The Park Presidio of San Francisco serves up a fabulous four-plex of nature, history, culture and amazing views. Its most obvious job provides the south anchor for SF’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. But there’s a lot more to San Francisco’s Presidio if you are willing to dig a bit deeper. This 2.5 mile National Park site has hidden springs, miles and miles of hiking trails, lovely beaches, urbex ruins, art installations and no small amount of The Force.
Our guide for fun things to do in The Presidio park will help you find and explore all of that and more.
The Backstory on SF’s Presidio
Native Americans have been living the Bay Area for 10,000 years. Before the Spanish colonization of California, the area was home for the Ohlone People. There is some archeological evidence that they lived in the Presidio as early as 740 AD. It is believed that the Ohlone kept villages along the marshlands of what is now Crissy Field and around the tip of the peninsula to Sutro Baths.
In 1775, Spanish settlers began to arrive in the region. They established military garrisons (presidios), missions and agricultural settlements. For the first 50 years, soldiers sat guarding the northern tip of the Presidio’s peninsula. They were ill-supplied, sitting huddled and hungry at this windy, chilly outpost.
Between the establishment of California statehood and the gold rush, California grew to become an important military asset. When the US took over the land in 1846, they transformed the landscape from windswept dunes into a huge military post.
San Francisco’s Presidio has seen California through colonization, the Mexican annexation, the Spanish American War, the Civil War, WWI, WWII and the Cold War. The site became redundant for the military in 1970, but the land and its history were worth preserving. So in 1994, The Presidio became part of the National Park system.
The Presidio’s Unusual Role in the National Park System
The Presidio is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which administers a large and diverse set of natural and historical assets. The GGNRA isn’t an official national park, and yet, it’s the most popular “park” in the US, receiving 15 million visits in 2020. In addition to the Presidio park, the GGNRA also manages sites stretching 40 miles north into Marin County and 20 south into San Mateo County. Top spots include: the Marin Headlands, Ocean Beach, Fort Funston, Sweeny Ridge, Phleger Estate, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Fort Mason and Lands End (which is worth hiking).
At 1,400 acres, the Presidio is the world’s largest urban national park. The whole Presidio is a National Historic Site, and Fort Point under the bridge is also a National Historic Site. So we have a Russian nesting doll of national park sites right in the heart of San Francisco.
The parks service manages the site in an unusual cooperation between private residents who live in the park, and the businesses that operate there.
Bytheway, if you are keen on exploring more of the national park system, we have a guide to ALL CA national park sites. There are nine in the Bay Area alone (including the John Muir house) and the list includes some bucket-list worthy spots like Yosemite, along with off the radar national monuments.
Getting to and Around The Presidio
If you are exploring all of the Presidio, it’s best to get around by car. If you are exploring Fort Port, the Pet Cemetery and Crissy Field, there is ample parking at Crissy Field. If you want to do the bridge, hike the bluff or visit Marshall beach, use our parking guide for the Golden Gate Bridge to find spots.
There is free (but limited) parking at Baker Beach and a mix of free and paid spots throughout the Presidio.
If you don’t have a car, you can use MUNI buses or the free PresidiGO shuttle. The shuttle makes a few key stops in SOMA and the Financial District, then it transits along Union Street before making stops at six places in the Presidio. You can find the map and schedule here. The shuttle runs a loop every 30 minutes or so.
If you are primarily interested in visiting the bridge, take the MUNI #28 bus.
Top 16 Things to do in The Presidio
Crissy Field Marsh and Beach
Crissy Field was originally a marshland that took in the tidal overflow from the bay. It was filled in for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and was later used as an airfield for the military (hence the name). But in the late 1990’s a concerted effort to resort the natural habitat took place.
Now, the site is a mix of tidal marsh, beach and exercise pedway, making it the nicest park in the Presidio and one of the nicest in SF. And it plays host to hikers, bikers, beach combers, dogs, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets.
