At the northern edge of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge are not one but two national parks with historic forts, giant redwoods, elk herds, whales, lighthouses and elephant seals—all right in the city’s backyard.
One park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, holds a wealth of history with bunkers and battlements left from the Civil War, World War I, World War II and even the Cold War. The other park, Point Reyes National Seashore, offers views of the whale migration, a vast herd of tule elk and miles of beaches. Both parks abound in wildlife and each has a lighthouse open to the public in a spectacular location. And the best part is that, with the exception of Muir Woods National Monument and Alcatraz Island—both embedded in the Golden Gate NRA—it’s all free.
The Golden Gate NRA straddles the bay and includes the north and west shore of the city as well as the headlands to the north. The area once belonged to the military, which began turning it over for public use in the 1970s. On the San Francisco side there are beaches and batteries. One, Battery Chamberlin, has had its guns restored and once a month a ranger demonstrates how they work. There is also Fort Point, a Civil War structure tucked right under the Golden Gate Bridge, and along the west shore of the city are the spooky ruins of the old Sutro Bath House with a tunnel to the sea.
On the wild north side, a Civil War battery is as high up as the bridge towers. As you wind your way past the wandering deer and coyotes that populate the park, you will find the country’s only fully restored Nike missile site. Each week docents, some of them veterans who once served at the site, open the silos and raise the missiles (de-nuked now) and let the public ride down with them into the silos. There used to be 12 such sites in the area but others were demolished as part of an arms reduction program.
“We were all taught that if you ever had to push the button, your life span was five minutes,” a docent told visitors recently. It was a sobering thought. But the missiles did their job and deterred the attacks that never came to pass.
Funds are short, but slowly park personnel and volunteers are doing what they can to preserve the remarkable military history of the Golden Gate NRA headlands. Battery Townsend, a World War II battery, has been completely restored and is open to the public one day a month. The interior of the other dozens of batteries are sealed shut but you can still climb on them and explore. You will find tunnels bored through hills, round gun emplacements that resemble dance floors, and postcard views of the bay, bridge and the city.
Rangers also show off the lovely Point Bonita Lighthouse that still serves its purpose at the entrance to the bay. Old barracks now serve as educational centers and house a Marine Mammal Center the public can visit. There sick or injured animals are nursed back to health and released. It’s a popular place for local school trips.
It is worth the price of the $5 admission to enter Muir Woods National Monument and stroll among the giant trees that capture the famous San Francisco fog and turn it into rain to water their roots. John Muir, the naturalist, called it “nature’s cathedral.”
The colorful seaside town of Sausalito is at the northern entrance of the park.
The Golden Gate NRA abuts Point Reyes National Seashore north of the bridge. The seashore is actually a long peninsula with the ocean on one side and placid Tomales Bay on the other.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse is on a point that juts so far into the sea that the gray whales use it as a landmark on their annual migration route. They surface just below the lighthouse and bob their heads out of water to get their bearings, a behavior called spy hopping. Whales can be seen from January to early May.
Gray whales migrate between the Bering Sea and Baja California. The southward migration past Point Reyes peaks in mid-January, when pregnant females are on their way to the birthing grounds in the lagoons of Baja California. The northward migration peaks in March and continues through April and early May as mothers and their calves slowly head north. In the winter and early spring, people from the city come to witness the migration in such numbers on weekends that the park operates a shuttle bus to accommodate them, but on weekdays the whales have it to themselves with just a handful of visitors.
In recent years, the southern shore of the whale watching point has been taken over by elephant seals during their annual mating and birthing cycle, also a winter phenomenon. From the cliffs you can look down into their rookery and see males battling and females with their pups.
North of the lighthouse, nearer the tip of the peninsula, the tule elk rule Point Reyes. A once-endangered species, they were reintroduced to their original habitat and have thrived. By 2000 the 10 original elk had grown to over 400. During rutting season you must keep your distance because they can be dangerous.
There is an ocean beach ten miles long and many little coves on the bay side. One of the prettiest has the charming name of Heart’s Desire Beach. There is also Drakes Beach, where many believe Sir Francis Drake landed and met the local Miwok Indians. A plaque commemorating the landing was found in 1937, but was proven to be a hoax in 2003. Still there are distinctive white cliffs at the beach, and Drake described seeing white cliffs that reminded him of Dover in his journal. With or without Drake, it’s a great beach.
The park allows horseback riding, a great way to explore the park. A private stable, Five Brooks Ranch, rents out mounts.
Be sure to visit the visitor centers in both parks for schedules of ranger programs and demonstrations. At the Point Reyes National Seashore center, you have the added treat of seeing a reconstructed Miwok village. n
Andrea Granahan is a writer who lives in Bodega, California.
IF YOU GO:
There are no camping facilities for RVs in the two national parks, but there are youth hostels and campgrounds for tent camping. There are private RV parks in the area, and other lodging is available in Sausalito, Olema, Iverness and other nearby towns. Private RV parks include:
Olema RV Resort and Campground (415-663-8106; www.olemaranch.com).
Marin Park (415-461-5199; www.marinrvpark.com).
Golden Gate Trailer Park (415-924-0683; www.goldengatetrailerpark.com).