Golden Gate National Recreation Area San Francisco, Pacifica, and Marin County, Calif. Visited: May 31, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 201 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? The sprawling prototype for an urban National Park. The Site’s 76,500 acres include miles of ocean and bay coastlines, restored marshlands, historic defense structures, redwood groves, cliffside views, ridgeline hikes, Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco Presidio.
Golden Gate NRA is not to be confused with the more famous Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park is run by the city and county of San Francisco. It is the City’s Central Park, a long rectangle stretching three miles from the Haight Ashbury section of town all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Gate Park totals 1,000 acres and includes the SF Arboretum, the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden and acres of picnic space and ball fields.
The Golden Gate NRA is a much larger entity and is run by the National Park Service. It is one of our most visited National Park Sites. Over 16 million people visit each year, most without realizing they are on National Park Land.
BEAUTY (10/10) San Francisco is our nation’s most beautiful city. Its hills ripple gently and its Bay, dotted by flowing sailboats, shines with stunning blue hues. Its skyscrapers keep to themselves and its bridges stand with absolute majesty. The Pacific Ocean, filled with brave surfers, roars violently along its coast. When the fog rolls in, the City becomes wrapped in mystery and only its highest points peak out. But on most days the sun shines bright, making the City feel so attractive and fooling the tourist into the false belief that the day is warm.
Every vista can be framed with the City’s famous landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, both parts of the National Recreation Area. Every visual angle is more awesome than the last. The City splendor comes into stunning focus from across the Bay, in the Marin Headlines section of the Golden Gate NRA. From here, you can see everything. The City’s beauty becomes complete and unreal, wholly unbelievable.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) The history of the Golden Gate NRA revolves around the City’s military past. The Presidio and Fort Baker were once large-scale military residences. Fort Point and Alcatraz were the west’s only third generation coastal defense bastions. Earthworks and battery fortifications line the Marin Headlands and the Pacific coast. The Fort Mason piers and warehouses provided services for ships and men leaving for the World War II Pacific Theater. Crissy Field played an early role in aviation history. The Sutro Baths were a Victorian-era resort.
The Park’s ample history is not overly interesting or significant. The Park service must concur, as it gives the Sites only cursory exhibit signs and no Museums.
CROWDS (10/10) Pier fishermen. Thousands of tourists of all nationalities. Heavily tattooed joggers. Beautiful joggers. Tiny joggers. Large joggers. Triathlon training joggers. Roughly 1,856 joggers with iPods. Office workers walking during lunch break. Workers eating lunch in cars while staring at the Bay. A line of tourists riding Segways. Kids in strollers. Kids playing. Kids, kids, kids.
Twentysomethings playing croquet while sipping white wine. Wedding receptions. College graduation barbeques. Surfers and body boarders braving the waves underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Paraboarders. Windsurfers. Sailboats.
Dredlocked youths hiking. Dog walkers at Fort Funston. Schoolgroups visiting sick sea lions at the Marine Mammal Center. A YMCA group from Nevada. Immigrant Mexican chefs in full uniform taking pictures of the Golden Gate with their disposable cameras. Hang Gliders. Kite Flyers.
Every part of Golden Gate NRA teemed with life. The Park is San Francisco, its energy, its diversity, its outdoor spirit and its calm craziness.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) The numerous attractions at Golden Gate NRA are located within walking distance for millions of Bay Area residents and tourists. Amazingly, parking is not particularly difficult at most of the sites, especially in Marin County. If you wish to avoid the traffic in the City, the San Francisco MUNI bus system will take you everywhere. We suggest that you do not try to drive to Fisherman’s Wharf. Parking spaces might be more difficult to find on the weekends, especially at Muir Woods and the Warming Hut.
The first step towards enjoying Golden Gate NRA is to procure a copy of their excellent National Parks brochure. Not only does it effectively encapsulate the Park’s myriad options, but it is a superb and in-depth map of the Bay Area.
In San Francisco proper, you can get the map at: 1) Park Headquarters located in the Marina at Franklin & Bay Streets; 2) The Crissy Field Center open Wed-Sun and located on Mason St. west of the Marina; 3) The William Penn Mott, Jr. Visitor Center located in the Presidio Officer’s Quarters; 4) The Warming Hut, located near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge and 5) the San Francisco Maritime NHP VC located in Fisherman’s Wharf at Hyde and Jefferson Sts. 6) The Cliff House located at the corner of the Great Highway and Geary Blvd. the northwestern most tip of San Francisco.
