Think San Francisco and you think the Golden Gate Bridge. The area in and around the famous landmark comprises the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. You will be pleasantly surprised how extensive this National Recreation Area is, comprising history, seashore, mountains, forests, forts, and more. Plan to take plenty of time to see it, or to return often. Take your time, take your camera, and take it all in.
Variety? Yes, indeed. There are nineteen different ecosystems with over two thousand plant and animal species within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Suit your own tastes whether you take a hike, take in the view, take time for a picnic, or take the broad expanse of history, spanning California’s indigenous cultures, Spanish colonialism, the Mexican Republic, United States military presence, and the transformations of the city of San Francisco. Each of the various parts of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is worthy of a lengthy article, so what you find here is just a sampling.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Bridge is the centerpiece and symbol of the entire Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Head for the Bridge Pavilion, which is open nine to six each day, located at the Golden Gate Bridge viewing area at the south end of the bridge. There, you can see models about the building of the bridge, and obtain information about the bridge. Naturally, it is also a great vantage point for photography.
Don’t miss the overlook on the Sausalito side; another ideal location for photos. In fact, a great goal for your visit to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area would be to see how many different views of the Bridge you can photograph. On most days you will also enjoy watching the ships sail the Bay and go under the Bridge.
The Rock is probably the second most famous landmark in San Francisco after the Bridge. Alcatraz Island is home to a museum where you can learn the history of the maximum-security prison which was housed on the island from 1933 to 1963. Getting to the island is a whole lot easier than trying to escape it used to be. Alcatraz Cruises is the official ferry to Alcatraz Island. You may buy tickets online, by phone or in person. Or if you want to sail nearby it, take the Sausalito Ferry from The San Francisco Ferry Building Terminal. It is a great way to explore the Bay.
Presidio of San Francisco
This park stretches along the Bay all the way to the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can walk or bike it, but even better, there are two different free shuttles that will give you a complete overview of the grounds. Get a guide map at the Visitor’s Center. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts, the Walt Disney Family Museum, climbing gyms, and trampoline parks. Other historic landmarks include the San Francisco National Cemetery, Lover’s Lane, and the Presidio Chapel.
Art lovers will enjoy finding the various art installations by Andy Goldsworthy. Most noticeable his sculpture titled Spire, at 100 feet tall. There are three more Goldsworthy works to see: Wood Line, Tree Fall, and Earth Wall. Earth Wall is located at the Presidio Officers’ Club, where you can also have lunch at Arguello a restaurant featuring Mexican cuisine. The Presidio Officers’ Club is free, open to the public, and one of San Francisco’s hidden treasures.
Land’s End Lookout
This is a low-slung modern building guarded by vintage statues of lions, situated next to the historic Cliff House, along the rocky and windswept shoreline at the mouth of the Golden Gate. The lookout rewards visitors with views of the California coastline stretching for thirty miles. The visitor center is located on the ruins of the historic nineteenth century Sutro Baths. Destroyed in a fire in 1966, the ruins of the lavish 25,000-person swimming facility can still be seen from the lookout. Land’s End also has many hiking trails along the cliffs, and a memorial to the USS San Francisco.
Fort Point National Historic Site
Located underneath the south approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point is an impressive fortification. The fort was built during the Gold Rush days and was used during the Second World War. The fort was transformed into a museum with exhibits about its history and the building of the Bridge. The soaring arch of the Bridge was created specifically to protect and preserve the fort.
Crissy Field Center
Crissy Field Center and its old airfield have been restored to a wonderful natural open space, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge. This Center is among the most technologically advanced, energy efficient buildings in the city. The Center features a café, a science lab, an art room, administrative spaces as well as high-performance classrooms.
North of the Bridge
Traveling to the north, Fort Baker has spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay. This out-of-the-way treasure features a collection of two dozen historic red-roofed army buildings grouped around a central parade ground, a cozy harbor shielded by a jetty, a cluster of historic gun emplacements, and forested trails rising gradually from San Francisco Bay. Yes, you can enjoy an overnight stay here. After your visit, make your way to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, for indoor and outdoor fun with more great views of the Bridge. It’s a favorite with families.
Drive Conzelman Road from the Golden Gate Bridge to Point Bonita and to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. Enjoy breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco. Hike the path up to Hawk Hill. There you will find a bench in a grove of Monterey pines, where you can see the Golden Gate, the ship traffic below the bridge, and the San Francisco just beyond. Point Bonita Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in the USA that is reached by a suspension bridge. It is open during limited hours, but it is always a great photo op.
Muir Woods National Monument
After the other sites, you can’t miss the incredible forest north of San Francisco. When locals think Muir Woods, they think two things: Great trees and difficult parking, so get there early if you can. Muir Woods Visitor Center is located at the entrance to Muir Woods, about twelve miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Go to stroll under the canopy of old growth coast redwoods along Redwood Muir Woods has been a National Monument since 1908.
You can find out more about Golden Gate National Recreation Area and other sites in California at the Pacific West Region Information Center at Fishermans Wharf: 495 Jefferson Street, San Francisco, CA 94123.
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