From 1776 to 1994, the northernmost tip of the San Francisco Peninsula was fortified as a military outpost guarding the entrance to the bay. Known to this day as “the Presidio,” it is transected by Highway 101 as it heads north to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Driving over the bridge is how most people are familiar with the Presidio. As military technology changed, the Presidio’s fortifications gradually became less important and they were transferred to the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area – a sprawling collection of natural and historic sites on both sides of the entrance to the bay.
With an incredibly scenic location that includes the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean and the bay, museums, trails, beaches, forest, a golf course, a national cemetery, homes, businesses, restaurants, lodging and hundreds of historic buildings, there’s a lot to explore. So much that the Presidio can be confusing. Not only is it big, but it is managed in an unusual way. To preserve the vast number of historic buildings, the majority are leased out as businesses and homes. This has made the Presidio financially self-sufficient – something unique among parks.
If you visit, here are three recommended stops that can fill a day:
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Main Post Parade Ground: Lined with red brick barrack buildings, the grassy parade ground is one of the best preserved areas. With ample parking, it’s a good first stop because the Presidio Visitor Center is in one of the former barracks. More extensive displays of the Presidio’s history can be seen at the nearby Officers’ Club. The Disney Family Museum and restaurants are also around the area.
The Coastal Trail: This was my favorite part of my recent visit. You can follow the Pacific Coast from the base of the Golden Gate to the southern edge of the Presidio at sandy Baker Beach. It’s one of the most scenic coastal trails in the state. I recommend parking along Lincoln Boulevard in one of the two lots between Fort Winfield Scott and Battery Godfrey. Starting at this point, you can follow the trail in either direction. Start by following the signs a few steps north to the Golden Gate Overlook, a paved, accessible viewpoint. The trail continues about a quarter-mile north toward the bridge, but the best views are at the viewpoint.
Heading south from the viewpoint, you’ll see the first of several large concrete batteries that once were mounted with heavy artillery to protect the bay from attack. When the trail splits, you have the option of staying on top of the bluffs and following the Coastal Trail along Lincoln Boulevard or dropping down closer to the water on the “Batteries to Bluffs Trail.” Both have great views, but I think the lower trail is best. The two sections connect at both ends to form a loop, so it’s not hard to try both. Much of the trail overlooks Marshall Beach with the Golden Gate in the background.
It’s an unforgettable scene and one that is sometimes interrupted by a few nude beachgoers. We spotted them from the bluff, though no details of anatomy were discernible from that distance. If you walk down to the lower trail, you’re likely to see more. It was a warm Sunday afternoon when we visited, but most of the beachgoers were clothed. The effect was odd – sort of like a work of art where there is one incongruous nude figure at a formal event. People of all ages were enjoying the sand and the surf, unconcerned about the birthday suits. It is San Francisco, after all.
The nudity is easy to forget in the context of the unforgettable landscape – the view of the bridge from Marshall Beach is one that appears on posters and the covers of travel guides. For views that are 99 percent as good, but farther from the bridge and perhaps more family friendly, the southern continuation of the Coastal Trail from Land’s End to the Cliff House is a nice alternative. I’ll feature it next week.
Fort Point: Last of all the “can’t-miss” stops at the Presidio, I highly recommend Fort Point. It’s a separately designated National Historic Site/Park, located underneath the Golden Gate but adjacent to the Presidio. A massive three-story brick fortress with thick walls, it guarded the bay through the Civil War. It’s the best-preserved structure of its kind in California, and it feels like you’ve stepped back into history as you wander its corridors. The view of the bridge from underneath is unique as well. Fort Point is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
There’s no entry fee for the Presidio grounds or Fort Point, though other facilities such as the Disney Family Museum do charge. Each parking area requires a separate fee ($1.20 per hour). The machines take coins and credit/debit cards, but no bills. Most areas (including trails) are open to leashed dogs.
One of the most exciting things about the Presidio is that it is a work in progress. Improvements are constantly being carried out, and there will be more trails, restored buildings and landscapes, exhibits and lodging opening to the public in the next few years.
For more information about the Presidio, visit http://www.nps.gov/prsf/index.htm or call (415) 561-4323. For Fort Point information, visit http://www.nps.gov/fopo/index.htm or call (415) 556-1693.
Adam Blauert is a Sun-Star correspondent. He is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at email@example.com.