Discover San Francisco's Presidio, where you can explore history, hike and bike, or just be wowed by the scenery.
After serving for more than 200 years as a military outpost under three flags, San Francisco's Presidio today is a national park like no other. Its 1,491-acre expanse of brick and forest is a blend of urban and rural, spread across the city's northern waterfront. It is home to a think tank, a gallery, deep woods, a meadow, and a small town. It has a beach and a day camp and two cemeteries—a vast one for veterans and family members and a small one for military pets. It has a movie studio, a fortress, a bowling alley, and an archaeological dig. It boasts a web of hiking and biking trails and is a windsurfer's dream. Roughly 2,400 people live here, as do wild parrots, gray foxes, and coyotes.
Since 2001, when the former base's landing strip was torn up and converted to wetlands, dunes, and a bayside promenade, some 4 million people a year have come here to revel in the big sky vistas. You can pick up Presidio maps and schedules of ranger-led walks and seasonal programs—and get cappuccino, sandwiches, guidebooks, and ecothemed gifts—at the popular Warming Hut, between Crissy Field and Torpedo Wharf at the former garrison's northern edge. Every day, anglers haul in crab or bass from the pier, and foghorns trade basso profundo calls with passing ships. Ambling couples pull each other closer as blustery tufts of fog drift through the Golden Gate toward a glittering downtown. This is the San Francisco where visitors leave their hearts.
And it almost didn't happen. When the army turned the Presidio over to the U.S. National Park Service in 1994, the gift carried an unprecedented catch: Congress insisted that the new national park become financially self-sufficient by 2013 or risk being sold at auction. Since then the Presidio Trust, the park's governing board, has had to walk a tricky line, trying to get the natural resource to pay for itself without destroying it.
Much of the new funding so far has come from residential and commercial leases. The Presidio's splashiest tenant—movie mogul George Lucas's special-effects group, which will be housed in the Letterman Digital Arts Center—is set to open shop in 2005. The trust now has another big-name client on deck: The Disney Family Foundation confirmed last summer that it hopes to rent space in the 1890s brick barracks of the Main Post for a museum dedicated to Walt Disney. But the future of this private-public national park is still far from certain.
To help you navigate this unusual place, we've split the Presidio's diversions into several categories—one for history lovers and others for those drawn to the bay, the woods, and the wildlife. But feel free to mix-and-match your activities. In the Presidio, you have plenty to choose from.
GHOSTS OF OLD SAN FRANCISCO
Barbara Voss of Stanford University is just one of several archaeologists who are searching for clues to San Francisco's past in the old Presidio. "A lot of people tend to think of this area's history as starting with the Gold Rush," Voss says. "The Presidio dig has allowed us to look into the period before that, to document some of the diversity of the early San Franciscans."
The visitor center located in the former Officers' Club (Building 50 on Moraga Avenue) is the information hub for all things historical. You'll find books, free maps, and brochures here, including a pamphlet for a self-guided walking tour around the Main Post that covers 200 years of history and architecture. A posted schedule lists ranger- and docent-led talks and walks (and shuttle tours) that vary daily.
Artifacts sifted from the sand around the Main Post and displayed in the Mesa Lounge of the old Officers' Club suggest the ups and downs of an early soldier's life: a Spanish crucifix, leather holsters, bone dominoes, and a comb for lice. Archaeologists have pried up floorboards and peeled away plaster to permit a glimpse of the walls and green serpentine rock foundation of the early 19th-century adobe structure hidden beneath and within the building.
Around the corner, black-and-white photographs hanging in the hallway and period uniforms under glass conjure still other eras. The Exhibition Hall is currently displaying a collection of contemporary Maya textiles on loan through January from Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology and History.
Though 469 of the Presidio's buildings—more than half—have been designated as "historic," relatively few are open to the public, and many of those may be seen only on park service tours. The guided walks offer a peek at fascinating but obscure chapters in local history. On one tour you'll explore refugee cottages that were among the thousands built in the Presidio to house some of the 250,000 San Franciscans left homeless by the 1906 quake. On a walk through the National Cemetery you can hear the story of Pauline Cushman Fryer, a Southern ac-tress who successfully spied for the Union on movements of the Army of Tennessee. Also buried there are nearly 300 buffalo soldiers from African American regiments (the Ninth and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry) that spent time at the Presidio in the 19th and early 20th centuries on their way to various wars. Another little-known historical fact: Some members of the Ninth Cavalry who had been garrisoned here were among the first national park rangers. They patrolled Yosemite and Sequoia by horse.
Take an aviation tour and discover why Crissy Field was considered the last word in airfields when it was completed in 1921 by future WWII hero Hap Arnold. Have a look at the barracks where Japanese American code breakers worked to foil enemy plans—even as their families lived in internment camps.
