Used as a fortified military post by Spain, Mexico, and the U.S., the Presidio of San Francisco was established by Spain in 1776, taken over by Mexico in 1822, and then taken over by the U.S. as an Army post in 1846. The longest operating military post in the U.S., it played a role in every major military conflict for the next century and a half and also was critical in providing refuge to 1906 earthquake victims.
Well, the guards are gone, and the Presidio is now transforming from an Army post into part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The views or the Golden Gate Bridge and bay are still spectacular, and hiking and biking trails are available. Begin a visit of the Main Post at the Visitor Center. And don’t miss the sweet Pet Cemetery, founded in 1952 for pets of military families, or the poignant 29-acre San Francisco National Cemetery, which was the first national cemetery established on the West Coast, is the final resting place of more than 30,000 service members, and scenically overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. Not just a park, the Presidio is home to 7,000 residents and 250 businesses.
Location: Lombard St./Lyon St. Free.
Getting there by public transportation:
•PresidioGo Downtown shuttle Free. Clean-fuel compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles run two continuous 30-minute loops that link with Muni and Golden Gate Transit stops. Service between the Transbay Terminal, Embarcadero BART, Union Street/Van Ness Ave., and the Presidio.
•Around the Park shuttle has a Presidio Hills route and a Crissy Field route that serve more than 40 destinations within the Presidio, including Crissy Field, Baker Beach, and Fort Point.
•Presidio parking Daily; $2.50-$3/hr.
Presidio Visitor Center
210 Lincoln Blvd. Free.
This is a good spot to get oriented and pick up brochures and maps. A particularly nice “Frequent Flyers” brochure shows color pictures of the area’s birds, and “Kids on Trails” is a free souvenir activity guide to the Ecology Trail that begins just behind the Inn at The Presidio.
Andrew Goldsworthy art installations
English artist Andrew Goldsworthy currently has four permanent installations here, making The Presidio home to the largest collection of Andrew Goldsworthy sculptures on public view in North America.
Installed in 2008, this work consists of the trunks of 37 Monterey cypress trees from the Presidio that were selected and felled because they were declining. The trunks are bound together to form a 95-foot-tall spire with a 15-foot-wide base. A forest has been replanted around the artwork and will eventually engulf it.
A snake of eucalyptus logs slithers along the Presidio’s oldest footpath, originally known as Lover’s Lane. It was installed in 2011. My visit inspired me to write a poem:
Rest secure and calm
as the wood trail snakes
through the forest
toward something promising.
95 Anza Ave.
Located inside the historic Powder Magazine building featuring 4-foot-thick stone walls, this 2013 installation plays with what is beneath the ground. A tree trunk covered in dried cracked clay is suspended inside without touching the walls and is viewed without any artificial light.
50 Moraga Ave., Officers Club patio.
Installed in 2014, this piece is made of dead-found Eucalyptus logs protruding from a rammed-earth wall. A tree line shows above the wall and gravel ground is below. This is to be Goldsworthy’s last piece at the Presidio.
Off Lincoln Blvd.; south from 25th Ave. then west on Bowley St. Free.
The surf here is unsafe and the temperature often chilly, yet plenty of people are usually sunning and strolling and the views of the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular. On my most recent visit, I was almost blown over by the fierce wind, and I witnessed very surprised people in the parking lot dressed in shorts and tank tops and carrying a picnic.
Battery Chamberlin is adjacent. Rangers conduct demonstrations of the world’s last remaining 50-ton “disappearing gun” on the first weekend of the month, and environmental programs are sometimes offered.
Crissy Field Center
603 Mason St./Halleck St., at the shoreline. Free.
The post’s former landing strip is now a spectacular shoreline park, with several boardwalks leading through the scenic dunes and restored tidal marsh. The waters here are popular for windsurfing. A large grassy expanse, a nature center, and picnic tables are available. Inside a former torpedo depot, the Visitor Center cafe is a model of sustainability. It uses recycled products, and the deli menu is prepared with mostly local organic products. A warming hut also has a small cafe and provides remarkable views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The 3.5-mile Golden Gate Promenade–also known as the Bay Trail–offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay. Running the length of Crissy Field, the Promenade starts near the Yacht Harbor and ends by the Fort Point Coast Guard station.
Fort Point National Historic Site
Located directly under the south anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge, at end of Marine Dr.; take Lincoln Blvd. to Long Ave., turn left, at bottom follow road along water to fort. Free.
Built in 1861, this is the only Civil War-era fort on the West Coast. Its four tiers once held 126 cannons; now several 10,000 pound-plus originals and replicas are displayed. It is perhaps even more famous as the site in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where Kim Novak’s character jumped into the bay.
Candlelight Fort Tours occur each winter. Participants see the fort from the viewpoint of a Civil War soldier. What was it like in the 1860s to live in drafty quarters heated by fireplaces and lighted by candles? What kind of food did the soldiers eat and how was it prepared? A walk through the 1870 gun emplacements located south of the fort concludes each tour.
Letterman Digital Arts Center
1 Letterman Dr. Free.
Built on the site of the post’s former hospital, George Lucas’s new center is spread over 23 acres featuring views of the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge. A water fountain topped with a Yoda statue is in front of the public lobby in Building B (open weekdays during normal business hours), where you can see movie memorabilia, including items from the “Star Wars” series.
Main Parade Ground
In 1898, this 7-acre expanse of grass served as training site for soldiers, who lived in the adjacent red-brick barracks. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1937 the area was paved over to serve as a parking lot. But fortunately, in 2011 it was changed back to a green space, so now you can enjoy picnicking here. Sometimes Share Chairs are available to borrow at no cost, but it is a good idea to bring along a blanket.
