Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz and other attractions and activities have drawn visitors to San Francisco long before 1962 when Tony Bennett left his heart here. One of the USA’s premiere tourist destinations, the city is compact, offers excellent public transportation, fine restaurants, spectacular vistas, a wide range of hotels, diverse neighborhoods, and a trove of activities. We have spent much of our lives traveling through the U.S. and Europe, and there is no city we would rather return to than San Francisco.
One of the city’s best treasures remains a secret from many travelers. Oh, they may have heard of it, and some have taken a quick drive through, but few devote the time necessary to gain a true appreciation. It offers hiking trails, several great museums, a golf course, inexpensive parking (not a minor benefit), an interesting lodging facility, beautiful vistas, and a relaxing place away from the city’s hustle and bustle. A visit here should be part of any visit to the San Francisco area.
A History of the Presidio
The 1,500-acre Presidio was a gift to the American people from the United States Military. It served as a military post for over 200 years following the establishment of an outpost here by the Spanish in 1776. The post subsequently fell under control of Mexico following that country’s independence from Spain in 1821, and the United States military from 1848 until the U.S. Army departed in the 1990s. Since then the area has been managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS) and the Presidio Trust.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established in 1972 with the provision that the Presidio would be turned over to the NPS should the U.S. Army depart, which, to the surprise of the post commander, it did in 1994 following a congressional decision to close the base. Responsibility for the Presidio was subsequently split between the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust, with the NPS administering 300 acres of recreational coastal area and the trust administering the larger interior portion. The two federal agencies continue to work closely together and the National Park Service maintains a visitor center in the Presidio’s Main Post, an area administered by the trust.
The Presidio Trust was established with the proviso that it receive government funding for a maximum of 15 years, at which time it was to be financially self-sustaining, a goal attained ahead of schedule. The trust now rents the former post’s numerous buildings to individuals and businesses at market-based prices. One young female told us she pays $1,000 per month to rent one of ten bedrooms in a large house with three bathrooms, a kitchen and dining room, and eight other occupants. In some instances renovations and construction were financed by the eventual occupants. This was the case for the Walt Disney Family Museum and the Letterman Digital Arts Center, the latter of which includes LucasFilm, the production company headed by George Lucas of Star Wars fame. The Presidio Trust financed renovations of other buildings, including the Inn at the Presidio. All the buildings in the Presidio continue to be owned by the government.
What to See and Do
The Presidio offers at least a full day of visitor activities. The Walt Disney Family Museum alone can easily consume a morning or afternoon. Two other museums are also worthwhile stops. The free shuttle provides transportation throughout the Presidio with runs every half-hour from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Numerous stops are perfect for visitors who wish to get on and off at various points along the way. You can even rent a bike and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. Several places you will want to visit include:
Main Post—The center of activities and historic section of the Presidio includes the museums, offices, the renovated Officers’ Club, and National Park Service visitor center. It also has a large parking area. At the visitor center, pick up a booklet describing a self-guided walking tour of this section of the Presidio that provides a good historical overview. This is also the location of the transportation center where you can catch free shuttles to other areas of the Presidio.
Presidio Officers’ Club—Along with the NPS visitor center, this is a good place to begin a tour of the Presidio. The recently renovated building includes a large exhibit area that examines this land from the time it was populated by the Ohione through its current incarnation under the NPS and Presidio Trust. Presidio Trust employees or volunteers are generally available to provide information and suggest how best to explore the Presidio. Craft activities are offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday.
Walt Disney Family Museum—We failed to visit the museum during our first visit to the Presidio, thinking it was for children. This was our mistake. The museum includes multiple galleries with exhibits, videos, and interactive displays that follow Walt Disney and his creations from his childhood until his death in 1966. The exhibits and videos are fascinating, especially for those of us who have enjoyed his movies, television shows, and theme parks. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
San Francisco National Cemetery—The West Coast’s first national cemetery is the resting place for 30,000 soldiers and family members. The cemetery occupies a beautiful location of the Presidio and a quiet stroll among the gravestones is a sobering and inspirational experience. The national cemetery is within walking distance of the Main Post.
Crissy Field—This waterfront area of the Presidio offers walking paths, beaches, picnic areas, and a large marsh for watching birds. This is also a location where you can get some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The restored grass field and original buildings are fun to explore. According to the National Park Service, Crissy Field is “the most intact 1920s Army airfield west of the Mississippi.”
Beaches and Coastal Bluffs—The Presidio’s western edge offers the most spectacular vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean. Baker Beach is a mile stretch of sandy beach but be forewarned the water here is never warm.
Fort Point—This national historic site preserves a 19th-century fort that was designed to defend the best harbor on the West Coast. Interestingly, the fort was constructed near water level so its cannons could fire cannonballs that ricocheted across the water toward enemy ships. The development of rifled artillery during the Civil War demonstrated the ineffectiveness of masonry walls and resulted in the fort becoming obsolete. Visitors learn about the fort’s history and architecture. The walk along the seawall to the fort provides outstanding views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Visiting the Presidio
The Presidio deserves at least a full day of your time and offers some important perks to RVers. A major issue for many travelers in the San Francisco area is the difficulty of driving and the expense of parking in the city where hilly and crowded streets give pause even to visitors driving cars. Plus, parking is very expensive. Multiply these disadvantages by a factor of ten for RVers.
Fortunately, the Presidio generally offers plentiful parking in the Main Post area. Plus, at $7 a day (no overnight parking is permitted), the parking is a bargain. Once in the parking lot there is no need to use your vehicle because complimentary shuttles operate on two separate loops throughout the Presidio. For those who wish to spend only part of the day in the Presidio and the remainder in the city, public transportation is available to the heart of San Francisco. This latter service is free on weekends and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. weekdays.
David and Kay Scott are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). Visit them at www.valdosta.edu/~dlscott/Scott.
If You Go
Getting there: The Presidio is on the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. The best approach is across the Golden Gate Bridge from the north on busy U.S. 101. Exit on Veterans Boulevard, which leads into the Presidio.
Lodging: Inn at the Presidio in a restored officers’ barracks offers 22 rooms in the main inn and four rooms in a nearby house. Most guest rooms are suites that rent for approximately $300 per night. Breakfast and an evening wine reception are included.
Camping: The Presidio has four group campsites with grills, picnic tables, and bathrooms, but nothing available for RVers. It is best to plant yourself north of the Golden Gate Bridge and drive in for the day. If you tow a vehicle, do yourself a favor and take that.
Food: Two restaurants plus several cafes, including one in the Disney Family Museum, are available for visitors. There are no grocery stores in the Presidio although several picnic areas are available for visitors who bring the fixings.
Cost: The Presidio is the best deal going in what has become a very expensive city. There is no charge to enter and enjoy the splendors of one of America’s most beautiful areas. Parking is $7 per day. The Walt Disney Family Museum charges $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and students, and $12 for youths age 6 through 17.