Meet the wild variety of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
The westernmost edge of San Francisco, where on a clear day you can see for 30 miles (look for the Farallon Islands and the tip of Point Reyes), forms a border between cultivated urban life—the Legion of Honor, a golf course, the skyscrapers of the city beyond—and the wilderness that is the Pacific Ocean. Once, trains brought swimmers from downtown to Adolph Sutro’s extravagant public bathhouse. Today, a broad hiking trail curves from the baths’ ruins up to overlooks of the Golden Gate.
This four-story edifice casts an imposing shadow at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, where surfers dodge dolphins in the breaks below the seawall. Meant to protect the Bay from attack during the Civil War, the brick fortress—the only one on the West Coast—never actually heard a shot fired in combat. See displays of garrison life in the fort’s military museum rooms, then climb to the roof for a seal’s-eye view of the lacey underpinnings of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bring a picnic—or just your running shoes—to this former Army airfield for knockout views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Marin County. The park was once covered in asphalt and trash, which is hard to believe after you’ve visited this ribbon of green along the water. What had been runways has been returned to wetlands—you’re almost certain to see an egret or heron standing guard in the lagoon, whose banks are lined with native plants.
Lose yourself in the grove’s venerable stands of first-growth coastal redwoods, and give thanks for four visionaries: William and Elizabeth Kent, for donating the property to the government; President Theodore Roosevelt, for designating it a monument in 1908; and John Muir, patron saint of environmental preservation and the monument’s namesake. (Your best chance of doing this without the crowds? A winter’s weekday morning.)
These 13,000 acres of open space are Northern California’s landscape at its most grand. Dramatically steep hills drop to hidden valleys and pocket beaches. In Tennessee Valley, you’re as likely to see bobcats as horseback riders; hiking in Gerbode Valley, you’re not likely to see anyone else at all. From the 1870s, the coastal area of this land was a military outpost. After the Cold War ended, the National Park Service took over; now trails link museums, art studios, and environmental centers.
Legend has it that Alcatraz is home to a few ghosts. The staff won’t vouch for the island’s spirits, but park rangers say visitors have claimed to sense ghostly inmates wandering the grounds. Security guards have heard footsteps at night, been touched on the shoulder when no one is there, and heard inexplicable moans. On a sunny day, such reports may seem fanciful, but let the afternoon fog roll in, and you, too, may start hearing things.
Winter waves make Ocean Beach a surfer’s paradise, though not one suitable for beginners. Get your feet wet farther south—at one of Pacifica’s surf schools, perhaps–and work your way, slowly, up to Ocean Beach. Even if you’re just a wanna-be, though, you can still adopt the unofficial neighborhood uniform: hoodie sweatshirt, jeans, and flip-flops (yes, even in winter).
The first of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s Presidio projects, this 90-foot-tall tower of 35 cypress trunks (the trees had been culled to make room for a new crop) currently looms over the surrounding saplings. Over time, though, its adolescent neighbors will grow and grow and eventually obscure it from view … which is exactly what Goldsworthy intended.