In Marin County, you can get the map at 1) The Bay Area Discovery Museum located near Sausalito; 2) The Marin Headlands VC located just west of the first Rte. 101 exit after the Golden Gate Bridge and 3) The Muir Woods NM VC.
All are open everyday except Crissy Field. This extensive list just scratches the surface of the overwhelming amount of recreational experiences available at Golden Gate NRA. The NRA’s perfect location allows for millions of people to enjoy its wonders every year.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy operates nine superlative bookstores within the borders of the National Recreation Area. We visited six of the nine and were blown away by their voluminous book selection and quirky individuality.
Each store had a different emphasis and specialty. Some of the more noteworthy items included framed Golden Gate Bridge blueprints (at Fort Point), vases made from recycled newspaper and magazines (at the Warming Hut) and Victorian porcelain miniatures (at the Cliff House).
COSTS (4/5) Of the Golden Gate NRA’s 30+ separate sites, only the Muir Woods NM charges an entry fee. The only charge for Alcatraz Island is $16 per person for the ferry ride.
Three of the four walk-in campsites in the Marin Headlands are free. The spectacular Kirby Cove campsite costs $25 a night. That campground sits directly underneath the northern tip of the Golden Gate Bridge. If the fog rolls in, the foghorn blasts will make for a sleepless night. Make reservations for Kirby Cove well in advance. We had no trouble mid-week with the free campsites, but make reservations if you are coming on the weekend.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) We saw no Rangers at any of the Park’s many Visitor Centers, only volunteers. As a result, a number of the Site’s attractions have peculiar hours and odd tour schedules.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) Aside from Alcatraz and Fort Point, the Park itself does not offer many Ranger-led programs for the public at large. Those that are offered occur on weekends. The Visitor Centers have wonderful bookstores but few educational opportunities.
There are, however, numerous private Museums within the Park boundaries. They include two hands-on science museums, the Exploratorium in SF and the Bay Area Discovery Museum across the Bridge in Sausalito. The Palace of the Legion of Honor, located just west of the Presidio, is a world-famous art museum that specializes in ancient and European Art. The Fort Mason Center, located in the eastern Marina, provides a wealth of lectures, classes and performances every month.
FUN (10/10) The Golden Gate NRA effectively challenged our notion of a National Park. Our experience at the NRA was not unlike our time at grand national treasures like Yellowstone NP. We drove from Visitor Center to Visitor Center, hiked, stood at overlooks, breathed in the amazing scenery, camped and watched wildlife. Only we were never more than 10 miles from San Francisco.
We camped for free in the Marin Headlines, just across the Bay from the City. That night we drove within feet of a coyote. We watched the City lights brighten as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Two mule deer fawns hopped in front of us as the Golden Gate Bridge foghorn serenaded us in the background. Before sunset, we had hiked down to an isolated Pacific Ocean cove where we watched surf scoters and cormorants and searched for starfish in tidepools. What a place.
The day before we drove along San Francisco’s famous scenic 49-mile drive. The route hugs the coastline and most of the drive is in the National Recreation Area. Each stop brought a new and interesting site, Golden Gate Bridge vistas, shipwreck sites, the Palace of the Legion of Honor Art Museum, military embankments, ruins of a Victorian Era bathhouse resort, surfers at Ocean Beach and finally Fort Funston, home to hang gliders and hundreds of dogs (and owners) out for their afternoon walks.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10) The Golden Gate NRA is one of America’s most remarkable national parks. The Park is beautiful beyond words. So many people use it in so many different ways because it offers such an amazing diversity of attractions. The Park makes San Francisco an accessible outdoors wonderland.
But perhaps the most incredible thing about the Golden Gate NRA is that it even exists. San Francisco real estate is among the most coveted in the United States. The NRA inhabits the City’s entire Pacific coast and much of its northern border alongside San Francisco Bay. Unlike Los Angeles and myriad other Pacific coast cities, in SF the prime waterfront real estate is not gated away and owned by millionaires. Instead, it is run by the National Park Service and everybody can enjoy it.
The thousands of miles of undeveloped acreage in the Marin Headlands are an American treasure, offering unparalleled views, hikes, camping and escape.
No visit to the Bay Area is complete without a trip to Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods. We recommend Golden Gate NRA as wholeheartedly as we would recommend a vacation to San Francisco.
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