From Friday through Sunday you can enter Fort Point, the cavernous Gold Rush era outpost at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. A couple of infor-mative films recount the history of the fort and the building of the bridge. The ranger-led tour provides interesting details about fort life in the 1860s for the 500 soldiers posted there—they slept head to toe, two to a bunk and 24 to a room, taking precious few baths. Rushed to completion on the eve of the Civil War to help keep Southern sympathizers from nabbing California's gold, Fort Point was obsolete almost before it opened: Newly developed rifled cannons could easily blast holes through the masonry. But it never came under fire, and the artillery soldiers, along with 102 cannons, were all withdrawn by 1900, though the fort was again briefly manned during World War II to protect a sub-marine net strung across the entrance to the bay.
THE WILD ONES
Look for a list of guided nature walks and other special activities each day on a sandwich board in front of the Warming Hut on Torpedo Wharf. In the early fall, rangers loan crab traps and teach kids of all ages how to catch the clawed critters from the pier. Or you can bring your own gear throughout the year. (Note: only 35 crabs per crabber, and no Dungeness—the bay is their nursery.) To learn more about the rich diversity of marine life offshore and to get friendly with local sea stars and anemones in a touch tank, stop in at the visitor center of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary at the water's edge.
Don't fret if a winter storm descends; the Crissy Field Center on Mason Street overlooking the bay brings the outdoors in, with environment-themed workshops, readings, displays, and activities. Programs are diverse and change seasonally. Listen to a lecture on urban wildlife (where do those city-bred skunks and raccoons sleep?), learn how to grow mushrooms in your garden, or paint a landscape. Programs are inexpensive or, in some cases, free.
HOW ABOUT A HIKE?
Locals prize the peaceful, rosy glow of dawn at Crissy Field when the winds are still and San Francisco Bay is a reflecting pond of lavender and pink. For a nature trek beyond compare, park in the East Beach lot on Mason Street near the Palace of Fine Arts and head west along the gravelly promenade, past the tidewater lagoon, marsh, and dunes—excavated, restored, and replanted in 2001 thanks to thousands of volunteers and $35 mil- lion in mostly private funds. Squads of pelicans roam the heavens above the marsh—the same skies where namesake Major Dana Crissy and crewmen of the U.S. Army Air Corps once flew in their De Havilland biplanes. Take your pooch for a walk along the beach (leash required) or stroll on to where the ocean meets the bay at Fort Point and watch humans and sea lions surf the breakers under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Many of the sheltered paths winding through the Presidio's forested hills remain dry and warm even on the foggiest, windiest days. The Ecology Trail, which runs south from just behind the old Officers' Club, loops a little more than a mile through groves of redwood, eucalyptus, and cypress. Look carefully to spot pockets of the endangered wild-flower Presidio clarkia (four lavender petals with a red center). It's a rare primrose cousin that was discovered here. Kids on Trails, a free children's guide to activities along the Ecology Trail, is available in English and Spanish at the various visitor centers and includes a picture of the flower. In fine weather, take the short spur trail off the loop to Inspiration Point for a panoramic view of the woods, the bay, Marin County, and beyond.
But don't stop there. From the point, ambitious walkers are well-placed to hike to several more of the Presidio's best sites. A 10-minute walk south from Inspiration Point will take you to a dirt trail that parallels West Pacific Avenue, bordering the wealthy residential neighborhood of Presidio Heights. Turn east and you'll soon stumble upon Julius Kahn Playground surrounded by what looks like Winnie-the-Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood. Neighborhood kids say the playground, which was overhauled last year to include futuristic equipment that not only swings but also bounces and spins, is the best in the city. The 100-year-old forest is gradually being sown with younger trees to prevent a sudden, catastrophic decline as the original trees all grow old at the same time.
Wander behind the playground, where you'll find a trail back down the hill through Tennessee Hollow to El Polin Spring, a natural water source and bird haven where foxes or even coyotes can also be spotted on quiet mornings. Or double back up the hill along West Pacific Avenue to the public Presidio Golf Course. Cruise past the 18-hole, cypress-studded fairways another mile and a half to find Mountain Lake. Continue on to Lobos Dunes and a pretty half-mile nature trail with a boardwalk that skirts one of the park's free-flowing creeks. You've nearly reached the continent's edge. Cross Lincoln Boulevard and take the dirt path through the trees, which will soon part to reveal the sands and long stretch of surf at Baker Beach.
Sit a spell here and absorb the peace. Spanish colonial captain Juan Bautista de Anza is thought to have done just that in 1776 when his weary band of Spanish soldiers and mestizo emigrants rested here after a long walk from Sonora, Mexico—an expedition that led to the founding of the Presidio and San Francisco.
Photography by Mitch Tobias
This article was first published in November 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.