Crissy Field is one of the most fun things to do in the Presidio, especially for dogs and kids. The water is usually quite calm, making it a great spot for kids to play at the edges of the water. You’ll also find lots of folks doing off-leash time with their pooch.
There is ample parking on-site, which is even free during the weekdays.
The Pet Cemetery
Speaking of dogs. Many of the folks who served in the military and who lived on the Presidio base were also log lovers. And also cat lovers, pig lovers and parakeet lovers (noted above). The base created a special cemetery just for military pets.
As a dog-lover myself, I found it very touching to stroll the handmade headstones. They all proclaim love and devotion for their long lost pets. The Presidio Pet Cemetery is located just south of Crissy Field and you can park once and visit both.
Fort Point is a lovely brick military compound nestled just under the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s been called the “Gibralter of the West Coast” and has been hailed as one of the most perfect uses of masonry in America. Construction on the fort began at the height of the Gold Rush. It was built for the Civil War, and was intended to be a bulwark against a west coast naval attack.
The army continued to use the fort into the 1920’s, primarily for housing. A serious preservation movement gained ground in the 1970’s when the fort was designated a National Historic Site. The fort is a great stop before visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, and you can wander in and around it from 10a-5p Friday through Monday.
If you want to walk up to the bridge from Fort Point, you can take the Battery E trail to the top of the bluff.
The Golden Gate Bridge
This graceful span is SF’s main tourist attraction and one of the reasons why the GGNRA is the most visited National Park site in the US.
Construction on the bridge was started in 1930 and it only took four years to complete. Of course, it has since been destroyed 11 times in Hollywood movies, which is just one of many fun facts about the bridge. But beyond that, it stands strong, delivering 110,000 cars a day and providing plenty of eye candy for folks looking for iconic SF views.
There are a lot of ways to experience the bridge. You can approach it from several hikes, you can photograph the bridge from many angles, you can check out the visitor center exhibits, or you can bike or walk across the 2 mile span of bridge.
Check out our full Golden Gate visitor’s guide for more information.
Batteries Cranston, Marcus Spencer and Boutelle
There are gun batteries scattered all along the bluff east of the bridge, west of the bridge and even across the bridge in the Marin Headlands. Most were built when Fort Point went up. They remained in use throughout the Spanish-American War and were pressed into service once again during WWII and the Cold War.
Some of the easiest Batteries to visit are Cranston, Marcus Spencer and Boutelle. They are located just southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge. They are particularly fun for people who are into urbex exploring, graffiti and some grit.
You can crawl around the batteries and we recommend getting as high up on the them as possible for some stunning views of the bridge and the bay.
You can score free parking at the Langdon Court lot.
Of all the things to do in the Presidio, Marshall Beach has to be the prettiest. It’s tucked away down a steep bluff trail. Just going down the trail gives you wall to wall views of the bridge and bay. And once on the beach, you can have a quiet stroll and get some nice lower level views of the bridge. The beach is pretty quiet and we recommend visiting at low tide for maximum accessibility or at sunset for Instagrammable photo shots.
Well, Baker Beach ain’t no slouch either. This beach is located at the western edge of the park Presidio. It’s a reasonably long beach, so you can get a good stroll in. It’s also fairly wide, so accessibility is pretty good, even during high tide. It’s a nice spot for a picnic or some wake-boarding.
The north end of the beach attracts nude sunbathing. Which is a mystery, considering that the weather on this beach is consistently cool and breezy. But, anything goes in San Francisco.
There is free parking above the beach, but it gets very full on the weekends.
The Crissy Field Trail
The Presidio has over 24 miles of hiking trails. So, you can truly wander around at will. But we are going to suggest three that are particularly nice for nature and views.
The first is the Crissy Field Trail. It’s a 3.9 mile loop that officially starts at the Palace of Fine Arts. It goes down the beach to Fort Point and loops back along the Crissy Field marsh. But you can extend it by going up to (and over) the bridge or going east along Marina Blvd toward Fort Mason.
