the southern end of Ocean Beach, 4 miles down the coast, is Fort Funston (tel. 415/561-4323), where there’s an easy loop trail across the cliffs. Here you can watch hang gliders take advantage of the high cliffs and strong winds. It’s also one of the city’s most popular dog parks. Check out the webcam at www.flyfunston.org/newwebcam.
Farther south along Route 280, Sweeney Ridge affords sweeping views of the coastline from the many trails that crisscross its 1,000 acres. From here the expedition led by Don Gaspar de Portolá first saw San Francisco Bay in 1769. It’s in Pacifica; take Sneath Lane off Route 35 (Skyline Blvd.) in San Bruno.
The GGNRA extends into Marin County, where it encompasses the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods National Monument, and Olema Valley behind the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.