On Sundays April through October, you can participate in the Presidio Picnic. Bring your own picnic or purchase goodies from a variety of food trucks featuring international cuisines. Usually a free live performance is part of the fun.
Mountain Lake Park
Entrance at Lake St./Funston Ave.; entrances also along Lake St. Free.
This sweet park has expanses of green, designated trails, and a few picnic shelters for bad-weather days. More description and images.
Presidio Bowling Center
93 Moraga Ave./Montgomery St. Fee.
This inviting 12-lane bowling center offers easy parking in a spectacular location. A fast-food cafe whips up a good cheeseburger and fries and 40-plus beers.
Presidio Golf Course
300 Finley Rd./at Arguello Gate. Fee.
Open since 1895, this hilly 18-hole golf course offers twilight and early bird discounts. One of the city’s top courses, it opened to the public in 1995. In the clubhouse, the Presidio Cafe offers a full bar and seasonal menu.
Presidio Officers’ Club
50 Moraga Blvd. Free.
This storied former Victorian building was converted to Spanish Colonial style in a 1934 remodel. Once an elite gathering place for military brass and accessible only with an officer, the lovely main Moraga Hall—which was always a celebratory room–has been recently brought back to life as the site of an array of free public programs that include lectures and films. The adjacent Mesa Room, which was a billiard room in the 1930s, now is a museum where you can see exposed adobe walls, 1930s stencil work, and hand-distressed wall beams.
Upstairs, the high-ceilinged Ortega Ballroom is modernized with concrete floors and exposed ductwork and has been transformed into the Presidio Heritage Gallery museum. It displays artifacts, photographs, and rare videos as well as some of the 60 species of bee that live in the Presidio.
Downstairs, a patio is home to the Presidio’s fourth Andrew Goldsworthy art installation, “Earth Wall” (see above).
99 Moraga Ave. Fee.
Recently restored and reopened, this 1939 mock-Spanish theater features many historic details as well as wide aisles, good sight lines, and a perfect rake of the 600 seats.
Presidio Wall Playground
West Pacific Ave., at end of Pacific St./Spruce St. Free.
“JK”–as this playground is popularly known–has plenty of wide-open space as well as swings, sandboxes, and tennis courts. It is designed to resemble a modern Parisian-style play area and to have the aesthetic feel of Luxembourg Gardens. Adult enjoy beautiful views. This playground is completely fenced in, has safety surfacing, and has two play areas for both younger and older kids. Equipment includes a wave wall for children to climb on as well as numerous spinning structures and disc swings.
The Walt Disney Family Museum
104 Montgomery St. Fee.
Three 19th-century brick buildings that were formerly army barracks now house ten galleries devoted to telling the Walt Disney story. For baby boomers it is a step into the nostalgic past, while for younger people it is more educational and a bit of a history lesson. An elevator gives the sense of a “ride” into the interior galleries. As would be expected, creative use of film and video is used and cartoons are shown throughout. Framed videos mix in with walls of photos, and you’ll see plenty of Mickey Mouse collectibles. In addition to peeking into Disney’s magic-making, you’ll pick up a few fascinating factoids, such as that “Snow White” was the first feature-length cartoon, and that “Bambi” was the first to feature only animals. Near the end is a large model of Disneyland, and appropriately Mr. Disney’s credits roll continuously just before the exit door. A “Fantasia”-themed theater shows classic Disney films several times daily at additional charge. Museum admission is not required to see the special Oscar for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” displayed in the lobby, or to browse the well-stocked gift shop.
The museum Cafe is operated by Wolfgang Puck. Prices are reasonable, and menu items include some of Walt’s favorites–chili, Jell-O with fresh fruit, chicken cubes, SPAM and eggs with biscuits and honey, cupcakes, and cookies. The menu changes daily and sometimes is inspired by a movie playing in the museum’s theater. Museum admission is not required to access the café.
Inn at the Presidio
42 Moraga Ave. 3 stories; 22 rooms. Some gas fireplaces. Children under 12 free. Pets ok. Evening wine & cheese reception; continental breakfast buffet. Self-parking.
This unfussy inn is the first public lodging to open in the Presidio of San Francisco, a National Historic Landmark that is within the walls of one of the country’s oldest former military posts. It operates inside historic 1903 Pershing Hall (previously the post’s bachelor officers’ quarters), allowing guests to experience a taste of the privilege once reserved for top brass. The check-in desk is an actual desk, and guests can relax comfortably in a chair during check-in. Mellow ‘40s and ‘50s music softly sets the mood. Though the property has no restaurant or bar, several dining options are available within the Presidio gates, an easy walk away. At the inn, the original mess hall and officer’s lounge serve in their original capacity at breakfast. And though the inn has no on-site fitness facilities, plenty are available nearby within the gates, including a golf course, bowling alley, YMCA gym with indoor pool and hot tub, urban spa, fitness/Pilates/yoga studio, indoor rock-climbing studio, and trampoline park. An Ecology Trail begins behind the inn’s parking lot, and guests can additionally relax in an inviting army of rocking chairs located on the front porch and balconies as well as in front of a gas fire-pit on an outdoor patio in the back. Guest rooms are contemporary in style and spacious, though they do retain their original old-time wavy glass windows.
Lodge at the Presidio
105 Montgomery St. 3 stories; 42 rooms. Parking $9. Pets ok. Evening wine and cheese; continental breakfast.
Housed in a former 1890s army barracks, this is San Francisco’s closest lodging to the Golden Gate Bridge. Reflecting that fact, most rooms have stunning bay views. Public spaces include a spacious living room with fireplace, an outdoor patio with fire pit and view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a front porch with addictive teak rocking chairs. Original artwork pays homage to military men at rest and to the nature found right outside the door. Guest rooms feature high ceilings and spacious bathrooms with carrera marble vanities.
(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)