The Presidio Loop Trail
The Presidio Loop Trail is a longer 6.1 miler that covers some key spots on the interior of the Presidio park. Some nice stops include the Immigration Point overlook, National Cemetery overlook, Inspiration Point and the Goldsworthy Lines. There are parking spots throughout, and quite a few at the Presidio Landmark building.
Batteries to Bluffs Trail
This 2.1 mile trail can be done as a 1-way or a loop. It’s bookended by Baker Beach to the south and Battery Boutelle to the north. You can take the side trail down to Marshall Beach or stay up on top of the bluff. This trail has views for days and if you do it south-to-north later in the afternoon, you’ll catch lovely light on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Park at Baker Beach or Langdon Court.
Presidio Golf Course
So how many other places can you golf inside of a National Park? These greens are noted for their lovely forested setting with peeks of great city views. This 18-hole course was once restricted to military and members, but now regular folks can use it too.
Be sure to get advance reservations for a tee time.
The Goldsworthy Line and Spire
Artist Andy Goldsworthy has created some very unique public art for the Presidio. The Goldsworthy lines (shown above) are a series of gracefully curved logs, placed carefully onto the landscape next to the Lover’s Lane trail.
The nearby 100 foot wood log Spire was conceived as an homage to the Presidio’s forest ecology. It’s been designed to complement SF other great spires, such as the Transamerica Pyramid and Sutro Tower.
El Polin Spring
This natural spring is part of the Tennessee Valley watershed of the park. There is an old Ohlone legend about the spring that it will bring many children and eternal bliss. What used to be a parking log has been lovingly restored to nature. The site has a short loop walk, the stream, the spring itself and a wooded area for hanging out.
There is free-short term parking right at the spring.
The Main Post is the heart of the Presidio. The historic buildings on this lovely quad date back to 1846. The area houses the Presidio visitor’s center along with the Disney Family Museum, Presidio Bowl and the Lodge at the Presidio.
It also has a very expansive and dog-friendly lawn that’s nice for chillin’, picnicking or letting your dog expend some energy.
There is a paid lot on site.
Walt Disney Family Museum
The Walt Disney Family museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Walt himself. They have galleries on his early life, how he got into the pictures, his war contributions and the theme parks.
The museum has a lot of animation stills, memorabilia and they also host regular special exhibitions and an animated film festival.
The museum is on the Main Post quad and is open Thursday-Sunday 10a-5p.
When Yoda’s not floating around giving unsolicited advice to Luke Skywalker, he’s hanging about at the Lucas Studios office in the Presidio. Anyone who is a Star Wars fan should make the pilgrimage to see the Yoda statue. We’ve featured it on our list of unusual things to do in SF, because it’s so worth it!
If you are lucky and the studio office reception area is open, you might be able to go into the lobby and see their collection of Star Wars film artifacts. They have the original R2D2 AND the original Darth Vader costume! Go, you must. Do not try…do.
Where to Eat in the Presidio
- The Warming Hut: This nice little coffee shop offers coffee, tea, hot chocolate and pre-packaged treats from local food purveyors. They also have merch like books and gifts.
- Sessions at the Presidio: This gastropub has a great ambiance with local craft beer and cocktails. The burgers and fried chicken sandwich are popular favorites.
- Presidio Social Club Exchange: The Social Club offers casual dining in a historic barracks building. They’ve got a nice outdoor deck area. The restaurant is very popular for weekend brunch.
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Explore More of San Francisco
- Find more unusual things to do in San Francisco.
- Explore some of SF’s awesome indy bookshops.
- Stroll the Mission District murals.
- Read up before you visit with these books set in SF.
Plan Your Trip to SF
Save time planning your trip to SF with these insanely useful links:
- Find the best areas to stay in SF.
- Figure out how to get from SFO airport to downtown SF.
- Or, if you are driving, score a deal on a car rental.
- Go beyond the obvious tourist sites by purchasing one of our recommended San Francisco guidebooks. They cover urban hikes, foodie spots, self-guided walking tours and even an urban atlas.
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