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Exploring Golden Gate National Recreation Area and San Francisco Bay

At the intersection of cityscape, shoreline and mountains, the San Francisco Bay Area encompasses one of the world’s largest urban parks, known as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), managed by the National Park Service.

This diverse collection of sites includes giant redwood groves, Alcatraz Island, cannons and forts, numerous beaches and even a historic restaurant perched on cliffs above the ocean surf. In addition to the GGNRA, visitors will find a host of further National Park Service sites in the Bay Area, including a National Seashore and National Historical Park, both full of opportunity for visitors.

Muir Woods National Monument

Eleven miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, this old-growth redwood forest is forever protected through the foresight of its namesake, the visionary naturalist John Muir. It’s cooler in the damp forest, with rays of sunlight streaming, not dappled, through the canopies of impossibly tall trees. For fortunate observers, there’s the surprise of a spotted owl camouflaged among the branches or spying black-tailed deer across little wooden bridges along the pathway. Volunteer rangers escort guided tours daily.

Due to the delicate balance of microclimates and morning fog, coastal Sequoia sempirvirens exist only in Northern California to the Oregon border. Ancient and rare, the oldest tree here was a sapling in the year 800 and has a life span of yet another 1,000 years. Top tip: arrive early, as the parking lot fills quickly.

Point Reyes National Seashore

The wild coastal beaches, dunes, headlands, estuaries and uplands on the Point Reyes Peninsula are likely the landfall sighted by explorer Sir Francis Drake in 1579, and it hasn’t changed much. Only 15 miles from San Francisco, it’s located precisely above the San Andreas Fault several miles beneath the earth’s surface.

At Limantour Beach, the longest stretch of deserted beach imaginable is revealed, with cliffs and dunes to one side, harbor seals and possible sightings of migrating gray whales to the other. Green sea anemones and mussels populate the tide pools; deer and tule elk graze year-round in the grasslands above.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse has stood sentinel since 1870, a warning due to treacherous currents, offshore rocks, fogs and high velocity winds that have resulted in 73 major shipwrecks. Although the French-designed 19th-century lens and mechanism have been retired, visitors can gain access most Friday through Monday afternoons via a half-mile walk and 308 steps. Top tip: wear beach shoes for walking on sand, plus layers of clothing.

Alcatraz Island 

There’s only one way for visitors to reach Alcatraz Island — and more importantly, to reach home once again. The National Park Service ferry concessionaire operates cruises across the cold and choppy 1.5 miles of San Francisco Bay, departing from Pier 33 at The Embarcadero to “The Rock.” Early bird, midday and night tours include an engaging audio tour, narrated by former prisoners and wardens who recall life inside the cellblock of the former U.S. maximum-security penitentiary reserved for the most notorious offenders. This fascinating look at the inescapable prison, which permanently closed in 1963, is a top San Francisco excursion.

Lucky timing may also include a park service ranger talk on the Occupation of Alcatraz by Indians of All Tribes for 19 months in 1969-1971. Top tip: tickets regularly sell out, so be sure to book online weeks in advance.

Fort Point National Historic Site 

The Gold Rush was on, so Fort Point was built by the U.S. Army Engineers to defend the strategic point at the Golden Gate’s narrowest passage from possible foreign attack. Complete with pre-Civil War cannons, not a single shot was ever fired from the fort, which is now tucked under the imposing south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both National Park Service-led guided tours and self-guided tours are available at the mid-19th-century structure, detailing the soldier life, lighthouse keeper stories and the men involved in the building of the bridge that couldn’t be built, the Golden Gate Bridge. Top tip: dress warmly; the weather changes quickly.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Also known as Hyde Street Pier, eight historic vessels are moored right beside Fisherman’s Wharf. Dating from between 1886 and 1915, the impressive collection includes the Balclutha four square-rigger, a steam tug, a paddlewheel tug, a steam ferryboat and schooners. Children’s activities, sing-along shanty events, ship tours and occasional costumed events take place daily year-round. Supplementing the wonderful bay views from the pier, the area has a maritime museum, a visitor center and a sandy wading beach within moments of a historic cable car turnaround. Top tip: come on foot or via public transportation.

San Francisco Presidio 

Home to native Ohlone and Costanoan people for 10,000 years or longer, the Presidio was settled by Spaniards arriving from Baja California in 1776. Mexican rule followed before the American flag flew here from 1846. Today, the entire forested park overlooking both bay and ocean is a National Historic Landmark District attracting 5 million visitors every year. The Presidio Trust partners with the National Park Service for stewardship of these 1,500 acres since the military post was closed in 1994.

Summertime sees outdoor Shakespeare performances, weekly food truck picnic days and evenings, kite-flying, public art installations, a historic golf course, a freshwater lake and jogging, biking and hiking on 14 miles of trails with observation posts. Indoor attractions include a free Heritage Gallery in the restored Officers’ Club, free Friday evening concerts, an archeology center, a bowling alley, several restaurants, the historic Inn at the Presidio and the Walt Disney Family Museum, set up by Walt’s daughter to highlight the imagination of the man.

Choose from 13 themed Presidio walks that all feel far more countrified than urban. The longest is a 4.3-mile Golden Gate Promenade/Bay Trail starting near the exclusive “Billionaires Row” of residential mansions and ending at the doorstep of the Golden Gate Bridge. Or take a shorter walk on the 0.7-mile Batteries to Bluffs Trail to trace the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.

The Presidio is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Top tip: PresidiGo Shuttle operates free on weekends between downtown and the park, a 20-minute journey.

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